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Nothing But The Ruth!

Wheaton’s Law

By Ruth Carter

Whether you’re dealing with your opposing counsel, a colleague at your firm or any other professional, Wheaton’s Law should always apply. The law was coined by Wil Wheaton, who you may know from his work on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “The Big Bang Theory.” The law is simple: “Don’t be a dick.

Wheaton came up with this rule while playing online video games, often against 14-year-old punk kids who had a tendency to question his sexual orientation and insult his mother. But it applies to every situation.

You would think Wheaton’s Law should be standard practice for all lawyers, but the horde of horror stories paints a different picture. There are lawyers who think less of anyone who is not a lawyer. And there are the ones who procrastinate on their work before dumping it on an associate — giving them a day to complete a project that requires a week. Then there are the lawyers who get into screaming matches during depositions.

Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be staunch advocates for our clients. It is possible to be ardent on behalf of a client while being polite and respectful that our adversary has the obligation to do the same for their client. You can be a dedicated advocate without acting like an ass.

It seems to me the only lawyers who can get away with being this arrogant, long term, are those who are beyond brilliant, so good at what they do that clients and other lawyers just put up with their behavior. These lawyers must have to accept, and almost embrace, the fact that no one likes them. They have to be the legal world’s answer to Dr. House (who isn’t a real person, so you probably shouldn’t emulate him).

As for the rest of us, we have to play nice in the proverbial sandbox, or no one will want to play with us.

If you act like an arrogant know-it-all, people aren’t going to send you referrals, and they won’t give you a positive recommendation if you want to change firms. Also, your opponent today may be your colleague in the future. If you’re a dick to them now, they may paint a much different picture of you than your glowing resume portrays.

I don’t work at a big firm, so I asked a fellow lawyer, @thenambypamby, about what happens when you’re the dick of the firm. He told me, “The general rule is what goes around, comes around.” Besides being despised by colleagues and the opposition, if you’re a partner, you could be voted out. Your partners will hit you where it hurts — in your wallet and your ego.

The most ironic thing about this topic is we work in a service industry. We work on behalf of our clients. It’s not about us, it’s about them. If you wonder whether you’re toeing the line between being decent and being a dick (because the real ones will never read this post), here’s a handy three-question test that will help you decide when you should say something … and when you should shut up.

Disclaimer: I’m not a spokesperson for Wil Wheaton or Wheaton’s Law. I just like them.

Illustration ©iStockPhoto.com

Updated December 2019 from a post originally published in 2013.

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Ruth B. Carter Ruth Carter

Ruth Carter — lawyer, writer and professional speaker — is Of Counsel with Venjuris, focusing on intellectual property, business, internet and flash mob law. Named an ABA Journal Legal Rebel, Ruth is the author of “The Legal Side of Blogging for Lawyers,” as well as “Flash Mob Law: The Legal Side of Planning and Participating in Pillow Fights, No Pants Rides, and Other Shenanigans.” Ruth blogs at UndeniableRuth.com and tweets @rbcarter.

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