The Mentality and Attitudes of Lawyers

Knowing Your Audience

My father used to tell a story about when he was a young man with a young family.  Unlike many people of his age at that time, he had an automobile since his job was travelling the countryside selling stuff. One day he was pulled over for speeding. He tried to talk himself out of a ticket which he could not afford, explaining that he struggled to support his wife and children on his pitifully small salary, the amount of which he disclosed to the officer. The wise old cop let him off the hook but took the opportunity to teach him a lesson. The police officer said: “Always remember who you are speaking to. I earn less than you do.”

I think my dad wanted me to learn something from that story.  It took me a while.

Early in my legal career I had an up-and-coming fashion designer as a client. She had a domestic partner who she wanted to involve in her business as an equal partner.  Being a young, diligent lawyer who was determined to fiercely defend my client’s interests (and shield myself from potential liability) I explained to her in great detail the risks of involving her domestic partner as her business partner.  Boy, did I do a good job!  I told her absolutely everything that could possibly go wrong.  She may have somehow gotten the impression that I thought that this was a bad idea.

Not having the greatest inter-personal skills or emotional intelligence at that time (and some would say before and after that time as well), I did not do all of this in the kindest, gentlest, and most compassionate manner possible.  I lost the client.  Perhaps if I had remembered who I was talking to, a young artist without any business experience who was in love, I could have gotten my points across without alienating the client.

I used to hang out with a fellow who was a surgeon.  An arrogant surgeon. The type that stereotypes are derived from.  I once asked him if they taught arrogance at medical school.  He proudly answered “Yes. First year.” This particular surgeon did not really care much about how he came across to his patients. He expected them to shut up and listen.

Now, if the truth be known, I don’t much care if my surgeon has a great bed-side manner, is compassionate, caring, emotionally intelligent or a great communicator.  I really do care if my surgeon is technically competent.  With universal healthcare in Canada, there is not a great incentive for surgeons to show that they care (or at least pretend to care) anyway.  The patients are lined up for service regardless. 

In the private practice of law, professionals do not have that luxury.  We need to attract and maintain clients, and clients have lots of choices.  You would think that emotional intelligence would be an important qualification for lawyers. And for some of them it is.  We even have labels for those lawyers.  We call them ‘rainmakers’ or ‘client lawyers’ or ‘successful’ or ‘rich.’

In practice, we often refer to people skills or emotional intelligence as the ‘soft stuff.’  We also frequently encounter lawyers who proudly, and even condescendingly, proclaim, “I don’t do soft.” These masters of the universe are missing the point.  Listening. Understanding who you are speaking to, whether it is an aggressive opposing counsel in a fierce commercial litigation or an emotionally vulnerable family law client. Communicating appropriately for your audience in order for your message to be received effectively.  All of these things are actually key to truly effective counsel and advocacy. The ‘soft’ label diminishes the importance of what is actually a critical component of any good lawyer’s skill set.

We don’t see much recognition of the importance of these things in the admission process for law school, the subjects taught in law school, the licensing process for lawyers or the training regimens in law firms. You would think that the profession would pay more attention to that stuff.  


I want to acknowledge the assistance of Maureen McKay who is my wife and a lawyer.  I could not have written this article without her input, because I do not do soft very well.

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