Learning to Let it Go

I do not consider myself to be a confrontational person.  Maybe that sounds like a paradox cowomen argueming from a lawyer, but I suspect I may not be the only one in my profession who feels this way. To me, making persuasive legal arguments is fun, but getting yelled at or antagonized by a not-so-nice opposing counsel really stresses me out.

I get that this is often the goal of these sorts of tactics: challenge everything, send copious nasty emails, drive up costs, and make litigation so unbearable and expensive that my client is eager to settle. I know that these bullies are trying to get under my skin, and I know that I should “not let it get to me.” But I sometimes struggle with figuring out how to get from wanting to let it go to actually letting it go.

let it goI would love to walk out of the office in the evening and not give another thought to any of the nastiness I may have encountered during my day. I do not want to be at home playing with my toddler while thinking about how to respond to an email about some petty slight. I do not want to lose sleep anticipating what ridiculous misrepresentations opposing counsel is going to make about our conversations in a discovery motion. I do not want facing these types of opponents to make me feel burned out on being a lawyer. All of these reactions might mean the bully is winning, and we can’t have that.

I recognize that I have no control over how opposing counsel acts or who I get as opposing counsel in a case.  But what I can control is how I react to and internalize difficult situations that may arise at work.  I am still working on getting better at this, but wanted to reflect on some techniques and strategies that I have come across. I work with some wonderful, wise, and kind attorneys who have given me lots of helpful advice on this subject. Here are some things that I have found to be helpful for dealing with difficult opposing counsel or other difficult individuals and confrontational situations in the workplace:

  • woman handshakeKill them with kindness. Maybe politeness is the better word here, but I have found that if I focus on maintaining my own sense of civility in my interactions with opposing counsel it distracts me from worrying as much about what they are saying. Being polite does not mean caving into unreasonable demands. It just means taking the high ground and remaining professional as you assert your position. Bullies often want a fight, so if you refuse to stoop to their level, it sometimes has the added effect of unnerving or calming them down. Smile, ignore their behavior, and act like you are not bothered by it.

  • Document everything. If opposing counsel has a tendency to misrepresent your conversations, make a habit of following up any phone conversations with an email or a letter summarizing the discussion and the positions taken by each party. Assume that this document might eventually find its way to the court so keep it professional and focused on the issues. Do not ever put anything in writing that you would be embarrassed for the court to see. If opposing counsel repeatedly becomes heated or abusive over the phone, or if he or she continues to misrepresent discussions, let the attorney know that all future discussions will need to be in writing. If an attorney is acting up during a deposition, make a statement on the record to document the behavior, but do not get pulled into an argument. If the deposition is being videotaped, let the lawyer’s behavior speak for itself.

  • Know how to end the conversation. Sometimes it becomes clear that an opposing attorney is not actually willing to agree on anything. Allow the attorney to state his or her position. Reiterate where you stand, say you have heard, and either say that you will take it under consideration or suggest allowing the court to decide the dispute. In other words, agree to disagree and move on.

These suggestions have been great in helping guide the ways that I communicate with disagreeable attorneys, but as far as figuring out how to maintain a sense of emotional well-being and actually let things go, I’ve had to dig a little bit deeper. This is where mindfulness comes in. Yes, “mindfulness” is pretty trendy right now.  Amazon has about a million books on the subject, including a variety of children’s books.  The app store on my phone contains an assortment of apps containing mindfulness exercises. You can even buy “mindful” mayonnaise and dog shampoo! Many companies, sports teams, and schools have begun offering or requiring mindfulness training for employees and students, sometimes with impressive results for participants such as improved performance, stress relief, better quality sleep, fuller enjoyment of life, and even alleviation of certain health issues.

So what exactly is mindfulness (other than a clever way to market mayonnaise)? Mindfulness is a practice that involves focusing on the present moment, observing and accepting any feelings, thoughts, and sensations that are present without judging them. It’s a form of meditation that is supposed to be carried into our everyday life. For example, there are exercises about mindful eating, which focus on enjoying the sensations of food rather than rushing through a meal. There are mindful sitting exercises, mindful walking exercises, and even exercises for mindful internet use. The goal of these exercises is not to completely clear the mind of any thoughts, but to adopt a more accepting and less judgmental way of interacting with our own thoughts and feelings. From my experiences in my pre-lawyer life as an actor, I know that focusing awareness on physical sensations and breath is an excellent way to remain present in the moment instead of judging your own performance or trying to force yourself to have feelings you think you should have, so I am definitely intrigued by the idea of incorporating mindfulness into my daily life as a lawyer.woman at desk

I have only just started to explore mindfulness to see whether it is something that works for me, but I’m going to give it a try, along with continuing to use the techniques I described above. During an unpleasant conversation with opposing counsel, practicing mindfulness might mean pausing to notice feelings of anger and the physical sensations that accompany those feelings, and focusing on taking some deep breaths. If thoughts about a confrontation with opposing counsel creep into my mind while I am trying to relax at home, a “mindful” reaction would be to notice and acknowledge the thoughts as sort of an interesting phenomenon and then focus on the physical sensations I am feeling to gently bring my mind back to the present. With time, I hope to get better at these techniques and at seeing whether I can make mindfulness practices part of my daily routine.

If you are curious about mindfulness, there are numerous resources to help you get started. I’ve even seen continuing legal education courses and books offering mindfulness courses geared specifically toward lawyers. It seems like there is a mindfulness option out there for everyone, even the mayonnaise addicts with dogs! I don’t know whether mindfulness is the magic potion for living a stress-free life, but for anyone else who has trouble taking a break from worrying about work, I recommend at least giving it a try.

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