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sutton’s “no-asshole-rule” works pro se, too


donkeyS  There will almost certainly be much discussion this week of Robert I Sutton, Ph.D’s new book “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t” (Warner Business Books, release date Feb. 22, 2007).  At law-related weblogs, the talk will be spurred by Sutton’s identically-titled article in the latest American Lawyer, which was also posted this weekend at (Feb. 20, 2007).  Sutton is a professor of management science at Stanford University.  He argues that “assholes” are bad for business, regardless of their individual effectiveness.

In a favorable book review at Life at the Bar, Julie Fleming Brown explains:

NoAssholeRule “According to Bob, an asshole is one who oppresses, humiliates, de-energizes, or belittles his target (generally someone less powerful then himself), causing the target to feel worse about herself following an interaction with the asshole.  (And, as his examples prove, this behavior is not by any means limited to male perpetrators or female victims.)  These jerks use tactics such as personal insults, sarcasm and teasing as vehicles for insults, shaming, and treating people as if they’re invisible to demean others.  Sutton distinguishes temporary assholes . . . from certified assholes, who routinely show themselves to be nasty people.  The latter, he argues, must go [from the workplace].

  • The book offers a 24-question self-test to see if you are “a certifiable asshole.” You can take Sutton’s Asshole Rating Self-Exam (ARSE) at Guy Kawasaki’s ElectricPulp website.  I expect webloggers will be tagging eachother to find out the results. Let me say in advance that I do not plan to take the test (much less reveal my results). 

Although the book deals with all sorts of jobs, it can be no surprise that many people think about lawyers when they hear reference to Sutton’s title character.  In his weblog post “American Lawyer on THE NO A**HOLE RULE” (Feb. 11, 2007), Sutton notes that doctors appear to be more abusive in the workplace than lawyers, but nevertheless explains that “there are some special challenges for law firms that want to enforce the rule.” He concludes, “Indeed, you might say that one key to law firm management is learning how to turn your assholes on and off!”  [Over at f/k/a, you can find my fuller treatment of Lawyers and the No Asshole Rule.]

In another posting, “Lawyers and The No Asshole Rule (Feb. 15, 2007), Sutton says that lawyers are naturally interested in The No Asshole Rule.  He quotes from a 2004 piece by Aric Press, editor of American Lawyer, suggesting that law firms do “jerk audits.”  One reason for the difficulty in applying The Rule within law firms is that “people hire lawyers to be tough and nasty –to do their dirty work.  But people who are best suited for such work aren’t always capable of turning off their venom when they deal with staff members and fellow attorneys.”

DeleteButtonN Sutton is right that many people hire lawyers “to help intimidate rivals . . . through demeaning interpersonal moves meant to unnerve and intimidate opponents — dirty looks, put-downs, teasing, glaring, and intense eye contact.”  As he suggests, there may even be times when those skills may help a lawyer “in the courtroom, a deposition, or a negotiation when used at just the right moment.”  However, I want to stress that such tactics will virtually always harm the cause of any pro se litigant. 

shlep recommends a self-imposed No Asshole Rule: donkeyS

  • Acting like a jerk in the courthouse (whether to opposing counsel or the other party, to the judge, or to court personnel) is contrary to the interests of the self-represented litigant — no matter how good it may make you feel momentarily, it can only hurt your case (and could get you held in contempt of court). As noted in our prior post, the Canadian Judicial Council’s recently-promulgated Statement of Principles on Self-Represented Litigants (Dec. 2006, 12 pp, pdf) explicitly state:  “Judges and court administrators have no obligation to assist a self-represented person who is disrespectful, frivolous, unreasonable, vexatious, abusive, or making no reasonable effort to prepare their own case.”
  • The No Asshole Rule also applies outside the courthouse during the pendency of your case, as well as in the time period leading up to the litigation and after an order is entered.  If you act like a jerk to your opponent or opposing counsel, you can expect to hear the tale retold in pleadings or statements (including testimony) to the court, in the initial proceeding or when your opponent brings you back for violating an order, or seeks an amended order based on your misbehaving.  It is diffiult to imagine how the information will help you with the judge.
  •  As Sutton points out, the “nasty but neutral” defense is unlikely to assist you. “Equal opportunity assholes,” who demean people routinely regardless of race, gender, age — and regardless of pending litigation — shouldn’t count on throwing themselves upon the mercy of the court based on their inherent personality trait or genetic deficiencies.  (see this Littler article, Nov. 2004) 

DeleteButtonG  A decade spent watching parties (and lawyers) act like jerks in family court convinces me that assholetry is a losing strategy.   I’m embarrassed to say that I once told a newbie lawyer (who had just performed in an amazingly strident, over-the-top manner before the judge), “John, you don’t have to act like an asshole to be a good lawyer.”  That remark in the Lawyers’ Lounge was out of line, or at least should have be said in a way that would not humiliate the recent law school graduate.  Nonetheless, I am going to say right here to all pro se litigants, “No matter what you think effective lawyers do in a courtroom, you do not have to act like a jerk to be a strong advocate for yourself.  Don’t forget The No Asshole Rule.”

  • p.s.  Admittedly, it can at times be difficult not to respond in kind to the jerky behavior of your opponent.  This President’s Weekend, you might try “learning from Abe Lincoln’s thick skin.”

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