The Importance of Managing Anger in the Practice of Law

Anger is not a good mix with the practice of law. Yet, law is a profession that puts the practitioner in a position where things could make him angry all the time. Litigation, even appellate litigation, is a business of fighting and arguing. Ideally, it’s done in a very scholarly collegial way. Arguing in real life often involves anger. And unfortunatley it is not always so easy to take off the normal person hat when we put on the lawyer hat. Boundaries can break down if you’re not careful.

And that’s just half the job of a lawyer. You must also manage client expectations and be the lightining rod because you’re the closest representative of the judicial system around when bad news comes, when matters are delayed, and when you are taking a course of action that the client either doesn’t understand or doesn’t quite agree with. Miscommunications sometimes happen. So, there are about a million things that can happen in attorney client relationships that lend themselves to anger.

Then comes the judge. You can’t get angry at the judge. Or, at least you can’t show anger toward the judge. But sometimes it’s tough being told by a person in a robe or panels of judges in robe telling you how wrong you are. Generally, it’s all in a day’s work. But in the real world being told you’re wrong can be an anger-invoking moment. We try to be professional. Most of the time we are. But that sort of things could lend itself to anger in the real world.


Lately, I read a few things about anger. I wasn’t looking for reading material about anger. It was there in the blogs I read on a regular basis. Then, I heard an interview on NPR with Michael Caine. He spoke once about getting angry on a movie set. I liked what he said so much that I found the transcript so that I could really study on it. Mr. Caine said:

I have a terrible temper and I’ve learned early on to control it. I remember, I’d lost my temper very badly on a picture … And I really, really lost my temper. And Jimmy Clavell James Clavell – was the director. And he said, okay, half an hour’s break, everybody; let’s go and have a cup of tea. … And he said, I was captured by the Japanese in Hong Kong when I was 14. I said, I know you were, Jim. He said, and I survived that by watching and learning from them. He said, and the thing I learned that I could tell you today is never to lose your temper. He said because anger is a very, very important emotion and you must never ever share important emotions with strangers, because you will only lose face, because none of it is important to them. And I never ever lost my temper on a movie set ever again.

Never share important emotions with strangers. By the same token, appellate judges often decry brief or oral arguments where lawyer attack the other side. Of course, the trick with anger is that when you’re angry you always feel justified. It’s always someone else’s anger that seems peevish, childish, or destructive. Of course, everyone feels justified in his anger the moment he is experiencing it.

The second place I read about anger was in Garr Reynolds’s blog, Presentation Zen. I mentioned his blog yesterday. And here’s a good example of why it’s perfect reading for a lawyer. He wrote an excellent post  titled Lessons from the world of Aikido. Now, the post talks in part on how do deal with difficult questions or hostility from an audience member when you are giving a presentation. Strike out the reference to audience member and fill in the blank, the word “judge,” “opposing counsel,” “client,” “client’s friend,” or “client’s relative.”

If an audience member is aggressive or even hostile toward you, do not react by being hostile back. This kind of resistance never works. When you allow stress in the form of feelings related to defensiveness such as irritation, fear, impatience, and anger your thinking becomes cloudy and your actions — including speaking — may become impulsive and foolish. … By remaining calm we can give measured responses instead of emotional reactions. “Impulsiveness and stubbornness give way to patience and understanding,” says Richard Moon, when we remain calm, focused, and centered.

You might be right when you are angry, and you may be wrong. You will think you are right. But anger, no matter how righteous, will get you nowhere.

I don’t think either of these men are saying not to get angry. But there is a time an place to display it. And that time is not in court, particularly on an appellate matter. And it certainly isn’t the text of your client’s brief. The wisdom is particularly applicable in law where, at its heart, the case is never about us. It is about the client and ultimately about the truth. And we’re hired precisely because we can be objective in how we dispense legal advice and execute legal strategy.

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