‘The best law is founded upon reason, so are the best manners’ – how lawyers should prepare for interviews

Among lawyers and judges to have passed away in 2021, the most controversial was undoubtedly Sir Jeremiah Harman. Better known as Mr Justice Harman, he served as a judge of the High Court Chancery Division from 1982 until 1998, during which time he was known as a hectoring bully. Eventually forced to resign from the bench after a damning report into his handling of a damages case – the claimants had been kept waiting 20 months for a decision – three Court of Appeal judges found that his conduct “weakens public confidence in the whole judicial process”.

As a judge, Harman attracted significant media attention – often for the wrong reasons. On the lighter side, his courtroom one-liners reinforced the “out of touch” judicial stereotype, generating derision via a host of humorous headlines. In 1990, he claimed not to have heard of “Gazza” – the nickname for Paul Gascoigne who was particularly well-known at the time because of his World Cup performances. At a hearing during the height of World Cup media coverage, when asked to grant an injunction preventing an unauthorised biography of Gascoigne, Harman asked a QC in open court: “Is he a rugby or association footballer? Isn’t there an operetta called La Gazza Ladra?”

He later claimed similar ignorance of Oasis in 1996 when the Gallagher brothers were at the height of their fame. “I certainly have not heard of the band,” he said. “I don’t listen to bands.”

“Only three kinds of women”

On the darker side, Harman revealed himself to be a crass misogynist: when a female witness indicated that she preferred to be addressed as “Ms”, he told her: “I’ve always thought there were only three kinds of women: wives, whores and mistresses.” Things got physical in 1992 when Harman kicked a taxi driver in the groin after mistaking him for a press photographer. It earned him a media soubriquet of ‘the kicking judge’ after the footage was broadcast on BBC News. Harman’s unpopularity within the legal profession was reflected in him being voted as one of the worst High Court judges in three consecutive Legal Business surveys of solicitors and barristers.

Harman’s treatment of lawyers also gained him widespread notoriety within the profession. One prominent QC said: “He has reached unparalleled depths of awfulness. It is nothing short of an uncomfortable adventure to appear before him, and in terms of delivering justice he is nowhere. He is impolite. He is the judge I least want to appear in front of.” Another QC was quoted, anonymously, as saying that “he was dreadfully rude to people who are junior and inexperienced; discourteous and bullying”.

Harman was educated at Eton, a school where good manners used to be seen as de rigueur. But anti-Etonian sentiment has grown in recent years for various reasons. One prominent QC, himself an Old Wykehamist, mischievously suggested to me that Harman might have acquired better manners had he gone to Winchester, whose motto ‘Manners makyth man’ dates back to its foundation in 1382 – some 58 years before Eton opened its doors.  

Judicial good manners

Today, irrespective of where they went to school, very few lawyers could make it to the top of their profession without good manners. Certainly, no senior English (or Scottish) judge would ever demonstrate the same arrogant rudeness in court as Harman, either to counsel or to witnesses. Quite the opposite, they are exemplars of modesty, patience and good manners. Having been fortunate to meet senior judges over the years – from Denning and Taylor to Dyson and Sumption – they have been unfailingly polite, interested and interesting. And often helpful too. In this context, few would surpass Sir Robin Knowles whose unfailing courtesy is matched only by his unselfish desire to offer sound advice.   

The importance of good manners in the courtroom has a long history. Among the most notable publications to address the subject was ‘A treatise on good-manners and good-breeding’, written in 1758 by Jonathan Swift, the Anglo-Irish satirist who is best-known as the author of Gulliver’s Travels. His aphorisms stand the test of time.  ‘Good manners is the art of making those people easy with whom we converse,’ he wrote, adding that ‘as the best law is founded upon reason, so are the best manners.’ These points remain valid.

For Swift, it was a matter of logical pragmatism: put people at their ease, treat them respectfully and you will get the best from them. The theme was popularised two centuries later by Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People, which has since sold over 30 million copies worldwide.

Interview preparation

So, are today’s lawyers always blessed with good manners? From personal experience, the answer is generally yes. But, as a journalist, you are very conscious that they may be trying to create a favourable impression in interview so that you write something favourable about them or their firm. There are, of course, exceptions. Given how much effort law firm partners put into winning and keeping clients, it is surprising how little preparation some of them undertake before agreeing to an interview.

