From time to time, when meeting with a potential client, I get a question along these lines:  “Are you aggressive?  I need a lawyer that is going to be a barracuda.”

Do they though?  Some clients think what they need is a lawyer who is going to write nasty five-page letters punctuated with threats and sarcasm, ending with “Govern yourself accordingly”.  However, a nasty letter writing campaign between two blow hard lawyers doesn’t accomplish much other than to add to their clients’ legal bills.

When I first became a lawyer, I thought I would have to change my personality to earn respect as a litigator.  When acquaintances learn that I am a courtroom lawyer, they often respond with something like, “But you are so nice!”  Erin Cowling’s blog post about being a litigator who hated conflict really spoke to me, as I too used to wonder if I was too sensitive for legal warfare.

With time, I have come to believe that an excellent advocate acts strategically, not aggressively.  Being strategic means creating a litigation map to get what your client needs.  It means thinking through what your opponent is likely to argue and what a judge is likely going to need from you.  It means breaking down cross-examination questions, editing them and re-ordering them until you have the right questions in the right sequence. Great advocates don’t yell the loudest.  They take the raw materials of their client’s story and mold it into a compelling narrative.

Some of the best advocates I have encountered are likeable, cooperative, and kind. Good listening skills, sensitivity, and empathy can be superpowers in law.  Detecting small word choices in a witness leads to better follow up questions.  Sensing a judge’s reaction to your legal argument helps you make adjustments on the fly.   Empathy builds trust when I am working as a mediator, and trust helps pave the way to settlement.

My advice to law students thinking of a career as a litigator?  Don’t worry if no one has ever compared you to a “ferocious, opportunistic predator” (as Wikipedia describes a barracuda).  Bring your unique gifts to the counsel table.


Angela Casey

Nothing contained in this post constitutes legal advice or establishes a solicitor-client relationship. If you have any questions regarding your legal rights or legal obligations, you should consult a lawyer.