Whether it is because of 24-hour cable news networks, social media or the “reality show” of the recent presidential election, and events since the election, politics is taking over. “Did you see what Sean Hannity said on Fox News last night?” or “Did you hear what Kellyanne Conway said to Anderson Cooper?” have replaced water cooler talk about television shows. Historically, TV shows were a safe topic at the office, while politics was taboo.
In 2017, however, it seems impossible to avoid, at minimum, being surrounded by political discussions in the office, particularly in law firms where passionate debate and expressing derision for faulty arguments are all in a day’s work. With politics being an inevitable topic of conversation, the question for attorneys, particularly younger attorneys who generally may feel the need to display deference to more senior attorneys, is how and when to express an opinion. Navigating the “dos” and “don’ts” of politics in the office (or even around the family holiday table) may be more difficult than navigating an initial interview. While being respectful is common sense, engaging in respectful political dialogue is more difficult.
Do: Acknowledge that your objective in a political discussion is not to change the other party’s opinion.
As poll after poll have suggested, whether you are a supporter or opponent of the current presidential administration, very few people are likely to change their overall opinion of the president. Supporters acknowledge that they cannot imagine what the president could do to cause them to withdraw their support while detractors recognize that there is nothing the president could do to win their approval. Any discussion with a colleague regarding the president’s policies or actions should not be an attempt to discredit his or her opinion or to convince them to change their mind, which would prove futile and only lead to an unproductive exchange.
Don’t: Use the phrase, “How could anyone?!?!”
Whether it was President Donald Trump’s victory in the Electoral College or Hillary Clinton’s victory in the popular vote, what is clear is that millions of people approved of and supported each candidate. Therefore, while many people believed that their candidate was far superior to the other or that the other candidate’s flaws were so obvious that no one could support that candidate, clearly, nearly an equal percentage of the population was able to support and oppose each candidate. Therefore, believing that everyone you work with shares your beliefs is as fundamentally flawed as believing that the outcome of the 2016 election was impossible.
Do: Take note of who is silent.
When sitting around a conference room table or having lunch with colleagues, and the conversation turns to politics, if one colleague sits in silence, do not confuse the silence for a lack of interest. Perhaps the colleague is silent as he or she does not want to engage in a heated discussion, does not want to draw attention to the fact that he or she holds an opinion contrary to what is being expressed, or simply because he or she is following the traditional practice of not discussing politics at work. As in any conversation where one potential participant is silent, the best approach is to simply change the subject.
Don’t: Ask who your colleagues voted for.
Age, weight and voting preference have generally been the trio of forbidden topics. While it may appear obvious who voted for which candidate based on opinions expressed, there is still an unspoken rule that how (or if) a vote is cast is off limits.
Do: Be prepared.
With the ever-increasing availability of news sources, including pop-up notifications on smartphones, it is easier than ever to be well informed. It is also easier to only hear headlines or soundbites and not delve deeper into the story. Given the new phenomenon of “fake news,” it is more important than ever to be prepared to defend your position and to give details about the news story. Law firm conversations, and even family dinners, are becoming more like courtrooms during cross-examination. As discussed above, it is highly unlikely that a solid supporter of one position or one candidate will change his or her mind; however, they will more likely respect a contrary opinion if it is well thought out and supported by facts. The moment the response becomes “I don’t know, I just saw it on Facebook” or “well, I didn’t actually read the story,” credibility is lost. Better to simply say, “I haven’t read the story yet, so I can’t comment” than to offer an opinion that cannot be substantiated.
Do: Finally, know the correct time to express a political opinion.
Larger law firms often host campaign fundraisers for political candidates, particularly judicial candidates and candidates for local office. Presumably, the event is held at the law firm, or sponsored by the firm, when the firm’s partners personally support the candidate. If you do not support the candidate, depending on the level of opposition, a response might ordinarily be to protest the candidate in some form, including by publicly asking the candidate pointed questions, or by inviting the opposing candidate to a separate event. However, the “office politics” associated with the event may preclude expressing any opposition to the candidate. The safest options are to simply skip the event (or if attendance is implicitly mandatory, attend the event for the sake of staying informed) or to host or attend an event for the candidate you support outside of the firm.
Recall that what makes a law firm successful is, in large part, its diversity, whether diversity of backgrounds, opinions or talents. Expressing a political opinion may not be met with a chorus of “amens,” no matter how similar the colleague might appear on paper, but instead may be met with opposition, sparking fiery debate—and, if there are two willing participants, the debate may be precisely what lawyers were trained to do in law school.
YL Editorial Board Members: Leigh Ann Benson, Geneva Brown, Rachel Dichter, Rigel Farr, Scott J.G. Finger, Sarah Goodman, Thomas Gushue, Kevin Harden, Jae Kim, Kandis Kovalsky, Ginene Lewis, Kacey Mordecai, Bethany Nikitenko, Juliann Schwegler, Royce Smith, Rob Stanko, chairman, Jeffrey Stanton, Shohin Vance and Meredith Wooters.