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On being a ‘lawyer’s lawyer’

courtroomWhen I first came out of law school, I clerked for a judge and received a certain kind of training, mostly in how to draft an opinion and how the judge wanted to say things. Since I clerked at an appellate court, this training was laid-back. There was also time to revise an opinion or do some extra research to make sure to nail down a point. More importantly, I also received training in how to interact with a judge and his colleagues, as well as other clerks.

I learned that being a good colleague and fellowship are very important — show up at birthday lunches and happy hours, contribute to causes in the office, dress casual for a cause when it’s important to someone else in the office. These are things that seem small but really matter in terms of a workplace.

When I moved to a law firm, I took the lessons about colleagueship and fellowship with me and found that they can apply even more forcefully in a private practice setting. I also, for the first time, received training about how to be a lawyer.

This, of course, encompassed a million little things — checking in with the clerk at a scheduling conference, asking the judge if you can be excused when your matter is complete and format and styling for pleadings and papers. Again, these were — and are — all important things. Most important, though, was the approach of the attorneys for whom I worked. There were four of them, and to a man, they told me directly that they wanted me to be a “lawyer’s lawyer.”

At first, I didn’t know what that meant. I learned quickly, though, as I was permitted to handle cases with some supervision and run into all of the problems that come with handling cases. For example, I remember a court date approaching for some small matter before the judge and noticing that opposing counsel had still failed to provide discovery responses even though it had been over 30 days. I went to the chair of my group before the hearing and asked him if I should mention it to the judge.

“No way,” he said. “You’re a lawyer’s lawyer. You mention it to opposing counsel after the hearing. You don’t waste the court’s time with something trivial. If he won’t produce it, you can file a motion.”

A “lawyer’s lawyer,” I came to understand, is someone who works well with opposing counsel outside of the courtroom. This is true regardless of how hotly contested the matter inside the courtroom may be.

I write about this now because in the last two weeks, I have had two encounters in open court with two young lawyers that have surprised me.

In the first, I spoke with the younger attorney handling the matter before we went into the courtroom for a status hearing and to set a date a few weeks down the road to return to court. We discussed and agreed that we would pick a Monday since that worked with my schedule and his was open, although he preferred a Thursday. Much to dismay, when we were before the judge, this attorney requested a Thursday.

What changed? I spoke with the younger attorney outside of the courtroom, but in the courtroom, this attorney’s boss was present. Perhaps he hadn’t told his boss about our discussion and she told him to ask for a Thursday. What I fear, though, is that he told his boss about our discussion and she told him to request a Thursday anyway, simply because that was their preferred date and it might inconvenience me.

The second incident is more troubling. I went before the court to try to correct a clerical error made by me and my office in a filing. Again, a younger attorney was on the other side of the case and was in court that day with her boss. I spoke with the younger attorney before we went before the court, informed her of the clerical error I had made and of my intent to request permission to make the correction. She nodded, told me she understood and did not say anything with regard to her position on the matter.

We went before the court. I made my request, and the judge looked over at opposing counsel to get her take on whether or not my request should be granted. The younger attorney then told the judge that the document had been filed under penalty of perjury and that I should not be permitted to make the correction.

I was flabbergasted. Luckily, the judge seemed to catch it and on the record, noted that I had indicated a clerical error had been made as opposed to a misrepresentation. Clearly, this was not perjury. Again, this younger attorney’s boss was in court with her, and perhaps he is the one who instructed her regarding that argument. I don’t know.

Either way, it is — I think — a violation of the most basic rules of professionalism to make an accusation like that in open court knowing full well it is incorrect.

Don’t get me wrong. I encounter plenty of what I consider to be well-trained lawyers on a regular basis. I was just shocked by the callousness and the seeming lack of training with these two young lawyers in the last couple of weeks.


