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Giving Unpleasant People the Benefit of the Doubt

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Photo from website of U.S. District Court (W.D. Mi.).

Recently, a fellow lawyers’ listserv member talked about how he detested his opponent so much, that he was concerned how it might affect his performance in trial. He sought out advice, and I replied as follows:

“Dear ________-

“I couldn’t stand a prosecutor in a felony case I defended. This was the first time we’d ever dealt with each other. He seemed cold and heartless and worked in a prosecutor’s office that I still often think requires being an a**hole as a prerequisite to working there as a prosecutor. He seemed like such an a**hole that when I gave him the courtesy of handing him a copy of my two exhibits for a hearing we awaited, he merely grabbed it out of my hand wordlessly.

“Ever after that, he treated me with as much respect as he’d treat his favorite opponent -— though still seeming not to care about justice much if at all. I assumed I’d earned his respect by showing him I knew what the hell I was doing with our first felony case together, where ultimately I obtained a favorable result under the circumstances.

“Now a few years later, I learned for the first time that this particular prosecutor has suffered one tragedy after another recently, with the tragedies starting before my first interaction with him. I spoke before with some colleagues who had frequently dealt with him, but none said anything about his tragedies.

“I still do not want to socialize with this prosecutor, but am happy that I found a way for my initial irritation at him not to turn into the both of us hating each other so overtly that it would be obvious to those around us, which has happened before with me.

“In all likelihood, pain has driven your opponent to be so unlikable. It’s hard in the heat of battle to step back and to feel more detachment between the opponent’s offensiveness and how we react. You’ll find the way, though.”

On a final note, we all know that we are weaker when we are angry. Consequently, sometimes opponent like nothing better than to learn what gets us angry. I have enjoyed myself at times to see how easily I can anger opponents, unintentionally, to the opponents’ weakness and to my strength, that would not irritate other observers.

Would we get angry at a wild animal attacking us? No. Do we get angry, then, at our opponents, by their not meeting our minimal expectations of them (e.g., to follow the governing lawyers’ rules of ethics, to tell the truth, and not to fight dirty)? Do we get angry at them when they cause harm to us and our clients — whether intentionally or not — without showing any caring about the damage they do, and perhaps even relishing it? Do we not get angry at non-human animals because we do not think they have the capacity to cook up evil, but instead think they mainly act on instinct?

The more we eliminate our fears, the more we will eliminate our anger. T’ai chi master Cheng Man Ching spoke of overcoming our fears in terms of imagining that we are practicing t’ai chi while balanced atop a narrow pointed cliff. To not eliminate one’s fears while atop the cliff is to guarantee certain death. Eliminating fear also calls for keeping and tempering the fearlessness of a child filled with wonder, and living in the moment, as wonderfully detailed in the following story of the man and the two tigers: A man is chased in the wilderness by two tigers, only to be forced off a cliff, hanging for life from a vine. One tiger waits above and the other waits below for a human meal. Two field mice gnaw away at the vine. The man sees a wild strawberry growing from the side of a cliff, reaches for it, tastes it, and — with his life hanging in the balance — thinks of how delicious the strawberry tastes. Jon Katz.