Avoiding the Trap of Lawyer Arrogance

We, as lawyers and judges, are the primary mechanism for upholding and strengthening the rule of law. If we cannot attract the interest and respect of our fellow citizens in this vital effort, then our national democracy, in theory and practice, may be in serious jeopardy.

Jack H. (Nick) McCall

Retired Senior Attorney and Deputy Agency Ethics Official, Tennessee Valley Authority

If there is a collective sin or negative emotion typically associated with lawyers, it can be defined by one word: arrogance. Not self-confidence (certainly, a necessary lawyerly skill or trait), but condescension; not a healthy self-regard for one’s skills and talents, but conceit. These attributes are too often what many of our fellow citizens think embodies our profession. 

It ill serves us, as individuals and as members of our profession, to have many of our fellow citizens hold such a negative opinion of lawyers and the law.  A simple Google search will dredge up a surfeit of studies and articles on the topic of lawyerly egos and arrogance, along with comments like “lawyers are accountable only to themselves,” “lawyers are unapproachable,” and “lawyers are not interested in me.” The authors of these studies and articles often find, when they drill down into the reasoning for these critical beliefs and statements, that the rationale behind the thinking is apocryphal or premised on stereotypes. Nevertheless, it still does our profession no good—especially at a time when faith in institutions, in government, and even in the rule of law itself seems to be under assault. Even some law school professors criticize “expertise” (ironically enough), as if only those born with silver spoons in their mouths can become lawyers or attend law school.[1]   

We, as lawyers and judges, are the primary mechanism for upholding and strengthening the rule of law.  If we cannot attract the interest and respect of our fellow citizens in this vital effort, then our national democracy, in theory and practice, may be in serious jeopardy. 

Those are very high-level, macro concerns, much in keeping with some of the most important questions facing American society today. I submit to you that we not only have a stake in these considerations; we also must be present at the table for these critical conversations. It will be vital for our fellow citizens to be willing to listen to and hear our voices when we speak, and not ignore them or think (while shutting us out of the conversation and disregarding what we have to impart), “There goes yet another arrogant, big-mouthed lawyer.”

On a more practical, daily basis, we can likely think of classmates, professors, colleagues, or opposing counsel who have just made us so irritated with their overweening egos that we just wanted to…. (I will let you fill in the blank here with your own desired response). “Talk down and condescend to me; it will bring my mind around to your viewpoint,” said no lawyer, ever.

Speaking entirely for myself, encountering a colleague’s (infrequently, even a supervisor’s) or opponent’s attack of the ego triggers a response entirely different from that perhaps desired by the one trying to impress or intimidate me with an over-inflated sense of self-worth. It hardens my heart. It causes me to dig in my heels and fight like mad to find something, anything, to use to fight back and pull the rug out from under the other lawyer’s feet. This reaction is counter-productive to lawyer leadership. To paraphrase a former law firm colleague’s once opined sure-fire bet in bringing Rule 11 sanctions, once a lawyer condescends to humiliate another lawyer, the only thing you can be sure of is that there will be an awful lot of smart people lying awake at night, trying to think of ways to get even. 

Can one be a tough, thoroughly professional person and have a positive regard for one’s knowledge and skills while also being sufficiently humble? Of course. Many of the best civil litigators certainly possess this skill—or at least the ability to use it tactically. Jurors often opine after trials that a big part of what helped a litigant’s case is that his or her lawyer seemed credible and relatable. Surely, that goes to the heart of the concerns expressed here. 

Some of us are born with, gifted with, a natural sense of folksiness that carries with it its own flavor of humbleness. A one-time supervisor of mine had this natural talent in ample quantities. Being from the Carolinas, his slow and mellifluous accent helped give others—especially, it seemed, the arrogant and the egomaniacal—the false sense that he had anything but a steel trap-like mind. He had learned over the years to use this tactically to his advantage. When meeting with others, he would allow that natural manner of speech and his basic folksiness come to the forefront. This often lulled the arrogant and the sloppy into either trying to take advantage of him—often, to engage in what is now called “mansplaining”—or to cut corners and “dumb down” critical matters of procedure and policy. At that point, the steel trap would spring shut. He would rise to his full six-foot height, the blue eyes would glint, and the face would harden, as he uttered: “I’m just an ol’ country boy…. Show me!”  

There was nothing false about this. It was, however, a powerful way to send a message to others (as well as to the one who had walked into the trap of arrogance) never to assume that the person with whom one is dealing is anything but equally as intelligent, skilled, and professional. One risks making a fatal error in thinking otherwise.

Many of us who have practiced in Knoxville and East Tennessee, or who have long-time UT College of Law connections, can easily think of lawyers who have embodied solid professionalism and coupled it with the rare gift of lawyer humility. Each of these persons are or were, without question, some of the finest and most gifted lawyers in this jurisdiction. One key to these attributes is a sense of real relatability, not just to citizens and jurors but also to their fellow lawyers and to judges. 

One of these who readily comes to mind is the late Robert W. Ritchie. Bob Ritchie was earnest and serious when he decried the Rambo litigation culture, called for a return to lawyer civility, and advised that even before major, bet-the-company (or bet-your-client’s-life-and-property) litigation, opposing lawyers owed it to each other and the profession to meet civilly over lunch before the onset of legal combat and get to know one another. Bob’s knowledge of criminal law was almost encyclopedic, it seemed; but with his honest, friendly way, one might be tempted to forget that.  The late Professor Donald Paine embodied an ethos similar to Bob Ritchie’s in many respects. Don’s willingness to take inquiries and legal questions from lawyers and judges across Tennessee, at all hours of the day or night—and to respond to them, usually in less than 24 hours, for no pay or benefit other than the good of his reputation—was justly legendary. And, very much in league with these outlooks was that of another friend and mentor to many of us—and, coincidentally, one of the College of Law Institute for Professional Leadership’s founding advisory board members—the late federal District Court Judge Pam Reeves. 

For each of these lawyers, the old saying “What you see is what you get” tended to hold true. They were skilled, seasoned, knowledgeable, tenacious in holding to their goals, and zealous advocates, serving not only their clients but also the legal profession. Above all, each of them had a solid measure of humility and what might be called a sense of graciousness, neither of which ever called into question their rock-solid professionalism or their well-merited stellar reputations.

One can indeed be a talented, wise, hard-working professional, with solid self-confidence in one’s skills and ability, without being regarded as a conceited jerk. The lawyers noted above are not alone. There are many lawyers possessing these same attributes, both locally and across our state and nation. 

Helping “get the word” out to more of the non-legal laity that lawyers can be professionals without falling into the trap of arrogance not only is good business for our profession; ­it also may be increasingly essential for the protection of the rule of law itself.

[1] But see Jordan Rothman, “Law Professors Should Have More Practical Experience,” Above the Lawavailable at https://abovethelaw.com/2020/08/law-professors-should-have-more-practical-experience/ (accessed on July 17, 2021).

2 thoughts on “Avoiding the Trap of Lawyer Arrogance

  1. Bob Ritchie, Don Paine and Pam Reeves…all great examples of lawyers who proved that civility in the practice of law is strength, not weakness. Add Nick McCall to this list!


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