Relationship with opposing attorneys—should it be adversarial or cooperative?

Author’s note: Litigation sometimes results in difficult relationships between attorneys.  This article is a reminder to myself as  much as it is a message to other attorneys and litigants. 

Clients involved in litigation want to be sure that their attorneys are representing their best interests and have no conflicting loyalties. Thus clients are understandably uneasy if their attorney and opposing counsel are too friendly. Clients have an image—reinforced by television and movies–of attorneys as a part of a “good old boys and girls” club—socializing together and swapping stories about clients. An attorney is obligated to have absolute loyalty to his or her client, and clients are often understandably anxious that friendship with opposing counsel might get in the way of that unequivocal obligation. Yet it is in clients’ best interest that opposing counsel maintain a relationship of trust. Without trust between attorneys, litigation becomes more contentious, time consuming and costly. During litigation there are countless issues that could be disputed or agreed upon—some that are important to the outcome of a case, but most that are not. For example, if an attorney asks for a postponement of a status conference because of a conflict with his or her schedule, opposing counsel should be able to trust the other attorney’s representation about the scheduling conflict, and consent to the postponement. Otherwise, time—and attorneys fees–will be spent objecting to the postponement, which will likely be granted anyway. Personal animosity toward another attorney, no matter how much it may seem justified, never helps the client or the client’s case. For example, if an attorney is obstructionist every step of the way in litigation, it does little good to be obstructionist in response. Objections from opposing counsel to requests for postponements, for example, should not be met with an attorney’s own objections to their requests for postponements, unless the objections are fully justified. The temptation is often great to respond in kind, but attorneys have a greater loyalty to a client’s best interest, which includes minimizing litigation costs and unnecessary disputes. Moreover, judges have little tolerance for disputes between attorneys. It does not help a client’s case if the judge perceives there is a personal conflict between attorneys. And, as much as an attorney would wish a judge would reprimand opposing counsel for bad behavior, it will rarely, if ever, happen. Judges consider such claims as unnecessary distractions, and often assume that either the accuser is, or at best, both attorneys are, at fault when there is a issue brought up before the court about another attorney’s misconduct. Thus lawyers who litigate must not only set aside personal animosities towards opposing counsel, but also actively attempt to be cordial and accommodating. That does not conflict with an attorney’s zealous representation of his or her client; it is in harmony with representing a client’s best interest.