A Dozen Practice Tips, Via Aphorisms

Don't count your chickens before they're hatched.

Although a word to the wise is sufficient, to be on the safe side, I am providing the following 775 words for your edification. This is not because I assume you are unwise, but because a little learning is a dangerous thing, and a job worth doing is worth doing well, or something like that.

Below are 12 popular aphorisms that relate well to the practice of law. Of course, experience is the best teacher, and actions speak louder than words, so you’ll need to take these with a grain of salt until you’ve walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and put your money where your mouth is. Until then, remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. This phrase from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Self-Reliance” is often misquoted by leaving out “foolish,” which turns it into kind of a dumb thing to say. Anyway, when used properly it means this: Using the same argument for a motion you bring frequently, or evaluating the facts of a case based on your experience with similar cases, is sound, non-foolish consistency. Using the same argument after the law has changed, or evaluating a case erroneously assuming the facts are the same as your last case is foolish consistency.

2. It’s no use beating a dead horse. The older I get, the dumber it seems to spend time fighting dead issues, which is often just an attempt at ego salvation — and  usually unsuccessful. Much better to stop wasting time and get on with the stuff you can still do something about.

3. A watched pot never boils. In all the times I’ve sat around staring at a file, neither the file nor I have ever gotten anything done. Likewise, the more time I’ve spent fretting about whether a staff member, colleague, or client is doing what they’re supposed to do, the less I’ve gotten done myself. But by some magic, when I put my full attention into what I’m supposed to be doing, everyone else seems to do the same.

4. A gentle answer turns away wrath. But a harsh word stirs up anger. From Proverbs 15:1, this is the kind of advice most people assume lawyers pointedly ignore. But most of the really good, experienced lawyers I know have learned this lesson. And it’s not a sign of weakness. In fact, having a calm, reasoned response in a tense situation allows you to both show respect and gain the upper hand in many situations.

5. A word to the wise is sufficient. Of course, the key word here is “wise.” Unfortunately, few of us who are either dispensing or consuming words are as wise as we like to think, which is why it’s taking me 775 words to get across what I’m trying to say, even using aphorisms.

6. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. This is the most concise explanation for why we have the discovery process in litigation. Be thankful for the discovery rules and revel in their awesome beauty.

7. Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. This has all sorts of applications for lawyers: Don’t count your fees until the client’s check clears; don’t count your clients until they’ve all signed the fee agreement; don’t count your victories until the appeals are over. You get the idea.

8. The bad workman always blames his tools. And the bad lawyer always blames his associates, staff, computer, judge, clients, et al when things go bad.

9. He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword. Yes, there are lawyers out there who have done quite well with a scorched-earth approach to litigation and even client relations. But I wonder how many lawyers on their deathbeds think, “I just wish I would have been more of a jackass when I had the chance.”

10. One picture is worth a thousand words. One of the more modern and literal of aphorisms, it fits perfectly with today’s practice of law. With the prevalence of multimedia and the shrinking of our collective attention spans, it’s more important than ever to get messages across with visual representations whenever possible, whether in trial, mediation, client conferences, or staff meetings.

11. All things come to those who wait. This does not apply to statutes of limitations. If you wait until those go by, the only things that will be coming are a bar grievance and malpractice claim.

12. Brevity is the soul of wit. From Shakespeare’s Hamlet, one of my favorite sayings — and the ideal way to conclude a blog post.

Add your favorite (or least favorite) aphorism to the list in the comments below!