Leadership Skill: Anger Management

This is a true story.  Trial had finally started.  Richard listened patiently as Nathan gave his opening statement.  When he finished, Nathan sat down at his counsel table.  When Richard stood to offer his opening, Nathan crooked his finger to beckon Richard over.  Motioning Richard to lean down, Nathan turned his body so they were face-to-face just inches apart, but neither the judge nor the jury could see Nathan’s lips.  Grinning broadly, Nathan whispered “&%$@ you,” then leaned back in his chair – leaving the court and the jury with the impression that they’d just shared a friendly, collegial exchange.  Richard, seething throughout his opening, never quite found his rhythm.

Lawyers who are or aspire to be leaders must learn to self-manage.  The skill of self-management includes essentially anything that promotes the one’s best self: the habits that create sufficient energy, emotional resilience, and mental focus.  Especially when stressed or under pressure, it’s easy to let some aspects of self-management slide.  For example, some attorneys I know offer a blanket apology to staff and colleagues — something like, “I’m feeling stressed, so please excuse me if I blow up or yell at you or throw things, ok?”  I don’t recommend that approach; it’s better than nothing, I suppose, but it’s actually announcing that bad behavior is coming, apparently largely unchecked.

Lawyers are all too often faced with galling statements, actions, arguments, and behavior.  As the opening vignette shows, sometimes the irritation is extreme.  Some lawyers’ litigation tactics includes making an effort to find their opponents’ hot buttons: push the button and out pops an ugly, crazy person – not someone a jury would respect or believe. (Same goes for witnesses, too.)

So how can you handle it when faced with provocation that would make the Buddha quiver with rage?  I suggest six steps that can help you maintain your focus and avoid an unconscious reaction.  These steps are simple, but they may be difficult to apply in the heat of the moment.  The more you practice them, however, the closer they’ll come to habit.

  1. Keep your attention on the motivation behind the provocation. Is the person who’s enraging you doing it intentionally, or is it a by-product of words or behavior that he likely thinks perfectly appropriate? If it’s the former, don’t give him the satisfaction of knowing he succeeded. If it’s the latter, consider whether displaying annoyance would stop the behavior or simply let your opponent know that he’s found a soft spot.
  1. Breathe. This is great advice for just about any charged situation, but it’s especially good for dealing with anger. Faced with provocation, you can react (which implies knee-jerk emotional feedback made without any reflection) or you can respond (which implies feedback that follows a pause and analysis/reflection to determine the best way to address the situation). Almost without exception, responding creates better results than reacting will, and breathing offers a chance for your to collect yourself and respond. There’s no reason why you can’t fall silent for a few seconds (even though the time may feel interminable to you and your opponent) while you work through your options.
  1. Speak softly. Most of us tend to raise our voices when we speak in anger. Therefore, it’s disarming to do the opposite and to speak more quietly. The effect is to appear reasonable and controlled (especially helpful if your opponent is ranting and raving and appearing to be out of control) and to force your opponent to listen carefully to hear what you have to say. I am informed that in Japanese culture, when two parties are arguing, the one who raises her voice first loses. It’s a difficult tactic for many of us to master, but if you can speak softly in the face of provocation, you will stand a much better chance of controlling your anger.
  1. Vent. Express your anger in some forum that poses no risk of exposing it. Writing can be helpful, but especially if you write an angry response to an email, be sure that you don’t accidentally send it!
  1. Exercise. That’s physical venting. When feasible, it’s a great idea to get up and take a walk instead of marinating in a situation that makes you angry.
  1. Selective, intentional release of anger. Sometimes, it’s absolutely appropriate to respond to provocation by expressing your anger at the person whose behavior has triggered it. But consider the consequences of such an expression. Will you disrupt a relationship? Do you stand to lose ground? Will your expressed anger cause the person to react in a way that will cause you even more trouble? And when you do choose to display anger, consider doing so through your words only but continuing to speak in a low, even tone of voice. That will reinforce the gravity of your words.

And, despite our best efforts at these tactics, all of us lose our tempers sometimes. When that happens, don’t be afraid to apologize and admit to being human.


Being busy has become a national obsession, and it certainly affects lawyers. We seem to have two speeds: frantic and fearful. We need to have a discussion about what might lie between these extremes, but an even more pressing question might be how to keep marketing going even when frantic.

