Bullies. We see them everywhere in our family law practices:
- Opposing attorneys who intimidate novice lawyers.
- Unprofessional game players who try to wear you down by attrition.
- “Know it alls” who make you question your judgment.
- Imperious judges who strong-arm lawyers into disadvantageous settlements.
Bullies operate from the same psychological territory as car bombers – crawling into your head to destabilize your sense of security and safety. But there are ways to overcome the family law terrorists that lurk in your practice.
5 Steps to Keep Courthouse Bullies From Making You Crazy
1. Maintain Your Composure.
Bullies win when you back down or react. Take a breath, stand firm, and don’t let them see you sweat. A negative reaction is oxygen for their fire. For example, don’t quarrel with the quarrelers at a deposition. When they object to a legitimate question; don’t engage, just say “noted” and direct the witness to answer. When you lose your temper, they win. Firm, confident responses will garner their respect and make them back off. Remember: pigs like to wrestle in the mud. Stay out of their puddle.
2. Don’t Succumb to Fear.
Courthouse bullies deliberately try to slip into your head and rattle around in there. To avoid this, borrow from the Stoics, who employed a three-step formula to meet their fears.
- First, pause, and realize it is not the provocation itself that is upsetting, but your judgment about it. Reframe the adversary’s conduct as an opportunity to exercise restraint and respond wisely.
- Another option is to simply ignore the provocateur. Consider the threats like a dog barking at a passing car, annoying, but ultimately harmless. Next, remember that this event is transient and will pass soon. Looking back, will this circumstance even be on your radar six months from now? Not likely, so relax!
- Finally, decatastrophize. What’s your worst-case scenario? Odds are you can live with it, and it is not as frightful as your reptilian brain makes it out to be. Keep perspective.
3. Outthink the Bad Guys.
Most courthouse bullies indulge in this malevolent behavior because it is their way of surviving in the practice. Many of them are frightened and overcompensate because of their imposter syndromes. Haul them into your arena, the practice of law. Figure out legal solutions to the bad antics, and develop strategies considering the whole chessboard of the case. I am fond of the Stoic practice of calmly asking myself, “How can I turn this to our advantage?” Reframing in this way presents solutions unavailable to your panicky mind.
4. Punch ’em in the Nose.
Figuratively of course! Not unlike the playground bullies in the third grade, courthouse bullies only pick on people they think they can push around. Push back – harder. But remember, don’t get sucked up into their game. Avoid counter threats and reactive name-calling. I hate email bickering matches. You will never get the last word with these loons. Why waste your energy? Neither am I a fan of tattling to the judge. I generally think complaining to the judge is uncool; it both empowers the transgressor and makes you look weak. Figure out a tactical way to respond without whining.
5. Have Faith in Yourself.
Trust yourself. You can handle these people. Whether you manage them by laughing at them, or ignoring them, realize that they are empowered only with your assent. You have the skills to neutralize these folks if you don’t react, stand firm, and outthink them. Keep your internal chatter at bay by positive self-talk and remind yourself that behind the facade, the bully is typically a frightened coward. I recommend the book Chatter: The Voice in our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness it by Ethan Kross. Kross lays out concrete strategies for keeping your shadow side at bay and easing your worries. A great read for those of us that overthink things (don’t we all?).
As an added reality check, I can testify that the courthouse bullies tend to burn out sooner rather than later. As Bob Dylan wryly observed, “sometimes you just need to bite your lip and put on your sunglasses.” Just wait them out. You have the power – the power over yourself. Don’t give it away.
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