A lawyer’s resolution to stay out of trouble
As lawyers, do we ever experience trouble or suffer problems? Unlikely. But as rarely as these situations may arise, is there something we can do about them? How about making a New Year’s resolution to prevent trouble or unnecessary problems.
Albert Einstein said, “Intellectuals solve problems. Geniuses prevent them.” Which gets me to the beginning, namely my days as an articling student before getting called to the bar of Ontario.
On my first day at work, my principal (boss) and mentor Hank sent me to the land registry office to close a house deal with a lawyer, a “Mr. Collingwood,” much my senior. This involved handing him a deed and keys in exchange for a certified check. As I proceeded with trepidation, Mr. Collingwood—sensing my anxiety—started chatting about the legal profession. “As a lawyer, you always have to be tough. Take no prisoners,” he said.
This comment, given the circumstances, took me aback. What was I supposed to do here and now to act tough? Throw the keys out the window? I visualized some Swiss Convention saying, “And when you deal with another lawyer, go for the jugular. Never mind that stuff about name, rank and serial number.”
I related that chat with Mr. Collingwood to Hank and he said, “Remember, in our profession one party might make war on another party. Do not make war on the other lawyer.”
Fortunately, I followed Hank’s sage advice, and I developed my routines to deal with problems and troubles, some of which I wish to share—the routines, not the troubles.
Firstly, I found it useful to keep my ego at the door. The conflict was my client’s, not mine. I concluded it was OK to blink first. Much of my practice was family law. I would have clients come in with letters of vitriol from their spouse’s lawyer, reading something like, “My client will not put up with your monstrous acts.”
I would reassure my client and not hesitate to call the other lawyer and introduce myself as the representative of that resident of Loch Ness. I broke the ice quickly and very often the case concluded with a speedy resolution, saving the clients thousands of dollars and saving us all avoidable aggravation.
I never regretted blinking first. As an aside, let me mention a most important incident of blinking first, my marriage proposal. I made my pitch to Shoshana while inside the Humour Pavilion at Montreal’s global exhibition, “Man and His World.” I figured had she said “no,” I would have responded with, “Only kidding. This is the Humour Pavilion.”
True, I did have that safety net for my ego. But no regrets.
And if you do mess up, you should consider apologizing. It will not diminish your toughness. Never mind, Mr. Collingwood.
Mark Twain said it best: “Always acknowledge a fault. This will throw those in authority off their guard and give you an opportunity to commit more.”
I had a nasty family law matter underway once, and at a mediation the opposing lawyer called my client a “contemptible cretin.” While I pondered the appropriate response, my client said to me, “Marcel, do not go there. I hired you to rise above all that.”
I don’t know how I would have reacted otherwise. I asked the other lawyer to step out for a break, and I said to him, “Surely Harold, counsel of your ilk is capable of better than that.”
Harold reflected for a minute, came back in and apologized.
My client and I both felt vindicated.
If you are wrong, be accountable. Own up to it. (Fortunately, Harold did not exercise Twain’s suggested opportunity to “commit more.”)
More about apologies: Generally, a mere explanation is not an apology.
We were on a cruise once on the second-level deck when our sleep was interrupted by a little clanging noise. It sounded more like our bed was located inside Notre Dame’s 12-ton bell.
I complained to guest relations and the “guest relater” confidently and calmly explained the problem. She said something like, “Oh yes, that’s the fourth ballast cadiddle buttressing the intermediate engine on the port side.”
“Of course,” I said, “Hey, that’s most helpful. Now I’ll just go to bed, and at least know why I won’t be getting a wink of sleep on this cruise. Thanks.”
Don’t just rationalize it. Fix it.
Handle technology with care
And speaking of machines going wrong, this brings me to my major pet peeve: technology. Though I appreciate its value, I am a technophobe and loathe our total dependence on it. I won’t say I am a Luddite; however, if I were living in Salem, Massachusetts, I would circulate a petition to go after Siri.
I am a boomer, now happily retired from law practice. But while in the trenches, I came across a number of common technology problems, especially relating to emails.
Firstly, there is usually a rush to respond. Often lawyers see an email message like a tennis ball, feeling compelled to react instantly. And too often, after cooling off, they regret doing so. The “undo” feature lasts for only seconds. It would be nice if these replies could contain a caveat saying something like, “I reserve the right to recant that anatomical reference.” But I’m not sure that would do it.
Another common email problem is the recipient boo-boo. A colleague once meant to address an email in an emotionally charged divorce matter to his client, Marcus. Not surprisingly, after keying in “Marc” his system sent it to “Marcel,” aka yours truly. It contained highly sensitive property and custody recommendations. I called to admonish him that he should be more careful, adding that I would not give up custody, as he suggested, of the family beagle Bentley.
And most important in our quest to avoid trouble is to maintain our sense of humor. We all have one. To paraphrase the iconic Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock, we just have to kindly observe the incongruities of life. You need not be a Seinfeld or attack anybody or tell jokes.
For example, I once dealt with a lawyer who was obsessed with faxing. Our office received multiple faxes from him almost daily. We referred to him as Dr. Fax. It got to the point that whenever we heard the fax machine whirring, our staff would chuckle saying, “Must be Dr. Fax doing another house call.” Or “It’s from Dr. Fax. What is he prescribing now? Hey, his writing is legible.” One day, there were no faxes from him. My assistant said, “The good doctor must be out golfing.”
This lightened-up attitude cleared the air, boosted morale and helped avoid feelings of hostility.
However, nothing works all the time to prevent trouble. We know what Einstein said, but I also respect another renowned philosopher: Yogi Berra. He noted, “The other teams could make trouble for us if they win.”
Still, I hope some of my thoughts about avoiding unnecessary hassles and agitations have been helpful. Does achievement of this goal make a sensible year-end resolution? No problem.
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.