It’s about your credibility…
Why start my first blog entry with this particular line, which borrows James Carville’s famous sound bite from Clinton’s first race (the first Clinton that is)? Because it matters.
Here’s the deal. I’ve talk to a lot of judges and justices over the last six years, as well as their staff attorneys, and I have listened to a few hundred of them speak. And if there is one over-riding theme, one predominant pattern, one universal truth they all seem to communicate, it’s this: it’s about your credibility.
Yep. “It’s about your credibility.”
Every time I sit through a CLE program or watch an oral argument, I promise myself I will write an article along these lines for some legal journal. And of course, I never do. So instead of a lengthy article, here’s my blog post.
What does ‘credibility’ really mean?
It means, for litigators at least, that when you practice law, when you are in the court room, when you write that brief, every time the court has any contact with you what-so-ever: your actions affect your credibility, your credibility effects your reputation, and your reputation affects your success.
If you have a good reputation, a clean reputation – i.e. you are credible, you aren’t known for misstating the facts or the case law, or for trying to pull a fast one on the court or your opponent – the court will generally cut you some slack if slack needs to be cut.
The court will generally believe your case cites, instead of triple checking every single thing you write or say.
The court will be more inclined to believe the reasons you have for needing an extension or changing a hearing date.
In other words, the court will work with you.
Why does credibility matter?
Well, really, I wish I didn’t have to explain this one, but for the newer attorneys and even the stubborn litigators out there who were brought up on the kill or be killed method of lawyering, it matters because the court can make your life easy or it can make your life hell. It matters because when there is a really close call, you want to be standing in the corner the court respects. It matters because “the court” – judges and their staff, have very very long memories.
Along these lines, here are the top suggestions I repeatedly hear the court say attorneys should live by, to maintain their credibility:
- Be civil and take the high road, regardless of what opposing counsel, or the judge, is doing – really
- Don’t mis-state the facts or case holdings – sort of a “duh” huh?
- Don’t ignore the bad facts or case law hoping the court won’t notice – it will
- Read the case you cite – don’t rely on someone else’s interpretation or citation – seriously
- Follow the rules – they are there for a reason
I noticed another suggestion from a post by Robert Chapski on the Young Lawyers Blog: Think Like a Judge. While Robert was discussing discovery, the suggestion is universal at least for litigators. Put yourself in the Judge’s shoes.
Would you be pissed off finding out that one of the attorneys in front of you fudged on the facts? Would you really want to read, or hear, another nasty dig directed at opposing counsel? What would you think of an attorney who mis-cited a case, or worse, cited a case that was completely off point?
I could go on for a few more pages, or days, but you get the point. All of the bad behavior for which attorneys are famous has taken its toll on the court.
You can wake up and smell the coffee and practice a different kind of law in court, or you can keep on pissing off the court. It really is your choice.
And remember, it’s about your credibility.