Actors often admit that a dozen good reviews can fade from memory but one stinker will linger and worm itself deep into the recesses of their psyche, gnawing away at their self-confidence, forever.

So, perhaps, does the unkindness of strangers when you’re a newly called barrister.

I was sitting in the robing room, sticking multicoloured tabs on my bundle. We still had paper bundles then, so you know this story is from long ago.

I felt a shadow fall over me. I looked up to see a tall woman in a ‘too short for court skirt’ glaring down.

‘So, what’s your case?’ she demanded. No greeting. No introductions.

Startled, I obediently laid out my case. It was a strong one. Surely she would recognise that and drop any futile opposition to it?

‘Is that it?’ she sneered. My confidence in my case began to wobble. Perhaps it wasn’t so solid?

‘What else?’ she barked.

I laid out my winning points. She snorted. My wobble toppled over in the face of her derision and lay smashed on the floor.

The solicitor for the children joined us. Short Skirt was suddenly all smiles and charm.

‘And what does the Children’s Guardian say?’ she simpered. They began to discuss the case. I tried to join the conversation. Short Skirt pointedly turned her back on me. Since she was taller than me, she also blocked my view of the solicitor. I had to scramble round her to see him. Each time I tried to speak, she talked over me, like I was an irritating, buzzing fly she had to raise her voice to drown out.

I went into the hearing bowed and humiliated, no longer sure of my open and shut case. Or even of my place in it. Perhaps the case was beyond me? How would I withstand the devastating cross-examination Short Skirt would undoubtedly unleash on my witnesses? Was I even in the right career?

In the event I succeeded in the case. Short Skirt turned out to be something of a damp squib when it came to the crunch. Even so, I didn’t have the courage, at the time, to stand up to her.

Now, of course I know of such things as robing room bullying tactics. I know that when advocates demand to know your case, it’s usually because they haven’t read the papers and literally want to know the case against them without troubling themselves to read it.

I know too that their rudeness is an attempt to intimidate. I also know that some experienced advocates deliberately target young, new colleagues in this way.

But back then I was still finding my feet in an already intimidating profession.

Short Skirt pressed every insecurity button she could find in me, hit every nerve of uncertainty I possessed and watched me implode.

In a funny way, though, I learnt from her. Learnt how not to behave. I told myself that, when I was more senior, I would never treat a newbie the way she had treated me. 

I later learnt that she had various personal problems. It didn’t excuse her rudeness but it helped me understand possible causes for it. Who knows what private fears and insecurities she had lugged into our encounter that morning?

But I had feelings too. The fact I can still recall the incident, years later, suggests her belittling behaviour wounded me.

Rudeness can be a display of disrespect. Or a display of power. It can be a violent reflection of the person’s inner stress or unhappiness, taken out on someone else because they can’t take it out on the real cause or person.

The effect on the person at the receiving end can be severe. Sometimes even seemingly minor rudeness can trigger deep feelings of low self-esteem in us that our facade of confidence keeps hidden.

Colleagues who come to me for career coaching will mention a bad experience at court, in passing. They usually start by minimising the incident. However, when we explore it further, it becomes clear that the effect on them has been significant. So, we may have to look further back, into early experiences to explain the current impact. Each person’s experience has to be looked at individually but here are some general tips:

  • Say something at the time: Don’t let your anger and upset fester, so that it sinks into your bones to become an exposed nerve for you later. Instead of fantasising, after the event, about all the caustic retorts you should have slung out, it’s better to say something simple in the moment. Perhaps something along the lines of ‘We’re all here to do the best for our clients, being rude doesn’t help.’ Or you can be firmer and say, ‘I won’t be spoken to like that, please stop.’
  • However you word your response, remain polite: Although it may be difficult not to lash out with something equally rude, a calm but firm response is far better. As they say, once you respond to anger and discourtesy with anger and discourtesy, you’ve lost the argument. So, try not to let the situation escalate into a spiralling missile of anger. It will only cast an unpleasant shadow over the entire hearing. Do you really want to wake up each morning dreading going to court because you know it’s going to be an ugly battle outside the courtroom? 
  • This may be even harder… but don’t take it personally: I doubt Short Skirt gave me a second thought once we finished the case or even specifically targeted me. I just happened to be the inexperienced opponent she came across that day. We simply don’t know what is going on in someone else’s life to make them behave the way they do. We can only let them know that it’s unacceptable behaviour. We can even be kind and calming towards them. If they are a decent person going through a bad time, they may apologise, either then or later. And if they are just plain unpleasant, you’ll know for next time and also have the satisfaction of knowing that you gave them a chance and didn’t lower yourself to their level. Being the better person can be frustrating, but in the long run it works to your advantage professionally and personally.
  • Be the opponent you would like to be against: Be the lawyer who is well prepared, polite and a pleasure to be against. You’ll be remembered for it. Even if no one says anything at the time, word gets around. Advocates often ask each other what X is like. Court staff notice the nice lawyers and the not so nice ones. And yes, word does get back to judges too.
  • Walk away: If you’ve tried to defuse the situation, remained polite, even tried humour but the person continues with their behaviour, just walk away. You don’t need to soak up their turmoil. Simply turn on your heel and walk away. Or tell them you’re going to walk away until they can behave better. If they calm down, you can resume the discussion. If they don’t, just go into court. Tell the judge you were unable to have constructive discussions and put your case.
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