Legal Insight. Business Instinct.

The Appeal of Zeal

Letterman or Leno? That was the assignment handed out in my freshman year college English course. I was to debate which late-night talk show host was better against another student. We walked to the front of the class and exchanged oratorical parries and deflections. At the end of the carnage, my opponent said something to the effect of, “Hey man it’s not World War III; we’re just talking about late-night talk show hosts here.” As my 12-year-old daughter says about everything, “Awkward!” In my mind, I was passionately and zealously advancing my position. To my fellow student I was creating uncomfortable conflict in regards to an issue that was just not that important and I should give it a rest.

This may come as a shock to some, but lawyers have ethical rules that govern their behavior. In the preamble to the ethical rules it provides, “As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client’s position under the rules of the adversary system.” (I.R.P.C. Preamble [2].) A lawyer has an ethical duty to fight passionately for his or her client’s position. Too often there is a stigma attached to a lawyer who is passionately representing his or her client. A lawyer’s primary focus should not be to make opposing counsel happy and comfortable, but instead to put his or her client in the best position possible.

Frequently, lawyers use their passion not for advancing their client’s position, but rather for forcing their client to settle the case. While settlement may be a good result in some instances, the desire to settle should not dominate a lawyer’s efforts in handling a case.

In a system designed to deal with conflict, conflict is going to happen. Combatants in the legal arena should be equipped to deal with this conflict and not allow perceived discomfort to prevent them from zealously advancing the cause. Even judges at times can seem uncomfortable with passionate representation. A lawyer must be ready and willing to step into these situations. In fact, a good lawyer should be causing these “awkward” situations.

The lawyer one sees at church on Sunday should not be the lawyer one sees in the courtroom. I am not suggesting that a lawyer should be running around the courtroom screaming “Did you order the Code Red?!” but rather that a lawyer should be passionately fighting on his or her client’s behalf. At times the comment, “he cares a little too much about that issue” is used to characterize someone who is overly excited about a subject. A good lawyer should “care a little too much” about his or her client’s case.

Zealous representation is not only okay; it should be desired and applauded. A lawyer who seems checked out, distracted, or disengaged is not a lawyer worth hiring. On the other hand, a lawyer who treats your matter like it is World War III is one worth having on your team. A zealous advocate may not be able to solve all of your problems, but, at a minimum, should at least be able to convince you of the incontrovertible truth that what was true in my freshman English course is still true today – Letterman is better than Leno.

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