Around this time of year, thoughts of Christmas bring peaceful images to mind. Unfortunately for many lawyers Christmas time brings images of stress and worry as we try to wind up our practices before the new year brings another 365 days of fires to put out. It is no wonder why talk at the water cooler often seems to centre around who put coal in your stocking that week. So before we become someone’s holiday nightmare, consider the advice of Don Miguel Ruiz from his book The Four Agreements. In it he speaks of four simple “agreements” that can help you act with integrity.
1. Be impeccable with your word
This goes far beyond undertakings and promises. Our word can be used as a tool to build our character and reputation. It can also be used to gossip or bring down others. So when opposing counsel does something upsetting, think twice before walking out into the hallway and divulging their low moment. If you get the reputation of speaking badly of others your integrity will be treated as a tabloid magazine: entertaining but disrespected.
2. Don’t take things personally
It does not matter how much we do to protect against criticism, other people will always have something negative to say. Despite our level of confidence these words can be hurtful. In these stressful situations our bodies may automatically respond with a fight-or-flight instinct, which is usually the starting point for one of those immortal stories where lawyers start behaving unprofessionally. A good friend of mine, who is an expert on wellness issues, once told me “what others think of you is none of your business.” In other words, don’t think about it. If you acted with integrity during your dealings with that individual, then perhaps the criticism is not about you but about the person levelling it.
3. Do not make assumptions
As advocates, are you making the error of assuming conflict each and every time you head into court or pick up the phone to call opposing counsel? Entire conversations based on prior assumptions about what the other side is going to say can result in anxiety. If we act on those false assumptions, it can cloud our discussions with negative energy. Working with particularly difficult counsel can make it easy to automatically assume they will always be difficult. When we do this, we run the risk of encouraging the same difficult behaviour from the start. There is no denying some people have a perpetual chip on their shoulder. Don’t allow your assumptions to encourage that behaviour and prevent them from perhaps acting differently towards you.
[strong]4. Do your best in all circumstances
Your best is not only the result but also how you get there. I often tell law students writing exams to not focus on the fact the next two weeks will be miserable but to instead focus on the work that needs to be done to achieve their goal. I also tell young lawyers to quit worrying about the mountains of work before the trial and just get to business and do the job. Worrying about the challenge ahead creates negative energy. On the other hand, focusing on the job gets the results. Having this mindset can be especially helpful when dealing with negative opposing counsel who may attempt to bait you with doomsday scenarios.
So for Christmas give yourself and your colleagues a gift that keeps on giving by practising these four agreements: be impeccable with your word, don’t take things personally, don’t make assumptions, and do your best in all circumstances. This will ensure you will not only be on Santa’s nice list but your colleague’s nice list as well.
Second-year Thompson Rivers University law student Ben Austring co-wrote this article.