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Teaching Pigs to Sing

Elizabeth S. Pagel, PLLC Aug. 7, 2016

For as long as I can remember, my father had a wooden sign hanging in his kitchen that said, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and annoys the pig.” When I was growing up I never gave it much thought; my dad had silly signs all over his house, and this was just one of them. When he passed away in 2010, I kept the pig sign as a memento. It now hangs in my law office, but it now has meaning.

As an attorney I’ve come to learn that most attorneys with whom I deal are professional, courteous, respectful, and civil. But occasionally I have to deal with someone who embodies none of those qualities. In my early days, I tried to change them. I thought that I could “kill ‘em with kindness,” that if I bent over backwards to treat them the way I wanted to be treated, they would eventually come around and, well, be nice. It rarely works.

Some of these attorneys seem to believe that an aggressive, even belligerent, attitude works for them. Maybe they think it shows their clients how zealously they are advocating for them. Maybe it helps them to feel in control of the situation. But sometimes they just seem to enjoy it. As hard as it is for me to understand, some people just like being mean. And getting them to change is as difficult as teaching a pig to sing—and just as hopeless an endeavor. I read an account several years ago of an attorney who was rude and belligerent to opposing counsel, the court—everyone involved in a particular case. His client lost the case. He was sued for malpractice and lost. He was eventually disbarred. And at the end, he stated that he had no regrets, that he would not change a thing about his behavior. Dysfunctional behavior was a conscious choice that he made.

Some of my clients have to learn this about the opposing party to their case. They want to be reasonable, amicable, reach an agreement, settle things quickly, but their spouse or former spouse wants to fight. My clients often ask me, “Why does she act like this?” “Doesn’t he realize that all he’s doing is running up legal fees for both of us?” And the answer is, I don’t know! But if the other party to a case, or that party’s attorney, insists on acting this way, there’s probably nothing anyone can do about it. You can’t teach a pig to sing.

The only person I have any control over is me. I made the decision years ago that I would treat everyone-clients, opposing attorneys, opposing parties, judges, court staff, employees, everyone-with dignity and respect. If I can grant a favor to opposing counsel without harming my client, I’m going to do it. If someone wants to yell at me, fine—but I’m not going to respond in kind. “A soft answer turneth away wrath,” in many cases. (Proverbs 15:1) Even if it doesn’t, no good comes—and certainly no benefit to my client—if I lose my temper or behave badly.

I can’t teach a pig to sing. But I’m not going to get down and wallow in the mud with him, either.