There’s nothing more frustrating for a trial lawyer than having to deal with an obnoxious trial lawyer for an opponent. Even the simplest of cases can become a nightmare when you’re dealing with a jerk. For example:
“There’s no way you can win this case!”
“I’m going to destroy your witnesses during cross-examination!”
“The jury is going to laugh you out of court!”
“There’s not a jury on the planet that will return a verdict in your favor!”
“You can’t win this case.”
“Your case sucks!”
If you’ve spent much time in pre-trial negotiations, you’ve probably heard one or two phrases like these. Some attorneys go out of the way to look for opportunities to yell at other attorneys or belittle them. (A few judges are like that, too.)
Unfortunately, if you’re at the beginning of your legal career, you’re probably more likely to hear these types of phrases. That’s because the more experienced you are (and the thicker your skin is), the less effective these types of tactics become. It’s important not to let these attorneys get under your skin and push you off your gameplan. Want to deal with these jerks without losing your cool? Here are a few simple techniques to help you out:
1. Recognize what they’re doing. Why do these attorneys do it? Why do they act like such jerks? They do it because, unfortunately, these tactics sometimes work. It’s not uncommon to see experienced criminal defense attorneys yell, bluster, or berate young prosecutors until the “newbie” prosecutor gets flustered, loses his train of thought, and caves in to the defense attorney’s demands. Some attorneys know that if they can get under your skin, you’re more likely to make mistakes or to let your personal feelings interfere with your professional judgment. If you recognize what they’re trying to do, you can immunize yourself from the attack.
2. Don’t take the bait. Once you recognize their tactics, you must control yourself and avoid rising to the bait. You know that he’s trying to get you riled up so that you say something stupid. You won’t fall for it if you’re prepared. Count to 10 if you have to, but don’t take their comments personally. You need to keep your emotional level calmer than theirs. The worst way to respond to their comments is by responding emotionally or getting angry. (After all, you don’t get smarter when you get angry, do you?) Fortunately, many of these antagonistic attorneys are usually “one trick ponies” — if yelling and screaming doesn’t work, they often don’t have a fallback negotiating position.
3. Know how you’ll respond. The Boy Scout motto says it best: “Be prepared.” Before you walk into negotiations, you should think about how you’ll respond when your opponent becomes antagonistic. Years ago, Billy Joel wrote a song that contained the perfect response for situations like this: “You may be right.” This phrase is wonderfully disarming. It doesn’t disagree with your opponent, yet it doesn’t concede anything, either. Look at the phrase in action:
Attorney: “Your case sucks! Your client sucks! YOU suck! I’m going to DESTROY you during trial!!!”
You: “You may be right.”
Attorney: “Uh… that was the part where you were supposed to disagree with me…”
After you say the phrase, it’s important to be quiet. You don’t need to say anything else. Simply respond, “You may be right,” and then wait until your opponent responds. I find it to be wonderfully disarming. It’s the verbal equivalent of a well-executed judo maneuver — you move aside, then use your opponent’s energy against him to push him to the ground.
It would be wonderful to think that your opponents will stop acting like jerks, but let’s face it, that’s never going to happen. We’re trial lawyers — confrontation is hard wired into our DNA. Accept the fact that some of the attorneys you’ll deal with are going to be jerks, and you can prepare yourself in advance. Learn to recognize the tactic, vow to avoid taking the bait, and plan how you’ll respond in advance. When you follow those three guidelines, your opponents will never be able to get under your skin again.