A Lesson in Diplomacy

I write today to thank on old friend for teaching more about the practice of law in a single moment than I learned in three years of law school. His name is Jon Travis Brooks. I am not sure where he is now. We were students together decades ago. One of his passions was diplomatic history. His lesson: Always give your enemy a way to salvage his pride.

I didn’t appreciate the advice at the time. Total war struck me as the preferred strategy. Scorch the Earth. Plunder. Destroy. Leave no blade of grass standing. Winning is a zero-sum game, is it not? It is only if you can extinguish your foe, eliminating him entirely. Life and conflict just isn’t like that. At least among lawyers. We always live to see another fight.

At least we live to see another day in our jurisdiction.

I walked into a Manhattan courtroom the other day to appear pro hac vice in a criminal case. I knew no one, not even the lawyer sponsoring me for admission in the case. It’s been a long time since I walked into a courtroom in a state of terror. I did that day. I was a stranger, far enough from home to feel unwelcome. And I was dispensable, too. I could count on no diplomatic courtesy from court or counsel. They might not see me again. What would they care about maintaining a relationship?

In the end, things worked out. I am in the case. I’ve learned what this particular judge is looking for. I’ve sat and discussed the merits of the case against my client with the prosecutor. The hard and unstated work of learning to get along in the midst of a fight has begun.

But that’s the point: We are paid warriors, always fighting on behalf of others. We survive each fight, although the clients may not. We are expected to adhere to a set of standards governing conflict. Call them rules of diplomacy, if you will.

So Travis was right. Yes, fight and fight hard to win. But try to maintain civility enough, or at the very least, professionalism enough, to live to fight another day. I got that after appearing in Manhattan, or at least I thought I did.

No sooner had I unpacked my briefcase after my trip to the Big City than I was in Danbury, arguing motions in a criminal case. My adversary rose to speak. She is a young woman of exceptional promise. I respect her. But the arguments she made the other day struck as particularly bad. So I was on my feet doing what I do far too often: interrupting, poking, making remarks that will be painful to read on the record.

I drove home that evening persuaded I had confronted an ass in court that day. When I checked the rearview mirror, there was little doubt the ass was staring back at me.

One of the most memorable scenes I ever saw in a film depicted a meeting between Japan’s ambassador to the United States and Cordell Hull, the United States Secretary of State at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The men were saying goodbye to one another after war was declared between the two countries. They sat civilly, shook hands, and wished one another well. They were representing countries at war with one another in what would be a long and bloody struggle. Yet they parted as members of a diplomatic corps bound by an ethos of respect and honor. I was amazed.

Lawyering is hard and often brutal work. We busy ourselves with the dark side of life. Sometimes the darkness swallows a lawyer whole. Thus alcoholism, drug abuse and the stress-related excesses that bring some low. What’s more, some clients demand that we hate our adversaries as much as the clients do. Hatred is the cheapest drug on the market, but it is also among the most destructive.

Civility for civility’s sake interests me not in the least. I believe that civility is good not just for the soul but for clients as well. Yes, today I fight to the death for the client standing to my right. But tomorrow there will be another case. Odds are I will see the same adversaries many times in a career. Are clients truly served by demonizing the lawyer on the other side of the aisle?

There is plenty about the law I do not get. I doubt there will be time enough to figure it all out. But I write today to acknowledge the wisdom of an old friend. Thanks, Travis, for telling me about diplomacy. Some day, I hope to have mastered the lesson; I am still working on it.

Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.


Comments: (2)

  • The Lost Art of Civility
    Try to maintain civility? Well, that's easy for you (or Travis) to say! I say we hurt the ones we love. What if your opponent is incompetent, rude, stewpid, compromised, disturbed or just plain evil? That's when civility goes out the window. In any case, civility is in the body language, as the practioners of the nether legal arts in these here parts fail/refuse to speak the King's English. Yes, they talk gibberish, codswaddle and gobbledygook sufficient to put a good man to sleep, if not a coma.
    Posted on May 17, 2012 at 9:33 am by william doriss
  • civility
    ah, but there's a line..too much "civility" raises eyebrows to a client...could this be another backroom deal? Could your rep be trusted? Better to have that client's confidence if you're truly fighting for him/her. Chances are, the opposing side isn't very "civil" either. The jurors might smell weakness..if the rep hasn't the heart for the case, why should they believe?
    Posted on May 18, 2012 at 3:11 am by Portia

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