The Only Thing Worse Than Lawyers ...

OK, I've enjoyed lawyer jokes as much as the next person through the years. But recently, I've realized that the lawyers aren't really the joke; it's the adversarial system that is.

What does this have to do with a workplace blog? Everything. Because these days it's tough to go 15 minutes at work without someone asking for a legal opinion on this or that. You need legal opinions to fire someone, to raise money, to review ad copy. I've even heard from people who won't order lunch until it's passed muster with legal counsel.

Risking TMI (too much information), I've recently been involved in a yearlong dance with divorce lawyers. It's really brought into sharp relief how wasteful, counter-productive and expensive our prevailing adversarial system has become. Having gone through a divorce without lawyers, I can tell you that the only guarantee when the lawyers are involved is that the pie shrinks for everyone.

Now let's take a step back. There must be times when an adversarial mindset adds value. Where it helps us protect our rights, look at something from a different point of view or helps us to take off our rose-colored glasses. Doesn't it?

No. I can't come up with an example outside the criminal justice system where the adversarial mindset is anything but a vicious circle -- where it quickly overshadows whatever issue or situation that it is trying to address, where it damages relationships and makes it harder to work together.

I've boiled down the reason that I think it's time to bid adieu to the adversarial system and reduce it to a series of simple questions. Do we really need clearer boundaries between "us" and "them"? More time spent trying to look for "uncommon ground" between people? More conflict?

OK, earlier I said this wasn't about lawyers. I'm really working hard to not get too adversarial here, but they are the keepers of this mindset, the practitioners of this low art of adversarial interactions. I'm not going to go all Shakespeare on you and say that all lawyers should be killed, especially because I met a particularly cute one yesterday.

The irony is that most of the lawyers I've met do have a remarkable ability to solve problems. And I've seen situations where their adversarial skills have been turned into a positive pursuit of the common good. But the fault, dear Brutus, lies within us, because we don't demand it from them. I can't believe that I'm about to let the lawyers off the hook here ...

The adversarial system thrives because we allow it to thrive. We hire lawyers, we encourage them to go off on the "other side" and we look for opportunities to avoid real dialogue with the very people whom we're struggling with. We have become an entire culture that looks to HR, our bosses and yes, the lawyers to be our "heavy," to stand up for our rights. Is it any wonder then, why things have gone so horribly wrong?


"When elephants fight only the grass suffers."

-- Old proverb.

Bob Rosner is a best-selling author, an internationally syndicated columnist, popular speaker, and a recent addition to the community of bloggers. He welcomes your comments at

This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.