For Women in Law By Women in Law

Dear Lil: Can you help me deal with difficult opposing counsel? There’s a senior lawyer on one of my files who tries to intimidate me whenever we communicate. I feel sick every time I receive a call from them or see their name in my inbox. I lose sleep over it. Can you help? ~ Signed Dreading My Inbox

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Guest Blogger, Paula Price, discusses difficult opposing counsel and invites us all to stop managing the situation and seek out growth opportunities.

Dear Dreading Your Inbox:

Thank you for writing in with your question. It’s a question I receive a lot in my coaching practice and one I dealt with personally when I practiced law.

When it comes to how to deal with difficult opposing counsel, there were strategies I used as a lawyer to manage. Those strategies included: identifying when I was dealing with a ‘difficult’ person; being careful and deliberate when communicating with that person; preparing a clear agenda when writing to or speaking with that person; following up any verbal conversations with written confirmation of what I understood had been agreed to; and turning to colleagues and confidantes for support.

As a coach, I invite you to go beyond managing the situation and seek out growth opportunities from it. Here are six questions to ask yourself when dealing with difficult opposing counsel or when you find yourself in other situations where you experience discomfort or anxiety. To get the most from this exercise, answer the questions in relation to a specific event that has already happened or one that you’re currently facing.

What is the challenging situation? Keep this part factual.

I received an email from opposing counsel contesting a position I took in a motion for documents.”

How you feel about the situation? Be honest and specific.

I feel anxiety, fear and dread.”

What thoughts are causing the feelings?

They saw right through me. I bet I made a mistake. I’m going to get destroyed in court. Maybe I’m not cut out for this. If I was a better lawyer, this wouldn’t be happening to me.

What outcome do you want?

I want to be able to read the email, review the challenges to my position and respond, if necessary, in a calm and measured way. I want to do these things without ruminating or getting caught up in self-doubt.”

What would you need to feel to have that outcome?

I would need to feel confident, calm and powerful.”

 What thoughts do you need to think about yourself to generate those feelings?

I can handle whatever is in that email. Nothing has gone wrong. It’s their job to intimidate me. I’m the perfect person to deal with this. I have everything I need. This is an opportunity for me to practice being calm in the face of a challenge. This is exactly what I need to grow right now.”

With those thoughts in your mind, go ahead and take action. As you go, check in on how you’re doing in relation to your desired outcome. When you finish the task, reflect on what happened. Identify what you did well and what you would do differently next time. Practice this exercise when challenging situations arise for you. You will get better at it over time.

A couple of additional comments.

Whether you’re dealing with difficult opposing counsel, making decisions where the outcome is uncertain or juggling multiple projects on a tight timeline, you’ll likely experience anxiety, fear or other uncomfortable emotions at some point during your career. Rest assured – those feelings are perfectly normal. They’re part of being human. If you learn to allow your feelings, identify them and use them as data for growth, you will – over time – develop a greater sense of self-confidence and ability to grow from discomfort.

Finally, you mentioned you were dealing with difficult opposing counsel. In your law practice – as in your personal life – you will encounter ‘teachers’. Some will model characteristics you want to adopt for yourself; others will model the opposite. You cannot control others, of course, but you can control yourself. As you progress in your career, notice what you see in others that inspires you and use that information to curate your professional identity. One gift you may take from this situation is a greater sense of how you choose – and choose not – to treat others in your practice.

Wishing you much growth and success.

About the Author

Paula Price is a coach and former litigator who helps lawyers and law students excel, personally and professionally. Through individual coaching and online courses, Paula helps her clients reach their desired outcomes, such as: increasing self-confidence; overcoming fear of failure, perfectionism and self-doubt; optimizing time; recalibrating career goals; pursuing non-traditional paths for lawyers; building professional relationships; communicating more effectively; progressing into more challenging roles; and developing a personal brand. Paula is an Associate Certified Coach licensed with the International Coaching Federation, having earned a Graduate Certificate in Executive Coaching from Royal Roads University in 2017. She earned her law degrees from McGill University in 2003 and was called to the Bar of Ontario in 2004 and the British Columbia Bar in 2005.


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