Practice law long enough, and you will generate a list of folks who wish you ill. Some will be parties who have suffered as a result of your work in a courtroom. Some will be lawyers unable to accept that there are winners and losers in intellectual combat. Some will be former clients, whose expectations you could not meet. You might even have your life threatened from time to time. The world, you learn, is an unforgiving place.
Wise lawyers shrug it off. You do your job. You fight. You win. You lose. And at the end of the day, you pack your briefcase and head home to rest up for another day. Our system of justice is, after all, adversarial. Good lawyers have enemies lists.
It pays to develop a thick skin, if you can. Mine is unusually thick, an occupational hazard of writing weekly columns for this newspaper longer now than I can recall. I recently added a weekly column in the Journal Register Company newspapers, and appear in the New Haven Register, The Middletown Press, and the Torrington Register Citizen, and other papers. Some weeks, the slings and arrows whirr.
A candid confession? I rarely read the barbs. Why bother?
I was reminded of this not long ago when one of the stars of the Connecticut bar wrote me privately to chastise me for unkind thoughts I wrote about the University of Connecticut's law school's perpetual identity crisis, and its decision to install as a new dean a white collar practitioner. The school celebrated the hiring as a decision to pay heed to the needs of practitioners. I thought the move silly: sort of like promising to pack a jar of Gray Poupon mustard in the lunch bag of every school kid.
His emails were packed full of the very sort of snarky invective he accused me of. He wanted the communication with me kept confidential. It was almost as though he couldn't help himself. He needed to tell me off, but didn't want to be caught at it. I ended the communication by inviting him to enjoy some safe sex in words that aren't suitable for these pages.
I'd forgotten all about him until a week or so ago. A client asked me about a hostile online review he read on a lawyer rating service. I looked up the reference. Ouch. A former client managed to post — twice. He accused me of all manner of things, telling, of course, only the side of the story that made him look like the worst sort of victim.
My inclination was to ignore him — to put him in the same ash heap as the secretive correspondent so intent on defending UConn's honor, so long as he doesn't get caught doing so. But then I realized I was in a no-win situation. A former client had taken to the Internet to cause me harm. He posted his claim anonymously, of course. But the context makes it clear who he is. The attorney-client privilege prohibits me from defending myself. What to do in such a case? I contacted the rating service to report the post as defamatory. So far, no response. The service attracts raters by posting links inviting others to warn others against bad lawyers.
So I asked a few former clients to post their thoughts on my representation. In a week, I had gone from a "poor" rating to an "excellent" rating. Oddly, the rating service is sitting on some of the good comments, "pending review."
I spent an hour or so scanning the lists of Connecticut lawyers. It was as I suspected: family court and criminal defense lawyers dominate the lists. The possessors of broken dreams spew all manner of invective against the lawyer who could not rescue them. I was surprised at how poorly some lawyers I admire were rated.
So thick skin or not, I say check what's being said about you online. Some of it will hurt. You will know who said it, but you can't defend yourself against the critic without violating your professional duties. Your skin can be as thick as a sun-dried alligator's, but in the online free-for-all of lawyer ratings, potential clients read and heed the words of folks who wish you nothing but ill. In those cases, it just might pay to fight back. •