Don’t Judge Your Adversary By His Cover

I recently found myself pre-judging an adversary based on some very surface snap judgments, which is something I purposefully try to avoid

And don’t get angry when your adversary makes judgments about you based on yours. Let your abilities, experience, and hard work leave their mark, and set everything else aside.

As litigators, we are accustomed to using the information presented to us to form our arguments and strategies in our cases. We do this when analyzing evidence, testimony, or even our own client’s stories. But this skill can be a trap when it comes to forming an opinion about a new adversary.

It is often too easy to use the limited information presented to us in the form of a new adversary (whether it be his age, gender, or where he typically practices, to name but a few examples) to develop quick opinions about how that lawyer will represent his or her client in a given moment. Perhaps restating the obvious rule we were all taught as children, until we see our adversaries in action, whether in person or through their written work, such snap judgments provide no real indication of who you are actually dealing with.

We have all been on the receiving end of these judgments, which can range from entertaining to downright offensive and frustrating. As a younger female attorney from California practicing in New York City, I have certainly dealt with this on multiple occasions.  I will always remember when, several years ago, my adversary in my first trial met me in the hallway after an appearance and called me a “little girl” who needed to be taught a lesson in front of about a dozen other lawyers waiting to enter the courtroom (as well as in front of his young associate who was also a young women).

I knew it ultimately didn’t matter, his statement shook me. In a single statement, that lawyer attempted to undercut my abilities, and the hours upon hours of preparation my colleagues and I had spent on the case. It took a moment (and a conversation with my boss and mentor) to come to terms with the fact that what the other lawyer had said simply didn’t matter. But more importantly, forming this opinion about me provided nothing to that adversary except for perhaps providing an outlet for his own frustrations at the direction the case was going in (my firm ultimately won at trial).

Despite this experience, I recently found myself pre-judging an adversary based on some very surface snap judgments, which is something I purposefully try to avoid. On that occasion, I had an oral argument against a mature looking man who in my eyes screamed “experienced appellate attorney.”  But after we finished our argument, the attorney took me aside and stated with a somewhat bewildered look on his face that this was the first time he had done an appellate argument. He had handled the argument very well, so there was ultimately no reason for his surprise, but his statement made me pause.

I was guilty of doing the very thing that has frustrated me throughout my career. As with the opinion of my former adversary, my opinion of this lawyer was entirely unhelpful to the case. Whether he was experienced or not, his work spoke for itself. Any other consideration was simply irrelevant.

This has all reminded me to focus on my adversary’s work, and, even more importantly, be confident resting on my own. People are certainly going to form opinions about you and your abilities in the courtroom (as you will do yourself), but, insecurities and egos aside, let those opinions be about what you (and your adversaries) do and not who you appear to be.

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