Take Care of Your Cup of Credibility
A possible win today isn’t worth lost integrity tomorrow
Published in 2016 Missouri & Kansas Super Lawyers magazine
By Cynthia A. Norton on November 3, 2016
When I was in private practice, I was the lawyer who received calls at all hours of the day and night from panicked colleagues—lawyers who had made mistakes, had ethical dilemmas and so on. As a judge, I can no longer dispense advice directly, but I offer some of the wisdom I learned in practice.
Never Spill Your Cup of Credibility
As I like to put it, every lawyer is born with a cup of credibility. You can only lose it; once gone, credibility can never be replenished. Clients and partners may pressure you to conceal or shade the truth, but is a possible win today—as a result of not being candid—worth losing your credibility with the judge or with your colleagues for the rest of your career?
“People” or “Paper”
A wise lawyer once told me to do what you like best. We know what happens to lawyers who don’t complete their work either timely or well. Part of figuring out what you like and do best is understanding whether you are a “people” person (having the skills and temperament to deal with high volumes of people) or a “paper” person (having the skills and temperament to deal with high volumes of paper). Note: Bankruptcy lawyers and bankruptcy judges tend to be both. I think the distinction between “people” and “paper” lawyer is even more important than that between, say, business or trial lawyer. And understanding the strengths and limitations of your particular likes and skill set will help you when you are compelled to do tasks you don’t like.
Mistakes are Made
Part of becoming a great lawyer is accepting that you will make mistakes. I made mistakes every day, and always told myself that the day I stopped making mistakes was the day I would hang it up, because I would never get any better. Lawyers who panic or freeze in the face of a mistake are the ones who end up with ethical and malpractice complaints. When—not if, but when—you make a mistake, there are only two questions to ask: What do I need to do to fix it? How do I keep it from happening again? View the inevitable mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve.
The 80/20 Rule
We know that 20 percent of our clients, partners, colleagues and, yes, judges, cause 80 percent of the work, anxiety and headaches. Part of managing the stress of being a lawyer requires developing the skills to deal with difficult people and learning not to be a difficult person yourself. You should anticipate and think in advance about your strategies for dealing with a difficult person. Those strategies might include staying calm, being over-prepared, being clear, being firm and recognizing power plays for what they are.
Play Your Own Game, Not Another Lawyer’s
Every lawyer has a game. Some make you play their game. But you cannot compete in another lawyer’s game. That lawyer not only invented it—and all its rules—but has been playing it his or her whole life. Play your own game. If you haven’t invented one yet, then I suggest the one of an honest lawyer who learns from mistakes, who is tough but fair and who elevates rather than demeans the practice of law.
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