The Giant Briefcase in the Room: Lawyer Talk

ImageA few weeks ago I wrote a piece about the legal profession and why I think it is in crisis, a level of crisis that hasn’t waned for decades. I promised follow-up thoughts on this for the three lawyers who read this blog. Here are additional thoughts, and they relate to the way lawyers talk.

Lawyers have been talking from the beginning of time. The Pharisee teachers of the law crafted tricky questions for Jesus, hoping to trip him up. And grand tradition continues in 2013.

I look back at the way I talked to myself as a law student and young lawyer. I was nasty to myself. I told myself mean things, berating myself for my appearance, a work mistake, even typos (I loathe the typo).

At some point that spills over into how we talk to others. Our negative, find-fault mindset is not aided by the fact that we get results, accolades, even promotions based on our ability to find fault. Wow! What a profession for me. I can sit around all day and find fault with myself and others. No wonder I buzzed through associateship at my law firm and leapt into partnership without a backward glance.

The problem, though, is that then I started finding fault with my partners. My bosses. Uh oh. Lawyers finding fault with each other is a time-honored tradition, one that has caused addictions, job loss and just general dysfunction in relationships. But when it becomes a war between you and your superior, let me tell you who wins. Not you. It turns out there is a limit to how much fault-finding you will be rewarded for, even in the private practice of law.

This was no one’s fault, and in a way, everyone’s fault. Ultimately, it is my job to make sure that even in finding fault, I learn to convey disagreement appropriately. And yet I was brought up in a profession that rewarded me for fault-finding, and it became a hard (HARD) habit to break. You are nursed on criticism without regard to how you deliver it.

Of course, criticism is important to teams in the workplace. Critical, in fact. But the motive behind giving criticism and the manner in which is delivered are more important than the actual criticism.

Telling your friend Joe to stop saying “ummm” when he speaks formally in court is constructive criticism, but if you are telling it because you hate Joe and are jealous of his position with the boss, and you tell him in what could best be described as a snarky way, then it would have been better that Joe never heard from you and that he kept on saying “ummmm” until the day he retired. Because even if Joe stops saying “ummmm,” you have hurt, even broken, this relationship with your co-worker, you haven’t dealt with your jerkiness, and Joe isn’t going to be drummed out of the bar for saying a few extra words. Remember, the unofficial motto of the legal profession is: “Why say 10 words when 20 will do?” It’s your classic lose-lose-lose situation.

Hey Lawyers: We talk badly to each other. We are mean. Worse than mean, we are slightly mean but mostly sarcastic, wickedly so. I mean, that’s our gift (curse?)–to convict people with words, even if it really hurts in the process.

Are you a lawyer that has said hurtful things? Wait–that was redundant: Are you a lawyer? Then you HAVE said hurtful things in your profession which served a completely useless professional, personal and spiritual purpose.

How snarky are you? Answer that, on a scale of 1-10. If you are above 5 on the scale, then you need to start writing a blog as a channel for your snarkiness so that you can weed it out of your professional and personal life. It’s a pretty good antidote.

This is not a joke. I never realized how 1) I used my words to hurt and 2) I hid my professional arrogance and insecurity behind cleaver turns of phrase, until I started re-channeling that need to a place where I could turn more towards humor than acidity, and away from personal attacks. It shocked and shamed me that gossip and what my grandmother would pithily refer to as “ugly talk” was such a part of my life.

“The power of life and death is in the tongue.” Some wise guy said that, and no, he wasn’t a lawyer. Attorneys so abuse their ability to kill with the tongue (or the keyboard) and let their gift of giving life with words atrophy to the point of impotence.

All lawyers, answer this:

1. How snarky are you? Guess what; it’s not as funny as you hope.

2. Who are you primarily directing this to/about? If it’s your boss, that’s not helpful. If it’s your family, that’s deadly.

3. What are you going to do about it?

Let me know as I continue to work on this flaw in myself.

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