Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., famed chairman of General Motors in its heyday, has been attributed with saying the following at a top committee meeting:
“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement on the decision here.” Everyone around the table nodded in assent.
“Then I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter until our next meeting to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”
If you are like many other young lawyers of today, you likely came up through an education system that encouraged teamwork and consensus building in which everyone’s opinion and input were valuable. Warm, encouraging environments that allowed students to discover who they are and develop their own meaning behind their education. Their minds, not something to discipline and develop, but rather soft sponges to hopefully absorb information through osmosis. That there wasn’t really a wrong answer, what mattered was how did you feel about the problem. Which is nice if you care about the feelings of children, but next to worthless in the practice of law…
Dissent is an essential ingredient in developing thoughts and ideas. Disagreement will present alternatives to the obvious solution, challenge the conventional thinking, and force careful consideration of one’s position. Dissent is absolutely necessary in the successful practice of law. Actually, dissent is the foundation for the practice of law. If everything were kosher, and people did not disagree, then there would be no need for lawyers — we’d all be living in a wonderful land filled with rainbows and unicorns.
But as rainbows are fleeting, and unicorns non-existent, it is safe to assume that disagreement and conflict are very much a part of the world. While some people have the luxury of trying to ignore disagreements — conflict is the canvas upon which a lawyer works. Analysis, arguments, and criticism are the brushes and paint. Lawyers have to be comfortable with these tools and make them their own. Beyond that, you have to be willing to have these same instruments turned against you. Even if you aren’t willing, you are going to confront them when you are up against another lawyer.
If your ideas, plans, arguments, briefs, and the like are unable to handle the internal disagreement within your own office — then how are they going to react when they hit the real world? Do you really want to tell your client that you didn’t explore both sides of the issue in crafting your brief? You didn’t try to poke holes in your own argument? That you didn’t research the background of a clause to be included in a merger?
What is opposing counsel going to do to when you show up and are unprepared for scrutiny? Give you a nice rub down?
The bottom line is that unanimity is overrated.
Organize dissent. Nurture it, develop it. Certainly there is a time when dissent is to be put aside and an argument, brief, or plan of action moves forward. But to move forward without ever having faced dissent within your own firm is foolhardy.
Keith Lee practices law at Hamer Law Group, LLC in Birmingham, Alabama. He writes about professional development, the law, the universe, and everything at Associate’s Mind. He is also the author of The Marble and The Sculptor: From Law School To Law Practice (affiliate link), published by the ABA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @associatesmind.