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Bar News - September 17, 2010

Unmentored: Advice for Today’s New Lawyer Handling a Legal Bully


There are two problems with being a new lawyer. The first problem is that we don’t know anything. The second problem is that, often times, we don’t know that we don’t know anything. Either way, as the old adage goes: A little bit of knowledge can do a lot of damage.

That’s why our firm – Nixon, Raiche, Vogelman, Barry & Slawsky – has begun hosting monthly pizza lunches for younger, or rather newer, lawyers, during which our senior partners, and special guests, hold discussions, answer questions and teach newer lawyers.

This is first of, what I hope will be, many columns that reflect the topics discussed at these lunches. I will endeavor to focus on the most interesting question posed on a particular topic – at least from my point of view – and report the most helpful and interesting answers to that question.

Our latest New Lawyer Luncheon was held on August 6, and we invited William A. Mulvey, of Portsmouth, a very experienced mediator and trial attorney, to talk with us. He is well regarded by both the plaintiff and defense bars. Bill was kind enough to discuss mediation with the group, but the most interesting discussion that occurred centered on the following question:

Q. What do I do when a more experienced lawyer attempts to bully me? How do I overcome the intimidation, both purposeful and incidental?

Don’t dismiss this question as not applying to you. Pause for a moment and think about it. You are one, maybe two, perhaps three years, out of law school. You’ve got an issue and you’re struggling – and slowly succeeding – at working through it, and you come up against an opposing counsel with 20, 25, or even 30 years of experience handling that very same issue.

Of course you’ll Google that experienced lawyer’s name, see her impressive résumé, and be rightly intimidated. You meet her in person and she is intimidating in tone, language, and, maybe appearance, sometimes purposefully, sometimes not.

Sometimes, she will use rules you’ve never heard of to manipulate situations, to slow things down, or to speed things up. It’s frightening for a new lawyer. None of us is immune to this, even if we are too arrogant or blind to admit it.

So how do you overcome that intimidation? The answer, I think, is remarkable for its simplicity.

Mulvey and the other veteran attorneys at the lunch – including my senior partner, David L. Nixon – all had the same answer: You need to be more prepared.

If you are a young lawyer, and you are feeling intimidated by a more senior lawyer, it is very likely because you are not well enough prepared. You need to take extra time to make sure you understand—completely—the law, the rules, and the process.

All of us know this. We’ve all been taught this in law school. Heck, we were taught that in kindergarten. It’s been drilled into our brains. Those who are better prepared do better.

Mediation Tips from William Mulvey

  • All sides need sufficient information to know all the significant issues; that means documentation and counsel's analysis;
  • All decision makers need to be at a mediation; yes, they can be available by phone, but in the room is best because it is a dynamic process where an attorney's ability to assess reactions can be crucial;
  • Keep the mediator's summary brief; know your case well enough to focus on important issues;
  • During the joint session, don't inflame emotion by using terms such as "liar" or "fraud," be logical instead;
  • In private session, and throughout, try to put yourself in the shoes of the other side;
  • And, remember, be patient.
There is another part of the answer, and it’s a step that separates the law school graduate from the kindergarten graduate, and it is truly profound.

If that other lawyer is trying to bully you, suggesting that maybe you don’t know what you need to know – you need to stop the game. And it is a game. You need to call that senior lawyer on it.

You need to let her know, without a doubt, that you understand exactly what she is trying to do and that her tactics will not work. You need to let her know that if she continues down that road, you will continue to outwork her at a pace that she cannot possibly keep up with.

You need to let that attorney know that an intimidating attitude is only going to drive you to work harder for your client. Often, just letting that bully lawyer know that you see through the game can change things. No decent coach will run a play if the other team knows what’s coming.

In short:
1. Be very well prepared; and

2. Tell that senior lawyer that you understand the game she is trying to play. The very fact that you are willing to call the senior lawyer on this behavior should put a stop to it.

This is a small bar. Reputations are formed quickly, and they last a very long time. You want your reputation to be that of a prepared lawyer who plays it straight and who will not be bullied. Oh, and when you do get to be that senior lawyer, don’t be a bully either.

On October 1, 2010, we’ll be hosting Joni Esperian, Executive Director of the New Hampshire Commission on Human Rights. If you have a question that you’d like to see answered at that session or you want to attend, shoot me an e-mail. Oh, and if you want to know what Attorney Mulvey had to say about mediation, see the sidebar. Thanks for reading.

Kirk C. Simoneau, admitted to the NH Bar in 2009, recently was named a partner at the Nixon, Vogelman, Barry & Slawsky law firm in Manchester.

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