My father recently sent me a N.Y. Times article describing how the game of professional hockey and the NHL have changed in the last twenty years. According to veteran sports writer Dave Caldwell, the NHL has changed from a game that was equal parts speed and obstruction/fighting to a game that primarily is about speed and finesse. Fighting and hard hits still have a role in the NHL, but according to the stats compiled by Caldwell, as well as the players interviewed, the roles of fighting and “enforcers” are greatly reduced in today’s game.
Being from Brooklyn, NY, and having spent the first twenty-seven years of my life in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Boston, I have always been a hockey fan. I still love hard hits and checks. When I go to a Dallas Stars game, part of me still yearns for the “good old days” of hockey when N.Y. Islanders goalie Billy Smith seemingly would slash a player just for skating by his crease. But even I, as an old school hockey fan, am forced to admit that the truly great hockey players of years past, such as Wayne Gretzsky, and of today, such as Jamie Benn, are skill, speed, and finesse guys, not brawlers.
This got me thinking – can the same be said for the practice of law? Practicing law is a second career for me, so I usually have to rely upon folks older than me (in lawyers years, but not necessarily in years on this planet) to hear about the “good old days” of law practice before the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure were changed in 1999. According to a paper co-authored by Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, the rule changes were enacted to simultaneously allow more pre-trial discovery and put limits on discovery, and virtually eliminate trial by ambush in the much same way as the NHL largely has eliminated fighting.
Aren’t the truly great lawyers of today also skill and finesse people, as opposed to brawlers? I cringe when I hear lawyers talk about times when a case was overstaffed with a team of associates to flood the other side with motion after motion, discovery request after discovery request, and letter after letter, to attempt to beat the other side into submission (the 1999 rule changes also addressed this problem and the inequities it caused).
I believe that clients are better served today by having an experienced lawyer properly staff a case to represent her client’s best interests. I also believe that while we lawyers are ethically required to zealously represent our clients, we can do so in an efficient, nimble, and strategic manner. And the practice of law is continuing to evolve in line with this trend, with the recent changes to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure now requiring all discovery sought to be proportional to the needs of the case.
A lawyer can be both strong and respectful – in fact, in my opinion, respect is a sign of strength. So, yes, in law, as in hockey, there still is a place for the occasional brawl. However, these are the exceptions, not the rule.