Are You Assertive Enough To Be A Lawyer?

Often people think lawyers need to be assertive. What does it mean? Do you really need to be assertive to be in the field? Shubhra Agrawal unpacks these questions in this post.

I’m a lawyer. 

When I say this, how do you imagine me to be?

Bold? Fearless?

Do you picture me standing in a crowd of black gowns and arguing my case aggressively?

You won’t be alone in thinking this. And it may not be too far from reality. Only replace aggression with poise, and think of the courtroom to not have a crowd, but an over-crowd (well mostly, if not always). 

Without going deeper into the truth of this depiction, let’s look at how this affects the perception of those outside the legal field. 

Firstly, it makes it seem like a ‘grand’ profession. Suitable only for the boisterous, who are fluent in English. 

It also presents an intimidating image of the field. Ones with lesser confidence in speaking and extroverted engagement are discouraged.

Collectively, it makes one wonder if only the highly experienced and assertive individuals should get into law.

It is true that assertiveness is required in this field like many others. But does this aspect really need to act as a scarecrow every time someone wants in? What exactly does ‘being assertive’ mean in law anyway? Could one acquire it, and most importantly what purpose does it serve? 

These are a few of the questions that this piece attempts at answering. You’d most probably be able to decipher if you’re assertive enough for law by the end of this. Otherwise, by all means, blame the writer. 

Doubts! Unwanted Opinions! Are you really up for it? 

When was it that you decided on getting into law? In my case, the idea struck for the first time in the 10th standard. And by class twelfth, the idea got well-seated in my head. It was largely because I liked my social sciences and language subjects more than math.

This of course comes as a shock to any average Indian family which takes pride in their children being in science. Fortunately, my parents were supportive. 

The first hurdle was comparatively easy to pass. The second hurdle began when others weighed in. Some reactions were funny. Some were plain dense. But the one thing I can tell you now is how misinformed people are about the legal field. It did seem like their primary source of information was Bollywood. 

Tarikh pe tarikh from Damini (1993) has become a hallmark dialogue describing the Indian legal system.

The most common responses circled around how law requires one to be bold and aggressive. Occasionally, a few repeated the unfunny trope of how lawyers are liars. Some people even showed concern by asking if I’m up for it. As law requires arguing in a loud voice, and I’ve always had a softer disposition. 

Now, the last part was something that I myself was worried about. Being a student who had not actively participated in public-speaking activities in school, the idea of entering a profession based on arguing and articulating seemed somewhat disconcerting. 

But, it’s important to ask what we base our hesitations on. Simply put, assertiveness means ‘showing confidence’. And yes, assertiveness is an essential skill to have as a law aspirant. Only, your relative’s interpretation of the term is different from what it means in the legal field. 

For a neighbourhood aunt, assertiveness might reflect in how much one can bargain with the local vegetable vendor. A related uncle might judge assertiveness by how successfully one can order or send back food in a restaurant. Similarly, for a friend, it might reflect how easily you can convince your peers for outing plans. None of this, however, would matter in the legal field. 

On a more serious note, assertiveness is not a virtue. It’s a skill. Hence, it can be acquired with practice and experience, for it makes our work easy in a profession like law. 

Luckily or not, being confident is just one of the many skills required in the legal field. So the more important question one must ask when choosing law is; whether or not the field of law and justice appeals to them. After all, to put someone on trial for theft, first one needs to know what constitutes theft. 

Doubts! Unwanted Opinions! Are you up for it? 

Sometimes we get too busy projecting ourselves as confident. As a result we forget that being assertive is not an end in itself, but the means to achieve the end goal. 

This offers a thought-provoking point. As traditionally a lot of aspects we attribute to assertiveness, do not necessarily yield results.

Take, for example, the attenuation of voice. Historically, low pitched male voices have been considered more credible. Lower voice gives the impression of being louder; thereby, commanding greater respect and compliance. 

To compete with this, the women too, consciously or unconsciously have started speaking in lower-pitched tones. A research study by the University of South Australia, conducted on 18-25-year-old women concluded that the frequency in women’s voices has dropped. The women today speak at a deeper pitch than their mothers or grandmothers at their age. The researchers speculate that this is because of women adopting deeper tones to project authority.

