There, we said it. Many of them are very good at what they do -- responsible sorts, even; and they are nice people. In a field and among circumstances that tolerate and even encourage some pretty bad behavior, sometimes divorce lawyers are the only cool headed adults in the room. Yet, in a culture that values lawyers only when you need one, we are very free to stereotype and thus condemn a whole walk of professional life with cheap jokes and throwaway lines that if spoken about a race, a gender, a sexuality or an ethnicity, would be taboo. Not so with lawyers -- divorce lawyers foremost.
Such was the case in September 23, 2013's Boston Globe column by Jennifer Graham. In her piece "Free to be you and mean", Ms. Graham explored the case of Lawrence Summer's fall from political grace, shunned from his desired job as head of the Fed, she claims, because he is a nasty man in the workplace. In pressing the theory that the public trust requires competency first and compatibility not-so-much, she reduces divorce lawyers to a cultural cliché, a rhetorical prop. Ms. Graham asks herself "...are there certain jobs where a certain level of jerkiness is an asset?" In mock seriousness we suppose, she answers:
"Divorce lawyers, maybe. I've heard it said that you should never hire one that you like."
We do not say that there are not divorce lawyers who are irritating, difficult, even unlikable. We know a few. Some of them make a pretty good living, too. But, does this make "jerkiness an asset"? In the perverse sense that being difficult to deal with sometimes does make divorce cases longer and more than necessarily complex, and therefore more profitable for the lawyers, can that really be said to be an advantage for the client? Our answer is: "almost never".
Liking your divorce lawyer is no substitute for hiring one who is smart, skilled and measured; but most clients most of the time benefit most from competent counsel with whom they wouldn't mind breaking bread, too. In a relationship that begins with faith and is built on trust, confidence and a sense of pride in being publicly represented by this person, likability matters. It matters in the feelings engendered in the client (often while absorbing unavoidable disappointment), in the opposing spouse, in forensic specialists, in courthouse personnel and -- very much so -- in judges who decide cases.
As divorce mediators and family law arbitrators, we are much aware not only of the competent service that we try to provide, but also the quality of the experience for the lawyers and clients who work with us. In our corner of the business, jerkiness surely does not pay. We know that we see a self-selecting population of clients and counsel -- those who have opted out of the more confrontational or extreme forms of dispute resolution, so we see little of the reprehensible few that Ms. Graham damns with disingenuous praise. But, the cause of one brilliant jerk doesn't justify smearing an entire craft, and it certainly didn't add credibility to the Graham piece.
Now, about journalists...