United States: Strategies For Handling A Legal Circus

Last Updated: November 9 2018
Article by Noelle C. LeBlanc

"Just because everyone is behaving like a clown, it doesn't mean you have to join the circus." ― Matshona Dhliwayo

As a paralegal, there are times I feel I have joined a legal three-ring circus and play the fortunate (or unfortunate) role of ringmaster.

"Step right up.

Step right in.

Under the big top the show begins!"

Being a legal ringmaster requires extraordinary confidence and savvy communication skills. The show must go on. The stage must be set. The players are prepared and the script is perfect. Like circus animals, the "performers" (i.e.lawyers, judges, opponents, clients and witnesses) can be difficult and unpredictable.

If you have been in my shoes before, I'm sure you'll recognize these challenging "circus animal" personalities:

The Lion

The intimidator with a roar as powerful as the bite. The Lion holds a power position (judge, boss, client). They have a self-absorbed personality, with an inflated ego that craves attention, demands respect and expects reverence. This person doesn't care much about other's feelings. They can only roar about themselves. They react negatively to any hint of criticism and one must tread carefully around them. Just feed them well and they will usually behave.

The Grizzly Bear

The unreasonable, demanding, temperamental personality that has an intense growl with a side of anger for dessert. These performers vent frequently, yell and are quick to accuse others of misdeeds. They have no problem making a scene and will rise on their hind legs to demonstrate their "larger-than-life-grizzly self." But, if you give them a little honey, you can turn any Grizzly into Pooh-Bear.

The Zebra

Constantly showing their stripes, these characters love drama. They are flamboyant and flashy, constantly lobbying to be the center of attention. Zebras do not share the spotlight well. They can easily make a mountain out of a molehill and can turn the most benign issue into an ordeal. They are masters at being passive-aggressive. Bridle these wild horses, and you've got them controlled.

The Seal

These are my least favorite personality types. They are skilled at the blame game. They pass the buck better than the Seals bouncing balls off their noses. You know the type. "That's not my job." "Ringmaster was in charge of that task." "I must have missed that email." They lack insight, self-awareness and ownership; yet, their sky is always falling. They love complaining like a Seal loves tuna fish. Like the circus Seal, they bark nonstop. They are overloaded, overwhelmed and balancing too many balls. The perpetual victim.  A little stroke on the nose goes a long way with these performers.

The Clown

Never mind, I'd better stop here. . .

As you can imagine, out of control "circus animals" can ruin the best intended show. Here's how a good ringmaster tames them all:

  1. Keep Calm– Maintain your composure, exercise diplomacy and remember communication is key. Keeping your emotions in check means better, more objective judgment. Peace of mind reduces the risk of continued friction and helps the Seal keep the ball balanced.
  2. Be Proactive, Not Reactive – Concentrate on problem-solving, instead of dwelling on the offense. Let the disruptive behavior roll-off your back giving the appearance of detachment. When you don't respond as expected you disarm the aggressor and take some of the wind out of their sail. If you are good at interjecting humor, in the right circumstances, this can be a powerful de-escalation tool – a little honey for your Grizzly.
  3. Exercise Empathy – Be quick to believe the best in others. We all have weaknesses, faults and bad days. Even the nastiest Lion deserves the benefit of the doubt. Sometimes the problem is as simple as empathy. You might even realize the ringmaster was the one at fault (nahhhhh).
  4. Pick Your Battles – Know when it's worth fighting for and when it's better to let it go. Not everything needs to end up in the boxing ring. Valuable time, energy and emotions are better invested somewhere else. Try changing the subject. Circus animals get bored doing the same tricks all the time. Redirect the conversation. Positive reinforcement works. However, know when it's time to pull the Zebra by the bridle. Most circus animals are pretty smart. Articulate the consequences in a way that may challenge the person to move into a more cooperative, peaceful mode.
  5. Shift Focus– Like some circus animals, aggressive people like to put you in the spotlight, forcing you into an uncomfortable place. If you react by being defensive, you fall into their trap, giving them leverage to dominate and control the situation. Put the spotlight back on them by asking constructive, probing questions that neutralize any undue influence. When you run from the Grizzly, it will chase you every time. Stand your ground and maintain confidence. The Grizzly might go find someone else to pick on.

Paralegals have an essential role as ringmaster. Developing positive techniques to guide your "circus animals" from act to act can make your show "big-top worthy" and you are never left feeling like a Clown.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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