A colleague of mine who has a thriving domestic practice tells me that, at the end of many divorce cases, two people often hate him – the ex-spouse and the client. He’s a great lawyer, so the ex-spouse part of that equation does not surprise me. As I think about the nature of domestic practice as I understand it, I think I understand the part about the client, too. It’s not the lawyer, it just that he’s there.
Criminal appellate practice is not quite as emotional but there are times when, no matter what you do, you aren’t the source of joy for many of the other players in the case. It’s not you, it’s just that you’re there. For the prosecutor, since he can’t talk to your client, you get to be the proxy. The same goes, sometimes, for an appellate panel at oral agument or for a trial judge. Unfortunately the critical stream flows in two directions. For the client and the client’s family, you often are the proxy for the State, the investigating officers, the judge, and the appellate panel. You are often the messenger. And the old adage about shooting when it comes to the messenger holds true. It only seems odd that you sometimes find yourself in a place where everyone is angry at you – the client for not “standing up” for him, the Court for taking too firm a line and asking for too much, and the DA for being too zealous. Take a closer look and you’ll see, it’s not necessarily you. But don’t ignore the criticism, particularly if it might help.
So, it was great to see Leo Barbauta’s post at Zen Habits titled The Art of Handling Criticism Gracefully. I would put the ability to handle criticism right up there with the ability to write a good brief, how to spot issues, and how to respond to questions at oral argument. If you are a lawyer who finds yourself in the middle of the triangle of criticism – between your client, opposing counsel, and the Court, head over to his post right now.
If you want to stay here, check out this synopsis of what I think his key points are.
Get past the motives
There are all kinds of reasons why people may criticize you ranging from an honest desire to help to an honest expression of jealousy. But Mr. Barbauta suggest that you first look behind the motives to see if there is something objectively helpful in the raw advice. Above all, he says to ask yourself one question when dealing with criticism. That question is “does this person have a point (despite the rude tone)?” He says he should next think the commenter for criticism and acknowledge the point without being defensive. Then let the person know that you are grateful for the criticism. He has found that this exercise can be disarming.
Wait until you are calm (particularly if you are about to send an email)
Above all, he advises, do not respond in anger. He says “calm yourself down before responding. Always. Responding to a critic and anger is never, ever, ever a good idea. In case I didn’t make that clear: don’t ever ever ever respond in anger.”
Sometimes it’s best to say nada
If acknowledging the comment and its possible validity is not appropriate, Mr. Barbauta suggests simply to stand silent.
I am mainly talking to myself in this post, by the way. And I would add another piece of “do as I say, not as I’ve done” advice. Passive aggressiveness is worse than aggressiveness. So, if your tendency in response to criticism is to write a cold, hostile, letter with an over the top “professionalistic” tone make sure that you aren’t really just writing an angry letter in disguise. In fact, get used to the fact that letter writing is not a great medium for working through the emotions of some legal issues. And, of course, your client is never housed near your office. Head out on the highway and play a book on tape. Visits are important in appellate practice.