Despite the obvious value of being quoted in the national or trade press, a minority of lawyers put little thought into process. Yet the legacy is permanent: the digital footprint of a lawyer’s quote may be read by many potential clients over time. Being a good interviewee is a skill: one that comes naturally to some, and is more often apparent when talking to those partners who manifestly understand its worth to themselves and to their firm. It also demonstrates good manners.

So how can lawyers become better interviewees? A few points outlined below might help.

  • Media interviews can make lawyers fearful – occasionally, they admit as much. The thought may linger in their mind of tabloid journalists seeking to entrap them or take a quote out of context. This is not what the quality media does in writing about serious issues. They seek proper analysis, not frivolous gossip. Google the journalist and find out what he/she has written. A good ice-breaker might be to reference something of theirs you have read: it will flatter the journalist, who may in turn flatter you online. Always agree in advance that quotes will be sent to you for approval prior to publication.
  • Some lawyers start an interview by saying: “I haven’t really prepared for this.” It shows. Ask about detail and they can’t remember. Request examples and they are flummoxed. Enquire about numbers and they respond: “I’ll have to get back to you.” More impressive is the lawyer who has the details in front of them, or who has manifestly anticipated your questions prior to interview. Here, having a professional comms team really matters. They know that legal journalists speak to many lawyers and that their man or woman is more likely to be quoted if they speak with the voice of authority and obviously know their stuff.
  • The best lawyers are good listeners. They ask questions at the outset about what you’re writing in scope and scale. They listen carefully to your answers and then tailor their response accordingly to your questions. They also ask who else you are talking to and sometimes make helpful suggestions about alternative interviewees. In the process, they can become a journalist’s friend: someone whom the journalist will go back to. So don’t deviate, or play the politician’s trick of answering a different question.
  • A good interview is a conversation, not a scripted Q&A. Lawyers typically don’t ask much, probably in the belief that the journalist interviewing them has no information or opinions of any value, which may well be true! Those that do often probe to find out what other market participants are saying. Remember journalists are in a unique position: sometimes they learn a lot from speaking to all the key market players. Don’t ask questions yourself and you may never find out something of real value.

Don’t be dull

  • A minority of lawyers have an infinite capacity to be dull, pulverising the important aspects of any case or deal into thick a paste, replete with too much technical terminology. Think about why your case or deal is interesting, and explain that clearly and simply in interview. Without hyperbole, don’t be afraid to use adjectives, or even better a quirky story. They make for good copy. If you want to be quoted, think of a short memorable phrase or two in advance. They might even make a headline. 
  • Lawyers are rarely short of words, but a few give answers so long that they would fill a textbook chapter. Remember the journalist is probably writing a piece of between 800 and 3000 words, of which your input is only a small part. What you need to provide is an incisive sentence or two on each point, not answers that echo the complexity of Proust or the epic sweep of War and Peace. Think beforehand what you might say to key questions. Make your answers succinct, quotable and to the point.
  • Keep it simple. Describing the most technical collateralised loan obligation or an intricate UNCITRAL Arbitration Rule might not be the stuff of comedy, but some amusing anecdote normally surrounds any piece of legal work, no matter how abstruse. Telling a funny story proves that you are human too. Engage a journalist with humour and you might end up getting better coverage.
  • Understandably, lawyers avoid giving opinions on most topics, unless they are couched in the most careful language, fully underpinned by pertinent caveats. Such answers rarely fit in a news or feature article. Do have an opinion on the future of what you do and don’t be afraid to give it. Stand back, think about where your practice and your firm are going. Remember, 90% of what you say in interview will never be used, but your strategic wisdom might be. To form a well-rounded opinion, talk to others in your firm about what they think.
  • Relax, don’t be uptight. A good interviewer will draw out something of the person beyond the lawyer. Talk about your partner, your children, your holiday, a sports game or a film you’ve watched – anything that reveals a little of your life beyond the firm. A passing reference will do, but to the interviewer, it humanises you. Instead of being just another lawyer, you become a person too, exactly like the journalist interviewing you. The art of being a good interviewee ultimately rests in being yourself.

No lawyer ever wants to be thought of as having Harman-like qualities. A good interviewee should therefore treat an interview as a conversation, not a cross-examination. In achieving that, good manners can take you a very long way.

Dominic Carman

Written by:

Dominic Carman, journalist, writer and legal commentator.

www.reportslegal.com

Avatar

Author: Dominic Carman