One might ask if this change at the superficial level was necessary. Did it make any difference? The answer is yes. 

Even though the low sound of voice just forms a part of ‘what seems assertive’. Which, very well may not be purposeful. Yet, its usage has been adopted in order to receive the benefits attached to it.  

The effect of placing more credibility on low pitched voices has in fact impacted crucial life decisions. As per a research survey conducted on US House election candidates for 2012, lower voice pitch has a positive correlation with the votes secured. The candidates with lower voices were found to be 13% more likely to win. On average, such candidates got 4% more votes as compared to those with higher voices.

Naturally, this factor puts the men at an advantage. Since they have a low pitched voice biologically. Generally, too, assertiveness has been viewed as a masculine trait. 

Though of course, it doesn’t imply that men get better results. 

Look at the examples the pandemic has provided us. Among the world leaders entrusted with the responsibility of handling the crisis, many women heads of states stood out. Women leaders like those of New Zealand, Denmark and Iceland among others, were lauded all over the world for their effective response to the situation. 

Among the factors that made these women stand out according to researchers, were resilience, compassion and empathy. 

This establishes a significant nexus. It demonstrates that “to get things done” you have to be empathetic. Assertive characteristics are best seen in individuals with the right combination of intention to work in an area and empathy. Knowledge of a field alone does not guarantee results. 

It is apparent that an individual who is passionate about a particular area, would be better suited to work for it. Thus, being more assertive for its concerns. The same analogy applies to law.

Besides, law offers a variety of opportunities. And any student with an interest in pursuing legal studies has more or less the same chance at being an assertive professional in the field. 

Before I got acquainted with the subject area, I used to believe law was all about arguing within four walls of the courtroom. While some may find that mere aspect endearing in itself, there is much more to it. In law school, depending on your preference and likeability, you could be a passionate debater or a mindful mooter. Ditching both, you could be a researcher or a writer. 

In the future as a budding lawyer too, you could choose to be a corporate law attorney practising for big companies. Or you could be a constitutional law expert offering legal advice in matters pertaining to it. So, at the end of the day, a student interested in debating has as good a chance at being assertive as say, a literature enthusiast. 

The Myth of the Assertive Lawyer

A vague yet popular notion correlates assertiveness to the ‘aggressive act’. From the angry young man to the angry common man, the common thread running through them is the glorification of anger. 

But regardless of how many justifications we may find to validate anger, the fact remains that it’s not a viable strategy. Above all, it’s not what the court of law permits.

Hence, the ‘tareekh pe tareekh’ dialogue of Sunny Deol or the long aggressive speech by Arshad Warsi wouldn’t find space in courts. Truth be told, the judges in any court wouldn’t stand for the sass and swagger of lawyers while trying a case. 

Naturally, judges and the Courts command a standard of decorum. Follow the live court exchanges, and you will find several instances of judges taking the lawyers to task. These incidents are daunting enough to become weak in the knees. But the lawyers arguing stand their ground. In such situations, assertiveness is reflected in the lawyers’ ability to maintain composure. 

The last revelation may come as a surprise. But, assertiveness doesn’t necessarily mean having a Harvey Specter attitude. In fact, that attitude could prove antithetical to what you’re looking for. 

Some anecdotal evidence might be good for the Harvey fans. So get this. There were several instances where Jessica caved into accepting Harvey’s seemingly pushy demands as he was assertive. In reality, your boss would not go above and beyond to cater to your whims and fancies. Not even if they like you. But hey, Harvey is the best lawyer in New York. So what do we know!

Nonetheless, these misconceptions come in later in the picture. Our own anxiety is the primary source of false impressions. You might be able to relate to my experience if you too are someone who has had doubts about entering the legal field. 

Interestingly, in the course of preparation for law entrance, and since entering law school, I’ve come across several others who were posed with similar doubts. Having observed their journey and my own, it’s safe to say that the inhibitions get warded off with time. 

Some parting advice- how and where to be assertive as a lawyer, is something only experience through trial and error can teach. So for now, clear your head and take your chance. 

Bon Voyage!

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