Your Voice

Stop stabbing in the front: Bring balance and civility to work

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Donna Burns

Donna Burns.

On September 26, the day that Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I was a delegate at the “New Rules Summit: Women, Leadership and a Playbook for Change,” sponsored by the New York Times in Brooklyn. We were there to probe the edges of how our culture is evolving and consider how we can develop more inclusive, better functioning workplaces.

In close to 20 different sessions, reporters and New York Times executives interviewed luminaries from the worlds of financial services, politics, media, activism, law, philanthropy and more, including New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, JPMorgan Chase Chair and CEO Jamie Dimon, litigator and Time’s Up leader Tina Tchen, foundation head Melinda Gates, and many others.

The conference themes and the situation simultaneously unfolding in the Senate hearing room felt both familiar and unsettling. As a lawyer with a Washington, D.C., practice for over 30 years–including as a public interest advocate, a government official, a large law firm partner and the founder/managing partner of a K Street communications law firm–this was well-known turf.

Judge Kavanaugh frequently decided communications cases directly relevant to my clients, not always in the way I preferred. We were previously allies in the late 1990s, seeking openness and competition as the future of the internet was being debated. I also knew the uncomfortable consequences of working as a woman in a sea of men and witnessed the repercussions of dismissive and uncivil behavior.

Regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum, or what you think is acceptable for men and women generally and for judicial nominees in particular, it’s obvious that the unwritten rules of appropriate public conduct have changed in the last few decades. Perhaps the most unwelcome change is that often, civility is no longer the default, even though partisanship and rancor undermine progress. Anger and frustration have been stirred up from many corners. Yet, while it’s not surprising that emotions run hot when the stakes are high, there is a fundamental takeaway from this current cultural climate:

We need new ways of relating to each other.

Courtesy, dignity and respect are sorely needed, not just in the political arena, but everywhere, including at our own desks. Collaboration, community and kindness—qualities long associated with the feminine—can provide balance to unchecked competition, self-focus and domination, the hallmarks of the male-dominated workplaces of yesteryear. It is time to prioritize empathy, poise, communication and connection as valued workplace markers of success.

The reasons to pursue civility and acceptance are not solely altruistic. Research reported in the Harvard Business Review reveals that more inclusive organizations are more innovative and more successful. And Adam Grant’s 2013 book Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success summarizes multiple studies that show that people who are givers (meaning they act in the interests of others rather than just in their own self-interest) earn more, make better decisions and enjoy greater respect.

When we give our time or resources, acknowledging our interdependence, it also boosts our mood—the helper’s high. When we’re happier, we’re motivated to work longer, harder and smarter. On average, happier people earn more money, get higher performance ratings, make better decisions, contribute more, and negotiate better.

These social standards are more than just aspirational goals for attorneys. The ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct explicitly state in the preamble that lawyers should not use the legal system to harass or intimidate. Similarly, Rule 4.4 says, “A lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person.” Lawyers are also directed in Rule 3.5 to maintain decorum and refrain from communications before tribunals that constitute “misrepresentation, coercion, duress or harassment.”

The proscriptions of the Model Rules elegantly capture the essence of how our conduct as lawyers affects human dignity and nourishes civility, even when we act in our nonprofessional capacities. Each of us can more consciously practice extending these standards to all aspects of our legal work and our lives, whether or not we are before a tribunal or interacting with third parties in the context of a legal proceeding.

Fortunately, prioritizing civility and acknowledging human connections can be learned and practiced, just like other skills. To start, examine your intentions when you speak or write. Is the nasty comment meant to embarrass or denigrate rather than to state your position or reach a resolution? Recall that the Model Rules specifically direct lawyers to be guided by personal conscience. If you are unsure whether your approach meets that test, pause and think of how you would react if the same comments or actions were directed at your spouse, child or friend.

When you interact with others, consider whether there is another way to communicate your points that preserves respect and decorum. While name-calling begets more of the same, so can insistence on civil discourse. Simple courtesies like please and thank you are habits to develop whether communicating with opposing counsel, the law clerk or the mailroom assistant.

Even in contentious situations, there is room to be courteous. When you take a stand as a zealous advocate and refute alternative positions, remember that it is possible to attack the position rather than the person proffering it. Like you, they are taking a position that is grounded in belief even if it seems wrong to you. Even when your goal is to underscore malfeasance and intentional lack of truthfulness, you can be mindful that your objective is to discredit the conduct rather than to demean and discount the individual as a human being.

A simple practice to assist in advancing civility on a daily basis is to focus on the fact that we’re all connected. We are not so different from each other, no matter how it seems. As often as you remember throughout the day, take a minute and call to mind the ways this is true for the people you encounter. You work at the same place; are men, women, parents, children, Americans or what have you. You are each in this building or walking down this street, trying to move through your day’s activities. You each cultivate dreams and experience loss. The more you can see the ways you are connected and alike, the easier it becomes to relate despite your differences. Connection breeds empathy, and empathy drives consideration.

Recently, I was working with a lawyer in a highly charged state matter where the opposing counsel did something solely to humiliate the client rather than for any litigation-related purpose. When I explained that this disturbing behavior was far different than what I was used to in my D.C. practice, I was told that in this jurisdiction, they “stab you in the front.”

It doesn’t have to be this way. With attention and training, every lawyer can reduce stabbing and bring balance and civility to work.

Donna N. Burns, is a Washington, D.C. attorney who has been in practice over 35 years under the name Donna N. Lampert. Having left the Beltway for New York’s Hudson Valley, she is writing a book, The Lady Rules: Feminine Wisdom at Work, about bringing feminine skills like compassion, community and collaboration to the workplace to counter-balance excessive competition, domination and self-focus. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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