By Jeena Cho • September 11, 2014•Writers in Residence
Last month, I wrote What I Wish I Knew in My 20’s, and it was full of wonderful advice from lawyers across the country. As I reflect back on my 10+ years of law practice, I received plenty of advice - some I followed, some I ignored. Often, the advice was good and helpful. Other advice that I thought was good turned out to be bad. I wanted to share one particular piece of advice I regretted taking.
When I was a baby lawyer, I was invited to sit in on a deposition with one of the managing partners at the firm. This was my first deposition, and one of my first experiences coming face to face with an adversary. When I got to the conference room, I asked opposing counsel and his client if they wanted anything to drink and if they were comfortable. I don’t recall if they asked for anything but what I do remember is what happened after the deposition. The managing lawyer pulled me aside and told me never to do that again. It was not my job to offer water or make the opposing side comfortable and in fact, it was my job to do the opposite. To make them as uncomfortable as possible.
This was just one example of the mentoring and advice I received from this partner, but it tainted the way I practiced law for a long time. His tactic was to be the most aggressive man in the room, to be the most boisterous, and to never given an inch. I tried my best to mimic his tactics. I wanted to be tough. I wanted to win. I thought if I just followed his advice, I’d be just as successful as he. But I wasn’t.
As I reflect back on those very impressionable years of my professional life, there were many things I failed to see. If I could go back and do it all over again, I’d tell myself the following.
Maintaining my humanity requires that I live consistent with my values, and one of the values I hold most dear is kindness.
1. Lead with kindness.
Going back to the example of not offering the opposing counsel and his client water to make them feel “uncomfortable,” I wonder if that actually gave us any strategic advantage. We can debate whether such tactics work or not. However, to me, it doesn’t matter. Even if not offering water did somehow give us a slight edge, I still believe I should have offered it. I became a lawyer to pursue justice and to help people. This means that I have to maintain my humanity.
Maintaining humanity requires that I live consistent with my values, and one of the values I hold most dear is kindness. I do not believe you have to be unkind or cruel to win. In fact, it’s been my experience that the more I can lead with kindness, the better the outcome I can achieve for my client (and often for all the parties involved).
2. Don’t wear other people’s suits.
When the managing partner was teaching me the ropes on how to be an effective lawyer, what he didn’t consider (and what I failed to see) is that he and I are verydifferent. For one, he was a white man, 6’2” with a physique of a baseball player. I am a 5’5” Asian woman, weighing in at under 130 lbs. For me to mimic his persona is as ridiculous as me putting on his suit and marching into court. For me to pound my fist against the podium and raise my voice simply didn’t work. It wasn’t my style.
Finding your own unique lawyering style is difficult to do, and it takes time. But just as you have to find suits that fit your personality and style, you must also develop your own lawyering style.
3. Be a good human.
There’s a temptation to leave behind your humanity and your values at the door when you walk into the office or the courtroom. I believe this is where you need to hold onto your values and sense of humanity the most.
Being a good human means recognizing the common humanity in all of us. Even our opponents.
I don’t need to see them as the “enemy.” They’re just part of this case and they have their role, I have mine. I have to recognize that just as my client has his or her perspective, pain, trauma, anger, sadness and probably dozens of other emotions, so does the opposing side. And just like me, they have people they love, and that love them. They also experience pain, joy, and all the other emotions that life evokes.
Don’t use zealous advocacy as an excuse to be unkind.
I shared this story with a few of my female lawyer friends, and many had similar stories. One attorney told me that her boss told her to never shake hands with the opposing party. Another attorney said her boss always turned down Continuing Legal Education (CLE) or speaking opportunities and explained he would "never give away his knowledge" that way, because he thought the other attorneys would just use it to compete with him.
When I hear these stories, I feel a sense of loss and sadness. Loss for the values in our profession. Loss for our common humanity. Loss for common decency and kindness. And I feel more committed to practicing law in a way that feels consistent with my values regardless of what others do. I’d like to challenge you to consider what you value and aligning your law practice to those values as well.
If you have examples of "toxic mentoring," advice you regretted following or have comments about this post, I’d love to hear from you. Please drop me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with me on Twitter @jeena_cho.
Jeena Cho is a bankruptcy lawyer, mindfulness teacher, and an author. Her upcoming book "The Anxious Lawyer" (ABA) will be published in 2015.
This post was first published on LinkedIn Pulse.