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How to Deal with Difficult and More Senior Opposing Counsel

By Stephanie McCoy Loquvam – September 12, 2012

On May 17, 2012, the Young Advocates Committee presented “Tips and Insights to Successfully Deal with Difficult and More Senior Opposing Counsel,” the committee’s third call-in program of the year. The attorney panel featured Amanda Bonn, Susman Godfrey, LLP (Los Angeles, CA); Padraic Foran, Irell & Manella, LLP (Los Angeles, CA); and Christina Liu, Andrew M. Hale & Associates (Chicago, IL). The panelists shared their own experiences and presented valuable perspectives and tips for managing difficult personalities, handling stereotyping, and maintaining credibility in your litigation practice. While this program was geared toward dealing with difficult counsel in the context of litigation, the panelists raised key points that may be valuable when dealing with difficult personalities in general. Key tips and takeaways from the program include the following:

  1. Be well prepared. “Be as prepared as you think you need to be, and be twice as prepared as that.” The panel noted that more senior lawyers may try to trip you up, even if you are doing things right. If there are disputed issues that keep coming up in the case, have a prepared answer. Preparation keeps you from getting intimidated or overwhelmed and permits you to maintain focus.

  2. Don’t get distracted. Opposing counsel want to test your composure and poise to distract you. If you see it happening to you or an associate, remember to refocus. It takes a lot of time and capacity to be angry. That time and capacity is better spent on your client’s cause.

  3. Realize the power that you have if you are underestimated by an opponent. If opposing counsel is dismissive or doesn’t take you seriously, you have the upper hand. Be prepared and do a good job; your competence and preparation may be unexpected.

  4. Use your network. If there is tension between opposing senior lawyers, consider reaching out to your contemporaries on the other side. If you do not know opposing counsel, consider it an opportunity to forge a relationship. Good working relationships increase productivity and efficiency and make you a better lawyer.

  5. Do not be baited. As a general rule, you are not going to win any points with the judge by engaging in personal attacks.

  6. Stick to the facts. If you find yourself in an emotional situation, stay calm and stick to the facts. Cooler heads will prevail.

  7. Take the moral high road.

  8. Pick your battles. You will not agree with everything that opposing counsel does; sometimes it is OK to agree to disagree.

  9. Stand up for yourself. One of the most difficult things is knowing when to stand up for yourself. If you are confronted by a bully, be prepared and stick to the facts. The rules are intended to protect you. Call the bully out calmly and professionally.

  10. Trust yourself and believe in yourself. Especially early in your legal career, it is easy to be intimidated or feel like you did something wrong. You know what you are doing if you prepared.

  11. Know when to get a senior lawyer involved. If difficult behavior becomes a pattern, it may be a good time to bring in a senior lawyer. Not only can another lawyer provide guidance and support, but also if opposing counsel is difficult on a particular issue, it may make sense for the other lawyer to handle that issue from the outset—to avoid the confrontation.

  12. Always be on the lookout for ways that you can improve. Pay attention to the way your colleagues deal with senior counsel or difficult opposing counsel; build your network in the legal community.

  13. Take a break. It is rare that you have to respond to opposing counsel immediately. If you are not in the right state of mind, do not answer the phone. Before responding to an email, breathe. Even in a deposition, you can take a break and step away.

  14. Keep perspective. Do not lose sight of your client’s goals. Do not lose sight of your role in the process.

  15. Realize that you are going to make mistakes. If you have followed the advice above, a mistake will not likely cost you the case— you have been reasonable and professional. If you have a good relationship with opposing counsel, you can more easily deal with mistakes.

  16. If you’re smart, someone will know. You do not need to prove yourself to anyone. Your behavior demonstrates that you are trustworthy and competent.

Keywords: litigation, young lawyer, advice

Stephanie McCoy Loquvam is an attorney with Aiken Schenk Hawkins & Ricciardi P.C. in Phoenix, Arizona.

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