Professionalism Over Politics
There is an old adage that says there are two things you never discuss in polite company: politics and religion. In this era of hyper-partisanship and social media, politics seems to have worked its way into every corner of our lives. From COVID-19 (wearing masks and making vaccination decisions) to views on election fraud and half-baked conspiracies, we are experiencing an eagerness to discuss, challenge or confront opposing views.
Oh, how I long for the good old days.
Though we cannot yet escape this new reality, we can develop tools and tactics to minimize the impact it has on our professional lives.
In order to maintain a high level of professionalism, I have used the below tools to avoid stepping into political minefields with opposing counsel and colleagues.
Example: Assume during a meet and confer on scheduling, opposing counsel responds that your timeline only works if “the knucklehead Trumpers get vaccinated and the courts stay open.”
Tool to use: Clear Pivot and Stern Signal
The only valid part of this response is the contingency that the courts remain open. If you quickly take control over the conversation and pivot back to purpose of the discussion, you will signal both a serious commitment on the topic, but also a refusal to “go there”.
Something like, “assuming the courts remain open, you would agree to this timeline?” In many cases, the speaker is just looking to enflame a situation or create an opportunity to add their political commentary, perhaps to test your own views.
When someone starts down a longer politically charged path, a clear pivot can be simply asking, “Can I interrupt? We need to talk about XYZ.” By stopping the conversation and shifting attention back to a nonpolitical topic, it allows you to sidestep the uncomfortable topic or commentary.
Tool Two: Defuse in Private
Maybe a more direct example is when opposing counsel acts upon their views, as opposed to discussing them. You arrive at a deposition, with clear COVID protocols in place for all attendees to wear face masks but opposing counsel refuses to wear a mask claiming masks infringe his civil liberties and are “part of a vast conspiracy to turn us all into sheeple.”
One approach would be to openly confront the violation of the protocol. This may be the most direct path to determine their resolve on the issue. If they want to grandstand or debate the issue, you fall into their trap. Someone looking to grandstand will often rethink their position privately. Therefore, another approach would be to ask to speak with counsel in private, aside from the witness, reporter and others. In a private conversation you can rationalize with them that the protocols were set by the court or agreed to in advance and if they will not comply, that the depo will not take place. There is not an immediate need to take it to the judge, or seek sanctions, but they need to comply like everyone else, or their day is over.
Tool Three: Defer to an Appropriate Time and Place
Sometimes people just want to debate or have an open discussion. After all, is that not one of the key traits that led so many of us to become lawyers in the first place? When you want to respectfully disagree with someone, but not engage in the political discussion at that time or place, it makes sense to acknowledge their commentary and invite them to continue it with you at a more appropriate time or place. What to say: “That’s an interesting point you make. I happen to differ in my opinion, but we can discuss this after the deposition at the coffee shop.” Alternatively, you can say: “This isn’t something I want to talk about anymore. Can we please move on?”
It takes practice and patience to avoid falling into political traps these days. Hopefully these tools can help you stay the course and keep things professional.
James Young, an attorney with Morgan & Morgan's Complex Litigation Group, serves on the Bar's Committee on Professionalism.