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Lawyers: How to Tell Bosses, Co-Workers, Judges That They're Wrong

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By Mark Wilson, Esq. on November 06, 2014 10:03 AM

In your law firm -- heck in your life -- you'll encounter people who are wrong. As in, factually wrong. Like, you can point to the fact in the book where what that person says contradicts what the book says.

Granted. But what if that "wrong" person is your boss? Or your colleague? Or -- gads -- a judge? There are different strategies for dealing with different kind of people (and here we're assuming, of course, that you've done your homework and you're certain that you're right and the other person isn't). Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

Your Boss

Telling a senior associate or a partner he or she is wrong is fraught with peril. The first thing you should do is not say the word "wrong." Instead, tactfully bring the error to the boss' attention. "Hey, I noticed here you said that Civil Code section blah blah applies, but it looks more like it's this other section." Call it the Columbo approach.

Evasive? Kind of. Passive aggressive? A little. But this person is your supervisor, after all, and he or she probably presumes that if anyone's mistaken about something, it's going to be you. There's a certain amount of decorum involved with dealing with the boss, so don't immediately ratchet the confrontation up.

Your Colleague

As with the boss, the colleague should be approached obliquely. Saying "you're wrong" raises shields and arms photon torpedoes immediately; in other words, someone who's defensive isn't going to be receptive to criticism.

Get-It-Done Guy Stever Robbins suggests having your colleague explain his perspective -- that is, his conclusions and premises -- before you introduce yours: "The way I read it, People v. Art Vandalay was overruled." Let your co-worker arrive at the right conclusion after you've "Inception"ed him into it. And if he still won't budge? Take it up a notch: "I really think Vandalay isn't good law anymore, and I don't feel comfortable putting it in this brief."

The Judge

Judges don't normally take kindly to being told they're wrong. If you're appearing before the judge, for crying out loud, don't begin by saying, "Respectfully" -- because what comes next may or may not really be respectful. As with a boss, never come out and say, "You're wrong," but instead use "actually" to point out a difference: "Actually, Your Honor, the record does show that Mr. Costanza burned his rain coat in a pizza oven."

It also helps, says Claude Szyfer at Law360, to give a judge some options when pointing out a problem. Judges, after all, need to come up with a deliverable in the form of a judgment. If you can offer a solution to a legal or factual error, it's like the error never existed.

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