You’ve no doubt heard that content is king for marketing, and there’s a simple reason: good content builds trust. Great content is easy to generate when you have plenty of spare time, but how do you keep up the flow of content when you’re frantic?

Re-purpose everything. When you do something, look for other ways to use that same content. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • An article can become multiple blog posts
  • Blog posts can be broken down into blurbs suitable for use on LinkedIn or Twitter
  • Any writing you do may yield a question suitable for opening a discussion in a LinkedIn group
  • Any presentation you make may be uploaded via SlideShare (being attentive to potential copyright questions) and you can reuse the presentation points as blog posts
  • Record a blog post, and you have a podcast (and podcasts are hot, hot, hot today—if they’re a good fit for your market)
  • Client questions can spur an article
  • Your reaction to a blog post or news story can yield a comment, which you might then expand into a blog post (as a guest, if you don’t have your own blog), an article, or a podcast 

When it comes to re-purposing, the sky is the limit. Make it your habit to ask, how else can I use this?

Even more importantly, ask where you can distribute it. Content won’t help you grow your practice unless it’s consumed by the right audience. Where it’s a fit for your practice, look for ways to appear in the relevant industry and popular media. And look for how you can use what you’ve done to build relationships as well.

What resources do you have that you can re-purpose now to extend your reach?

Tend relationships to grow your practice.

I’ve been doing a tremendous amount of business development coaching recently, and I often tell my clients that rainmaking is all about relationships.  I also tell clients that good relationships, personal or professional, should be nurtured – even that low-level employee of a corporate client may prove to be a valuable contact one day.  This past weekend confirmed that for me.

Clients sometimes question why I suggest maintaining friendships from college and law school, and the weekend offers the explanation.  I hosted a reunion for six of my closest friends from college last weekend.  Although we stay in touch by email and conference calls, we rarely see each other face-to-face.  I was struck by a realization as I looked around at my friends: we’ve come a long way since college.

Of the 6 of us, I’m the only lawyer.  Two are in high-level corporate positions, working with multiple law firms and (coincidentally) dealing with issues that were at the core of my interest when I was in practice.  And three of the women’s husbands (who are invited for co-ed get-togethers) are in corporate positions as well, responsible for hiring or coordinating efforts with lawyers for some aspects of the business.

The other three women are teachers, and each is also active in the community in some way.  One is a community actor and director who serves on several theatre boards in her city, another holds offices in various groups that her sons have joined, and the third is a leader in more community groups than I can count.  These women are well-connected.

In the years since college, we have all advanced in responsibility.  Through long history together, these friends (and their husbands) know, like, and trust me, as I do each of them.  If I were still in practice, these connections would be ripe for business development – not because I would “use” my friends to bring in clients, but because my friends would feel confident in hiring me (or others I recommend) and referring others to me.  (And here’s proof: a special “welcome” to the lawyers who have recently subscribed to this newsletter at the suggestion of one of my college friends – you know who you are!)  The reverse is, of course, true as well.

Multiple referrals have passed among us over the years, and anytime one of us needs to meet someone for business purposes, working through this extended network almost always gets results.  If any of us had judged whether these would be professionally fruitful relationships twenty years ago, the answer would probably have been no.  We were either poor graduate students or eager but hungry young teachers, hardly ready to refer business to anyone except perhaps a great restaurant.  Circumstances have certainly changed over time.  But my friends’ basic attributes have not: they’re sharp, nice, trustworthy, and service-oriented.  Those attributes have led them to success in a variety of businesses and relationships, and our connections are now fruitful professionally as well as personally.

This is only one example of how contacts grow.  The same is true of former colleagues, junior employees of corporate clients, and so on.  Regardless of where or how you meet, maintain connections with people you like and trust.  You cannot possibly know where life will take you and your contacts or how (or whether) connections will shift over time, but solid relationships often yield business or other useful resources.

A client recently told me that he wished he’d learned years ago to keep in touch with clients and friends at his peer level.  As you advance in experience and responsibility, so will your contacts.  In our mobile society, today’s low-level employee at one company may be tomorrow’s vice president at a competitor.

Coaching challenge: Think about good contacts (those whom you know, like, and trust) with whom you have not talked recently.  Pick up the phone today and reconnect with a few, or perhaps issue an invitation for lunch or coffee.  Nurture these relationships and you will likely find that they pay dividends over time.