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Fighting Other People’s Fights (With People We Do Not Choose)

I once described practicing family law as “two people who did not choose to be in a relationship with each other fighting the fights of two people who did choose to be in a relationship with each other.”  And too often I spend time in my day doing just that – passionately and effusively arguing about what to do with a house I did not choose to buy, or how to share custody of a dog I did not choose to adopt, or what school is best for a child I did not choose to raise.  The person on the other end of my arguments is as much a gatecrasher as I, but more importantly, the person on the other end of my arguments is not somebody I chose to argue with.

When I married my husband, I committed to arguing with him about joint decisions.  We have honed that skill over ten years of marriage, and are pretty good at it.  We focus on finding solutions, we identify common goals, we respect each other as equals, and we think about mutual solutions rather than individual solutions.  Similarly, when I joined my current law firm, I committed to arguing with my colleagues about decisions related to our practice.  We argue about fonts, plant (the chlorophyll variety) locations, lunch options, and any number of substantive things.  We are pretty good at it, and our firm is better for it.

Arguing with opposing lawyers – often perfect strangers – is very different from arguing with colleagues, spouses or friends.  It is much more difficult.  But it is possible, and I have found the following efforts to be extremely helpful in these conversations:

  1. Focus on your purpose. Do not worry about winning every point in every conversation with every person you speak with.  Focus on what actually furthers your purpose, and let the other stuff slide.
  2. Ignore personal offenses. As Justice Ginsberg famously advises, “be a little bit deaf.”  This is one area where it is much easier, in my opinion, to argue with a perfect stranger than someone close.  You do not need to care what this person thinks about you or whether this person has offended you.  And, you do not need to respond, whatsoever.
  3. Never, ever, interrupt. And when you are interrupted, start right back off where you left off when you were interrupted.  You will not do yourself any favors by talking over another person or interrupting back.  The goal is to be heard, not to speak loudest and most.
  4. Treat yourself, and all others, as equals. People who believe that making another person feel inferior will lead to a negotiating advantage are wrong.  Commit to understanding that you are an equal, and to treating other lawyers as equals.  And commit to your responsibility to your clients to focus on the substantive issues, not the ranks of the lawyers.

Fighting other people’s fights is draining, but there is a great reward for the hard work.  One of the greatest satisfactions of my career is reaching creative agreements or important compromises through difficult negotiations.  These agreements can make all the difference in the lives of clients and children, and are well worth the patient struggle to reach them.

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