“Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.”
As a second- or third-year legal associate, I represented a plaintiff in a fraud case. We had sued three defendants, each with lawyers many years my senior. They decided to give me the “sonny boy” treatment, filing multiple motions to dismiss, all at the same time. Insofar as the answer period for each motion was twenty days, they aimed to bury me under an unrelenting avalanche of paperwork, and nearly succeeded. Suffice it to say the firm’s afterhours security detail and I became well acquainted over the next three weeks.
I survived, filed my responses (just) in time, and prepared for oral argument with the presiding judge. This wasn’t just any hearing or any judge. It was in front of Hiller Zobel, a formidable jurist, author, and law professor, and an anxiety-inducing force for new lawyers. He has since become known for his handling of the notorious British “nanny case,” in which Louise Woodward was charged with murder for shaking a young Boston-area couple’s child to death while babysitting. In that case, Zobel—considered fiercely independent—vacated the jury’s second-degree murder finding, imposing a lesser conviction of manslaughter and releasing her from custody for time served. He was tough, asked piercing questions, and above all loved to “coach” young lawyers in his courtroom. I was a nervous wreck and did what any insecure young attorney does. I pulled an all-nighter the day before the hearing, and if memory serves me, the day before that as well.
Given that defendants’ counsel filed the motions, they were called first to present their arguments. One by one, they took their allotted time summarizing their written briefs. For thirty minutes, I listened and took notes as each lawyer had a turn working over my case, every word a Jenga block being pulled from the tower of my legal submissions. With quote marks, underlines, and furrowed brows, I wrote down “baseless,” “legally and intellectually void,” and “incomprehensible,”—words they used to describe my case, each demanding dismissal as the only lucid remedy. My heart was pounding. This wasn’t just an attack on my work. It felt like a direct assault on me and my integrity.
As the final argument was made and my turn to speak finally arrived, I white-knuckled my legal pad now filled with notes and jumped to the podium. “Good morning, your Honor. May it please the court,” I blurted out as customary opening remarks.
Judge Zobel stared down at me from his position perched high above counsel’s tables. “Counselor, do you wish to proceed?” he asked.
Ready to rip, I said, “I do.”
He leaned toward me, lowered his head, and added, “Are you sure?”
Was I sure? I spent the past forty-eight hours perfecting my oral presentation, had to endure thirty minutes of insults, and he’s cutting me off? “Yes, your Honor, I am,” I replied at once, adding, “Opposing counsel shared quite a bit, and I would like the opportunity to respond.”
Judge Zobel reclined back in his leather chair and looked straight up. After a brief pause he asked, “Do you like baseball?”
I didn’t like baseball. I LOVED baseball. But who cared? Where was this heading? Confused and distressed, I answered, “Yes, your Honor, I do.”
Rocking back and forth, eyes still glued to the ceiling, “OK, do you know how many innings there are in a major-league game?” he continued.
“Yes, nine,” I countered, my fluster building.
With that he stopped rocking, fixed his gaze on me, and said—adding emphasis to every word—“You know, counselor, sometimes the home team doesn’t want the last at bat.”
While not certain, I took this to mean something along the lines of quit while you’re ahead, young buck. So, I nodded and said, “Thank you, your Honor. I’ll sit down now.”
Judge Zobel said, “Good,” adding he was denying the motions to dismiss from the bench without the need for a written opinion and brought down his gavel, leading the court to recess.
What does this all mean? It means it’s business, not personal, so don’t allow yourself to take things personally. I know what you’re thinking. That sounds simple, but is anything but. And you’d be right. But you must shake it off. When you take things personally, you redirect energy and focus from what’s important—getting the job done—toward what’s not, namely, proving you’re right or getting your way. I was so caught up in making amends for the perceived name-calling from the other side—and perhaps lobbing a few of my own—that I was ready to bypass the strongest factual and legal arguments in favor of the most personally punishing to the other side. Judge Zobel had saved me from myself.
[Nick Psyhogeos is Founder and CEO of Global Negotiations, LLC and author of Confessions of a Global Negotiator: A Quick Guide to the 5 Rules Business Development Professionals Need to Close Great Deals, published by Authority Publishing March 29, 2017 HERE.]