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The ‘Waiter Rule’ and attorneys: A reminder to be nice

Have you ever heard of the “Waiter Rule“? It goes like this: “a person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter . . . is not a nice person.”

I am a former bartender, so the Waiter Rule especially hits home for me. But it speaks to something bigger than just how we treat people who work at restaurants.

I was reminded of this during a recent snow day. While cleaning snow off my car, I saw a neighbor who works at a courthouse. I asked her how things were going at work. Despite enjoying her job, she mentioned that she was growing tired of constantly being yelled at.

“Tough boss?” I asked.

“No,” she responded. “I’m talking about the attorneys.”

She proceeded to tell me that, on a daily basis, she fields calls from angry attorneys screaming at her for things that are completely out of her control. Although I’m no stranger to dealing with grumpy attorneys, their actions struck me as extremely shortsighted.

Malcolm Forbes famously said, “you can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” In his book, Swanson’s Unwritten Rules of Management, former Raytheon CEO Bill Swanson expanded on this concept, warning people to watch out for those “who have a situational value system, who can turn the charm on and off depending on the status of the person they are interacting with . . . . Be especially wary of those who are rude to people perceived to be in subordinate roles.” Be wary, indeed.

I learned early in my career that it is important to treat the people at the courthouse (from the bailiffs to the clerks) with the same amount of respect you give to the judges. (And, no, I don’t mean that I stand up when they enter the room or refer to them as “Your Honor.”) The people who work at our local courthouses make our jobs as litigators possible and, as any judge will tell you, are the glue that holds everything together. They also talk to each other (and probably the judges, too) and surely share stories about run-ins with rude attorneys.

As young attorneys, many of us are thrust into positions with more power than we’ve ever had in our professional lives. We have assistants, law clerks and paralegals answering to us. We also interact with people at the courthouse on a daily basis who dedicate their lives to being public servants and willingly work with attorneys. Although it shouldn’t matter, we can’t lose sight of the fact that these people (just like judges who hear our cases and the partners who determine our salaries) will play a huge part in us having fulfilling legal careers.

So, remember: your reputation as an attorney does not begin and end with your interactions with clients, attorneys and judges. It stems from your encounters with everyone you meet.

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