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Episode #6 - The Cocktail Party
You are on stage. Behave like it.
Welcome to 'Think Like a Lawyer', the Substack that introduces non-lawyers to how lawyers approach and deal with real-life situations. In the first four episodes, we presented a total of 12 techniques, three each in these categories:
Learn: how do you gather up the information – both the facts and the adjectives?
Analyze: how do you assess the facts and descriptions you learned?
Apply: how do you act on that assessment?
The fifth episode departed from the multi-tool approach and offered one technique, specifically in the 'Apply' category. This episode will rise above the three categories and discuss a metaphor that goes to the heart of how lawyers think: the Cocktail Party. I hope you don't find it preachy.
Imagine attending a cocktail party with people you know but not intimately. Lawyers encounter this situation often. There is a self-serve drinks table. You collect a glass and have two choices: alcoholic and non. Which do you choose? You glance around, and everyone seems to have a drink in their hand. Does that influence your choice? And what's the big deal, anyway?
Well, it is a big deal because it comes down to how you present yourself to the public. To people with whom you compete (in your profession) and people who might refer you to opportunities (a prospective client or job offer, for example).
You may not think that you are competing—but you are. Lawyers are in a constant state of competition. For clients, for an edge in their cases, for attention, for spin. There are two kinds of competition, both of which apply often:
The first is the zero-sum game, like a two-horse race. Your goal is to outrun the other horse. In a court case, you want to outperform your opponent. Your witness or argument should be more persuasive and credible than theirs. Simple stuff, right?
But in many situations, it's not a case of us vs. them or you vs. me. It's about coming out well in general competition, such as a race with several horses, heats, or maybe several arenas. Consider a golf tournament. In match play, one player competes against another in the same pairing. In medal play, the player competes against the whole field. You must do your best regardless of how the other players in your foursome play. That's the cocktail party situation in a nutshell. You are competing against everyone else: those you can see and those you can't.
Now consider the drink choice. As in athletics, does alcohol ever improve performance? …Really? If you want to make a favourable impression, will a few shots of Scotch or 8 ounces of wine make you more presentable? The problem is that alcohol reduces our ability to consider what we say and how we act.
Do you want the people at the party to think of you as a tight-ass? One who preaches abstinence and forces their views on others? Maybe not, but there is no reason to drink the alcohol in your glass or pass judgment on what others do. Pour some wine or beer into your glass and use it as a prop. Or use a liquid that appears to be alcohol but isn't, like a mocktail or a non-alcoholic beer. I prefer club soda with lime, but that's just me. I drink more alcohol than is healthy for me, but in private.
Peer pressure may matter to you. That applies to your appearance, not to your behaviour. Some would suggest you resist that and go your own way regardless. That is excellent advice for some, but it may make you uncomfortable. Make your own choices.
Just be aware that your choices have consequences. A misstatement at a cocktail party may come home to haunt you in the future as other party participants think of you or your conduct unfavourably. That is less likely if you stay sober, regardless of your appearance with a glass.
I am reminded of the famous Rat Pack member and Hollywood celebrity, Dean Martin. He built up a reputation as a heavy drinker but was not. That was branding. Lawyers brand themselves, too, but not as drunks. Lawyers, at least when they think like lawyers, consider the impression they make on others. And they are very conscious of their compete level. And that's how lawyers think.
The exercise for you to try out is, naturally, observational and not experiential. Next time you are at an event where alcohol is served, watch for how other people act. Compare those who drink alcohol to those who don't. Imagine you are asked for a character reference about them. How would their behaviour influence your response?
Here is a short (5-minute) podcast that describes the technique in this episode.