How to Navigate Interactions with Opposing Counsel: A Guide for Self-Represented Litigants in BC

By Chyanne Sharma, BC Legal Coach

One of the most challenging aspects of self-representation is learning to effectively navigate your interactions with the opposing party's lawyer. Commonly referred to as “opposing counsel”, this lawyer serves as an advocate for the other side of a legal dispute. Their task is not just to argue their client’s case, but to challenge, question, and explore the strengths and weaknesses of your argument as well.

It's natural to feel intimidated, but effective communication with opposing counsel is integral to achieve the best possible outcome for you and your family. This guide aims to demystify the role that opposing counsel plays and provide you with actionable strategies for professional, constructive interactions.

The Role of Opposing Counsel

It's important to understand that opposing counsel's primary responsibility is to their client, not you. They are not there to protect your interests, nor can they give you legal advice. In fact, if you're self-represented, opposing counsel will likely encourage you to get independent legal advice from your own lawyer to ensure you understand your rights and responsibilities so you can make well-informed decisions about your case.

While it may seem as though opposing counsel plays an adversarial role, remember they are guided by ethical and professional standards. Their aim is not to play a zero-sum game but rather to participate in a constructive legal discussion that leads to a just and equitable resolution for their client. As you prepare to interact with opposing counsel, understanding their objectives, strategies, and language will enable you to engage purposefully and advocate more effectively for your own interests.

The Art of Professionalism

Maintaining professionalism is essential for effective communication with opposing counsel. It's not about being overly formal or adopting a rigid demeanor, but rather about finding common ground, fostering effective communication, and working towards a resolution.

A professional approach demonstrates respect for the legal process, the court, and opposing counsel – all factors that contribute to a more productive and amicable resolution. Though legal disputes can be emotional, adhering to professional standards can help to diffuse tension and keep the focus on the legal issues at hand. Escalating situations or resorting to name-calling serves no one's interests and can be detrimental to your case.

An ideal legal dispute is one where both parties can express their arguments without resorting to personal attacks or unnecessary hostility. Maintaining your professionalism not only upholds your own integrity but also enhances the overall integrity of the legal process - it's also in your best interest as unprofessional correspondence with opposing counsel could be presented in court, damaging your credibility, and potentially affecting the outcome of your case.

Remember, opposing counsel is carrying out their duty to their client - like the role you, as a self-represented litigant, are playing in your own case. This shared sense of responsibility can form the basis of a respectful and constructive approach to interactions. Listen actively, acknowledge valid points, and respond thoughtfully. Engaging in open-minded discussions can sometimes lead to unexpected insights that might influence the direction of your case. Approaching interactions with opposing counsel with a cooperative attitude doesn't mean compromising your position. Instead, it means presenting your arguments confidently and professionally, while remaining open to the possibility of finding common ground. This approach can sometimes lead to settlements or agreements tailored to the needs of all parties involved.

Communication Strategies: Making Your Voice Heard

Effective communication is more than just being able to write a good letter, it’s about being able to express your points in a way that is easy to understand and persuade. To do this, you must be able to present the facts concisely, organize your thoughts logically, and use language that is both accurate and simple. Clarity is your ally, as it allows opposing counsel to understand your arguments without unnecessary confusion or ambiguity, but communication is also a two-way street. So, while it’s important to present your own arguments, it’s equally important to actively listen to the opposing counsel’s points. This not only shows respect for their perspective, but also creates opportunities for meaningful engagement and potential areas of agreement.

Choosing the Right Communication Channels

In the digital age, we have a plethora of communication channels at our disposal, ranging from emails to formal letters, each with its own nuances and implications. Choosing the right channel can greatly impact how your message is received. For instance, emails might be suitable for quick inquiries or updates, while formal letters might be more appropriate for conveying important legal positions. Moreover, consider the tone and style of your communication. Strive for professionalism, clarity, and a tone that is firm but respectful. A well-crafted message can be a persuasive tool, showcasing your commitment to the legal process and your grasp of the issues at hand. Documenting and keeping track of your communications, such as emails or letters, is also important when you need to present evidence. For example, if you need to make an application to seek disclosure, you can present the emails you’ve sent opposing counsel requesting that specific disclosure as evidence.

Recognize that effective communication extends beyond written words. During in-person interactions or virtual meetings, nonverbal cues such as body language and tone play a significant role. Maintaining a composed demeanor and actively engaging in discussions further enhances your communication skills.

In a legal landscape where words hold immense weight, mastering communication strategies is essential. By honing your ability to convey your message clearly and thoughtfully, you can ensure that your voice is not only heard but also comprehended and respected. Whether it's through written correspondence or face-to-face interactions, effective communication is your ally in the pursuit of a successful legal outcome, and it is a skill that will further assist with your confidence when you are presenting your case before a judge.

Here is a helpful checklist when communicating with opposing counsel:

  1. Be clear – clarity is everything. Present your points concisely, logically, and get straight to the point.
  2. Stay focused on the issue – stick to the topic at hand and avoid discussing unrelated matters.
  3. Avoid legal jargon overload – it’s not always necessary to use legal terminology to make your point. Using plain language is often more effective than misusing or overusing legal jargon. However, if you do want to show your grasp of different legal terms, take a moment to explain their meaning to demonstrate your knowledge on the issue.
  4. Active listening – just as you would want your points to be heard, make sure you consider what opposing counsel has to say. If you feel intimidated or confused by their arguments, break it up issue by issue and dissect the strength and weaknesses of their arguments.
  5. Be respectful and professional – avoid personal attacks, sarcasm, or inflammatory language. Professionalism contributes to a productive exchange of ideas and demonstrates your commitment to a fair and respectful legal process.
  6. Respond timely – Timeliness is crucial! Respond promptly to emails, letters, or requests for information. Failing to do so could result in negative consequences before a judge.
  7. Proofread and edit before hitting "send" - take a moment to proofread your communication. Typos, grammatical errors, or unclear language can weaken the professionalism of your message.
  8. Maintain composure - while disagreements may arise, maintain composure in all your communications. Avoid emotional outbursts or defensive responses. Address points calmly and rationally, emphasizing your commitment to productive discussions.

Seek Legal Help: Know When to Call in the Pros

Sometimes, disputes may escalate beyond what can be resolved through direct negotiation. Recognizing when it's appropriate to seek other avenues for resolution is crucial. This doesn't necessarily mean that you must hire a lawyer and go to court. There are various alternate dispute resolution processes available, such as mediation, arbitration, or parenting coordination. Additionally, alternative legal services like legal coaching offer targeted advice from legal professionals, helping you to effectively self-represent.

While self-representation is empowering, there are times when seeking legal help is important. Recognizing the limitations of your knowledge and expertise is a sign of strategic thinking, ensuring that you are maintaining your best interests. If you find yourself facing the limitations of your own legal expertise, it's not a weakness—it's an opportunity for strategic collaboration. A consultation with one of our legal coaches can empower you with the confidence and insights needed to effectively represent yourself. At Coach My Case, we have a dedicated team of experienced legal coaches and paralegal coaches who are prepared to guide you through the complexities of your family law matter. Take the first step toward a more focused and strategic legal approach by contacting us today for your complimentary 20-minute consultation.