February 19, 2021 • By Dennis Beaver
“Mr. Beaver, your article on how to start a law practice really got my attention. I am also a recent law graduate and was just sworn in as a member of our state’s bar association,” “Nancy” emailed.
“As a few law firms are hiring to Covid-19, I opened my own office, phoned and visited several local attorneys, introducing myself and offering to take on work they did not want to handle.
“Much to my shock, a couple of these lawyers have been spreading untrue statements about me, claiming that I am incompetent and lack real world experience. That’s not true, as I worked as law clerk thoughout law school and handled some matters in court.
“I don’t mind competition, but outright lies are something different! Do you have any recommendations on dealing with this situation, especially if it causes me to lose a client. Should I consider a suit for defamation?”
“Remember Richard Nixon saying I am not a crook”
I ran her question by three friends of this column, Lyle Sussman PhD, Professor Emeritus at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, David Schein, PhD, Associate Dean & Director of Graduate Programs at University of St. Thomas-Houston, and Dr. Luis Vega, Psychology professor at California State University, Bakersfield.
Sussman: The way to launch your private practice is not to march off to court and sue other lawyers for defamation. Where there is no excuse for spreading falsehoods, law is not a profession known for its nice guys. A thick skin goes – or should go – with the territory. Contrast that with health care, where it is rare for physicians to say anything about other doctors.
Nancy’s best defense is to build a reputation for quality legal services, and not call attention to herself with even the threat of a lawsuit. What comes to mind when Richard Nixon’s presidency is mentioned? It is his statement, “I am not a crook,” which translated to, “Oh yes, I am a really big crook!”
Schein: Another reason you really see licensed professionals – for example, lawyers, doctors, CPA’s – filing defamation lawsuits, is the need to prove damages, such as lost business. Nancy would have to show their comments resulted in the loss of clients, unless she was accused of violating the law, where proving a financial loss is not required.
That said, while I could not imagine a lawyer posting a false review of her, if someone in the community did, that would call for immediate action such as:
1 – A letter or online demand that the person remove the post;
2 – An online response firmly denying the accusations, and;
3 – Contacting the website itself, insisting upon the post being removed.
Sussman: Nancy’s focus should be on how to respond if asked her opinion of other lawyers in town. These can be moments where her own credibility gets a real boost by not denigrating her competition.
You Own Image is Not Helped by Putting down Colleagues
I asked both business Profs for their suggestions on how to respond if a potential client with a big case says, “I’ll also be interviewing the XYZ law firm next week. What is your opinion of them?”
Schein: Be truthful. If you consider them to be competent and do good work, say so. If you have heard of them but have no personal knowledge of their abilities or reputation, say that as well. But don’t bash them out of fear of losing this potential client.
Sussman: Unless you have actual knowledge they are in trouble, bad mouthing a competitor is a negative reflection on you. It is human nature to have more respect for someone who says, “They are good people,” instead of, “They are jerks. Stay away!” When we attack a competitor, questions about our motivation surface.
A Psychologist’s View
To psychology professor Dr. Luis Vega, “Negative comments and put-downs-why we badmouth someone or gossip-all have biological and psychological roots explaining why we are more likely to find fault instead of praising someone.
“Just ask, ‘What is more important to know, those plants and berries that are safe to eat, or those which will make us sick?” We know the answer, intuitively; negative outcomes outweigh positive.
“The same reasoning applies to reputation. Most people would rather be warned of someone’s dishonesty than led to believe the opposite. When the comments are false, how the victim responds is key to their future credibility.
“We risk our own well-being by seeking vengeance and getting even with those who criticize us unless it is absolutely necessary.” Vega maintains, and concluded our chat with this common sense advice:
“If you are the victim-model and demonstrate good behavior. Highlight your positive side. Do not stoop to their level.”
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.