  1. Every attorney older than 30 that litigates carries in their head a list of attorneys that cannot be trusted or that must be papered. The list is short. Most attorneys allow a wide berth on many issues, as should you. Your handshake should be firm and comforting; your final word your badge of honor. The profession changes daily as new attorneys enter –and the pressures from the clients are many; you should NOT take advantage of minor attorney mistakes just because you can. At the end of the day, your clients are not well served by a paper practice whose goal is to say “I gotcha!” Truth be told, your clients also will make mistakes and need some accommodations.

    Best Standard: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!

  2. I am a member of a young lawyer’s section again after 20 years of practice, for moving to a new jurisdiction. This is the third jurisdiction I’ve practiced in, and I noticed that in some jurisdictions, professionalism is a dying art, and in others, it’s expected/demanded. Young lawyers develop their habits by watching those around them. It may seem exciting to accuse opposing counsel of evil things, particularly if a client or supervisor is watching. However, the fun of the “gotcha” goes away quickly when one is chided on the record by the judge, for being petty, making exaggerated or false accusations, etc. The client and supervisors are not pleased, and the young lawyer learns to cooperate in managing the process of getting the case to court.

    In a jurisdiction where the judiciary does not keep this kind of stuff under control, the attorneys learn to bully each other around, parade around the court, and develop the kind of personas that some clients, who wish to hire a shark, are very happy with. The practice of law in those jurisdictions becomes uncomfortable for everyone involved, and much more expensive for the clients. In the end, hopefully justice can prevail more often than not, despite discovery violations and underhanded attempts to hold hearings without sufficient notice, but the process of getting to a just resolution is much more difficult and expensive.

    It’s no wonder that people flee to self help centers.

  3. You practice within a small community. It seems large, now, but as years pass you will increasingly encounter the same folks. And your reputation is built on the aggregation of each discrete encounter, much as those you have described have laid the foundation in your mind for their future reputation.

    Petty disputes sometimes must be adjudicated, but it is best if they are presented with the disclaimer that “counsel have attempted to work things out,” but there is a irreconcilable difference or client direction that prevents resolution.

    In the situations you described, did you directly ask opposing counsel for an agreement? Did you ask whether they would raise objection, later? Don’t fall into the trap of not asking that next question because you are uncomfortable with your mistake, and then finding your assumption was incorrect. And if dealing with a younger attorney, it is not inappropriate to ask if they are authorized to make an agreement on the particular subject matter being discussed. Polite but thorough.

  4. While I empathize with the author’s point, from my perspective the “civility” that I hear about is lost on a generation older than the young lawyers he makes mention of in this article. I started the practice of law at age 41 and I’ve been practicing law over five years now. I can tell you that I cringe every time I have opposing counsel who tries to tell me how law is practiced or give me their sage spin on how to do things, as it is ultimately for their own self-serving ends.

    The legal profession – both the bench and bar – lacks a level of professionalism that I saw in the military as an officer and even the financial profession. I don’t say that lightly. I came into this profession with lofty ideals. Not so anymore. I’ve seen opposing counsel intentionally act confused at the most mundane things in order to obfuscate the issues. I’ve seen opposing counsel throw around innuendos about “ethics” in order to try to intimidate other lawyers, and I’ve even seen efforts to assist their clients conceal and alter discovery. Frankly, the younger lawyers in this profession give it a breadth of fresh air that it needs so badly that I can’t even go into it in depth.

    There is no wonder in my mind why this profession suffers from the poor reputation it has in popular culture and society in general. The poor examples I’ve seen from those “sage” older lawyers makes me want to up the bar despite the poor example they provide.

  5. All lawyers need to keep in mind that when they play games like mentioned here they are a disgrace to our country and its legal system because there is a person or persons behind these trials etc. We are not a third world country and a lot of the issues in our court system is a lack of ethics and being a real lawyer. I am not a lawyer just a person who has had to deal with a dirty attorney working against me. Dirty unethical attorneys are no better than the thugs on the street husteling, I proved myself innocent but it cost me thousands such a waste