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How Lawyers Got That Way

Manipulation and Intimidation

The major training in manipulation and intimidation comes in law school, watching the teachers, and in conversations at the student bar – where the aspiring lawyers share tips on verbal methods, body language, what sort of suits to wear, and so on. The partners at law firms provide post-graduate training in setting up an impressive office, telephone technique, and pompous letter-writing. There really isn't that much difference between the informal training of a lawyer and an MBA; the lawyers just get more of it.

Manipulation and intimidation are primarily used by short-sighted people – people who focus on methods instead of goals; who see trees instead of forests. An active attempt to manipulate you should make you wonder if the lawyer's mind is on the job – and whether he's the right one for you.

Most types of intimidation are simply old (bad) habits which people never get around to eradicating. If you sense the intimidation is just an ingrained behavior pattern, and not too obnoxious, ignore it. Active attempts mean there is a personality clash on the way – the lawyer is not a workable employee.


These motivations are not in order of importance; lawyers are easy to stereotype, but they're hardly clones.

Power – No. Lawyers don't want power. They may think so when they enter law school, but by graduation decisiveness has been crippled by an endless loop tape recorder: "What if, but, on the other hand ..." Complete autonomy makes them nervous. They want control – to be the indispensable chief advisor – but not king. If by accident they find themselves king, they'll spend their time in conferences instead of making decisions.

Status pleases them. They get some by being a lawyer; a lot, in their minds. If you're important, then the lawyer gets a rise in status by association. If you're not important, there's not much mileage here; any other improvement in their status is going to cost you money.

Winning a case pleases the lawyers who like the courtroom scene, which is by no means the majority of lawyers. (This is more important to criminal lawyers, since civil trial lawyers often count settling on the courthouse steps as a win.)

Building the Client List. A rite of passage. This is one of the few business concepts they learn during law school (third year, at the student bar), and they develop a mighty fixation. Unfortunately, a client list is a concept unto itself. Lawyers don't automatically link it to the concept of repeat business. You have to gently make the connection for them.

Control is one of their main needs, but don't over-indulge them. If you have confidence in them, then give them responsibility for the legal strategies. But be firm; not a single inch over the line, into unwanted advice.

Stress. They seek it out, even when they don't really like it. Some customers say when they no longer associate you with excitement, you no longer get prompt service. There's truth there. But how much extra agitation do you need? Let this motivation lie.

Money is a much-overrated human motivation. I'd put it behind power, sex, and recognition. Still, it's one way to keep score. Since lawyers rarely have fun, or concrete results to admire, they count money and billable hours.

Many customers say lawyers are on a feeding frenzy, period – that money is their only reason for existence. I'll meet those customers halfway: many (or even most) lawyers are on a feeding frenzy, and some of them period.

Job survival (for associates) – which equals billable hours.

Showing off is important to a lawyer. It's often a useless motivation. Do we care if he wrote a great brief, or made a clause more complicated, or impressed another lawyer? Maybe – and maybe it just runs up the bill. Redefine success as fulfilling your goal. But don't make results all-or-nothing; people don't change overnight. Give him specific targets to hit along the way. Never say "Call me when it's done."

A job well done. Certainly. But is it the job you want?

Respect for their ability is something lawyers appreciate, like anyone else. Their blindness to the customer's thoughts means they usually don't see it when it's there.

The customer's urgency. Urgency moves mountains. With amazing regularity, humans will respond to great need. But do lawyers respond? Yes and no. They can feel it; it stimulates them. But there is some strange chemistry going on; what starts as your urgency, becomes not their urgency, but theirs alone. And so, an uncertain motivation.

The last four motivations are the most useful to a customer.

Problem Solvers

Lawyers – by their own estimate – are problem solvers. In the last two decades, what with all the chatter of problems, solutions, issues, and challenges, it's understandable that people would forget what this means: a problem-solver needs problems. And if you don't provide one, he'll probably go looking.

Is this semantics? I don't think so – in fact, let me ask: Has anyone seen a genuine opportunity lately? Something that is fundamentally beneficial?

I had one, some years ago – the opportunity to buy a building cheaply. The beast was slippery, and I barely lassoed it long enough to take it by the lawyer's office, where I asked him to see if it had fleas; a limited request, which he must not have heard, for in no time he had determined that it was not an opportunity, but a problem, and wanted to keep it under observation for two days, so that a solution could be devised.

Knowing that the creature would escape during the two day observation period, I simply paid the owner and took it home, where I found it did indeed have fleas; but with a series of scrubbings it regained its full health, and served me well for many years.

What Lawyers Respect

Lawyers respect:

Intelligence, but their view of intelligence is narrow: basically, what comes out of your mouth. Articulation, debate, logic, vocabulary. The actual quality of your judgment isn't critical, as long as you're not an outright lunatic; it's your neck at risk, not theirs.

The ability to control other people (preferably not including them).

Large quantities of money.


Legal knowledge (preferably less than theirs).

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