You Don’t Want a Pit Bull Lawyer – Here’s What You DO Want
Have you ever been cornered by a pit bull?
You know he’s out for blood because the fur on his back is standing on end, his bark is ferocious and unrelenting, and he’s literally foaming at the mouth to eviscerate you should you make even one false move.
With all due respect to the actual dogs, some of whom are tame and sweet creatures, this is an allusion that often is applied to members of my profession, especially in the context of cases where blood seems like a reasonable desired outcome – especially when a client feels used and abused.
For the most part, the lawyers that I’ve dealt with across the hundreds of cases I’ve handled are professional, courteous, smart, and effective. But every so often, I encounter a pit bull lawyer that comes flying out the gates fueled by a single-minded mission: to destroy my client. It’s clear from the outset that there’s no desire to litigate the claim in a professional way, nor is there any interest in establishing a working relationship with opposing counsel (me) to make the process smoother and more cost effective for our clients. The pit bull attorney is driven to perpetuate the dispute and ratchet up the emotion – tactics that in my opinion are ultimately rabidly counter-productive.
For example, I once represented a woman who was in business with her “wife” (not a legally sanctioned union back then). Together they ran their company and acquired property.
When my client ended the relationship, it threw the business into chaos. Because there were no laws providing this gay couple with marital rights, the lawsuit that came from the breakup was not destined to be heard in family court. There was plenty of property (both real and business based) but no “community property” laws that guided the division of the assets (e.g., who would get the primary residence, who would keep the beach house, and perhaps most contentious of all, who would ultimately own the business and retain its clients). The situation was guaranteed to become messy quickly. I was hopeful that the ex would retain a good lawyer that would work to protect her client but also would aim to resolve the matter as amicably as possible.
Anger, rejection, and probably a litany of other negative emotions led my client’s ex-partner to believe that my client would steal “her” business – this regardless of the fact that the two had built their company together. She was pissed, threatened, insecure and ready to exact punishment at any cost.
And so my client’s ex hired the nastiest lawyer she could find and instructed her to “crush” my client.
No matter how hard I tried to work with this “dog with a bone” lawyer, she refused to cooperate with me — even on the smallest of issues. She never once bit at any of my offers of cooperation, disclosure, and dialogue toward a negotiated end.
In fact, opposing counsel took her marching orders seriously and clearly felt that messing with me was equivalent to screwing my client. Commonly exchanged professional courtesies were refused, repeated emergency motions were filed, and correspondence was consistently sarcastic and condescending. Phone calls were returned with terse emails laced with ultimatums that I was sure were “BCC’d” to her client. “I’m going for the jugular,” her emails seem to scream.
By the time most people need to consult with or retain a lawyer, they feel that that the conflict has gotten to the point where they need to toughen up… no more Mr. Nice Guy (Gal). Disputes are always impacted by emotions, but when relationships end and businesses need to be divided, this is what the thought process might look like: I need a lawyer who’s tough…. brutal, even. In fact, I need a lawyer who’s scary, and who knows how to threaten the nuclear option. I need someone aggressive enough that she or he can intimidate the other side into giving me what I want. Which is pain – deep, unrelenting agony.
Looking a bit deeper into the compulsion to push for punitive consequences, I can tell you that in my experience it’s not just pure emotion. We as a society believe that harder is better, and that brutal force can be the most direct line to a desired end point. We think that the more aggressive the advocate, the more likely the playing field will be leveled – or maybe even burned to the ground. And we often believe that this is how we can define success. In times of heightened stress and anxiety, in the face of real and perceived losses, all thoughts turn to winning….
At any cost.
And so, many people approach selecting a lawyer within this context. But there’s a problem with this. Simply put, if you think that the most aggressive lawyer is going to get the best results for you, think again. In fact, hiring a pit bull lawyer creates what for obvious reasons I call the “pit bull effect.”
When you let the dog out, you run the risk of it turning on you.
To avoid this unfortunate circumstance, the first step is to stop thinking that aggression assures victory – for example, panthers have claws just like pit bulls, and can be much more effective in getting you what you want.
Let me distinguish between the two:
- A pit bull is looking for a fight to pick.
- A panther picks fights carefully.
- A pit bull will tend to alienate the other side and whip emotion to a frenzy at a time when distractions should be diminished and the merits of the dispute should be elevated.
- A panther will wait patiently and pounce only when the target is both clear and worthy.
- A pit bull will piss off the judge and possibly prejudice him or her against your case. Don’t even get me started on how a jury would respond to an overly aggressive and pushy pit bull type lawyer.
- A panther will use stealth to build the case, and do it so smoothly, articulately, and focused that your point will be made much better than you could ever do yourself.
- A pit bull will thrash around loudly and expend a lot of energy – and you’ll hear the beast coming a mile away so it’s easy to dodge any brutal advances.
- A panther will conserve energy for when the time is right.
- A pit bull will bite down on your case and drag it around until it’s so bruised and battered that there’s not much left to chew on.
- A panther never confuses belligerence with strength, being argumentative with being persuasive, or arrogance with credibility. There’s a reason cats have multiple lives, and that’s because they realize being able to fight on another day is more important than dying in the heat of battle and losing the war.
Now I’m not talking about holding hands and chanting Kumbaya with the other side. I’m talking about being a panther instead of a pit bull. The panther projects strength and confidence and can work with the other parties to negotiate issues that can be resolved and fight only on those aspects that can’t.
Back to the ugly separation of the two life and business partners — while it didn’t have to be a dogfight, thanks to the pit bull attorney it became one that dragged on for eight months and in the end, someone ended up badly bitten: her client, the angry ex. She lost to the tune of $500,000 in legal fees. She also was denied the right to limit my client’s ability to make money, and ultimately only retained 50% of their joint assets (personal and professional). This was the same deal my client would have offered in the beginning. But the angry ex wasn’t interested in resolution – she was out for blood. She made the mistake of trying to use the court system to punish her partner because she was hurt. What she needed was a lawyer that refused to be her instrument, but she was calling the shots and cutting the checks.
And so, opposing counsel did an excellent job of sending her client straight to the doghouse (if not the poor house).
So the next time you decide to use an animalistic analogy to pick your lawyer, consider the pit bull vs. the panther. After all, it’s a jungle out there! And don’t let my “meow” fool ya!