Conflict Marathon

Q:

Dear newlawyerlanguage team,

I am a new law graduate and I am currently doing my practical legal training. 

Whilst at university, I had always aspired to be in litigation for the Federal Government, especially for the department that I am currently working for. I am now fortunate to have landed in the litigation team of that department and I have been given responsibility of my own case load. 

I have been in the litigation team for about 8 weeks now. I have received very positive and flattering feedback from my director, team leader and other colleagues and it looks like I will be staying with them permanently once I finish my graduate year. 

Even though I have got the job that I wanted and I appear to be doing a good job of it, I still feel a little emotionally flat. 

I am struggling with the amount of conflict that comes with litigation. I find it emotionally taxing to be constantly arguing with the other side in one dispute or another. Generally most lawyers or other parties tend to be quite professional, but sometimes I just have a party on the other side who yells or acts rather horribly. 

Is this emotional exhaustion, from dealing with conflict all day long, something that most litigation lawyers feel? Or is litigation simply the wrong area for me? Do I not have the emotional fortitude to be in such an area? 

Yours sincerely,

Anon.

A:

Hi – thanks for writing in with your question. Dealing with difficult people is, I think, a dilemma that all of us come up against in legal practice, particularly in litigation. Our ability to navigate the emotional content of our own aversion and reactivity, can often be the measure of our longevity in this crazy game. I know that I had spent my entire life prior to entering legal practice trying to avoid difficult situations and conflict – and all of a sudden I was thrust into a world were I was coming face to face on a daily basis with people and environments at their very worst. This brought up a lot of fear, aversion and at times, extreme stress in me.

Unfortunately, you will find that the biggest culprits of bad behaviour are often other legal practitioners, judges and magistrates. There is a huge amount of bullying that goes on in our profession, which is screaming out for cultural change and for a critical mass of us to say ‘enough is enough’. Such behaviour would be completely unacceptable (and illegal) in any other workplace, yet somehow in the law it is treated as just another part of the job. The unfortunate effect of this is manifest in the poor mental health and high attrition rate of those beginning a career in the law, who would prefer (understandably) to get out rather than continue to work under conditions so devastating to their health and wellbeing.

Often, the type of bad behaviour that you have experienced is based on the misguided view that being a good advocate means being a prick: “I’m going to get what I want from you by belligerence and force of will, so you better get out of my way”. It is a directly oppositional way of dealing with conflict, based on the belief that the way to win is to crush the other side. It is pointed, and personal, and aimed to get an emotional response because it also comes from a place of high emotion. In truth however, it is very rarely effective, as it is only going to get a response that is equally oppositional, and consequently has no persuasive power whatsoever.

So what can you when you come up against such behaviour? After falling in a heap, it is tempting to respond in kind – and this is how this behaviour has been perpetuated throughout the ages. The strong prey upon the weak until the weak get stronger and prey upon the weak etc etc.  However, you do not need to engage in this way.

You have a choice, which is your greatest strength. Instead of acting from your own reactivity, allow yourself to remain centred. Take a breath, be aware of your emotional response to what is occurring and instead of acting from it or suppressing it, simply allow it to pass. In so doing, you can engage on your own terms, grounded in a position of real fortitude. If you are able to do this – and it does take practice – it will serve you very well in this work, but also, I might add, in life. You will be a real force for change and an extremely effective advocate, energised and grounded in a wealth of emotional intelligence. You will naturally separate the people from the problem, and be much less likely to take anything personally.

Dealing with conflict all day long can be very draining, but it need not be. Give it a try – what have you got to lose? And remember that advocating for something, as opposed to against something, is by far the stronger position.

Joel