We aren’t given a lot in this world; we have to work awfully hard to get ahead, to be successful, to simply survive.  But there is something that we should be given, something that we shouldn’t have to work for or earn.  And you might be surprised by what I am talking about.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  We have all been taught that respect is earned, it’s not given.  Frankly, I think that’s an outdated and antiquated theory and one which contributes to society’s general sense of ill-will.

We view people as unworthy of our respect until they act in a certain way that engenders it.  They prove something to us; they show us something that makes us believe that they are honest or trustworthy.  They act in a way that shows that they respect themselves.  And then, only then, do we give them respect.  Sure, there are people who we agree should be shown respect simply by virtue of who they are, like judges and police officers and firemen and teachers, but I have seen too many litigants in court openly disrespect the judges and court staff.  Simply wearing a black robe doesn’t automatically mean respect is given.  It still has to be earned.

The problem with the theory of earning respect is that there are no criteria for it; how does one earn respect anyways?  Is it by graduating from some institution of higher education?  Is it making a million dollars a year?  Is it feeding a family of four without the need for government assistance?  Is it working two jobs in order to pay for college tuition?  Is it working hard at your job?

We as a society appear to be confused and because of our confusion, we tend to side with the belief that the other person has not earned our respect.  It is far easier than to examine the other person to determine if respect is warranted.  And we then act in accordance with that perception.  We criticize, we castigate, we offend and we ignore.  It’s a tough way to go through life, either being the critic or the subject of such criticism.

I see it every day in my career and it has, at times, made the practice of law agonizing.  Seriously, what does an attorney have to do to earn the respect from an opposing counsel?  The only people who truly understand the challenges in becoming an attorney are other attorneys, so why is respect so hard to come by from the people who know the trials and tribulations so intimately?  (pun intended)  There’s no respect, there’s no congeniality, there’s no reverence.  There’s a reason why there are so many jokes about lawyers… because some of them are true.  There used to be a time when being an attorney held a certain esteem; when one could walk down the street and hold their head up high knowing they were a part of a lofty profession.  The times have changed unfortunately and it just doesn’t feel that way anymore.  Instead we have backstabbing and name-calling and criticizing as a part of a normal strategy of representation.  If you represent the opposing party then you do not deserve my respect because you stooped so low as to take him/her on as a client.  No one in their right mind would have accepted that representation, so you get no respect from me.  Don’t believe me?  I’ve heard it from other attorneys, many times.

And it isn’t just attorneys or adults for that matter.  I see it in my kids and how they and her friends treat each other on the schoolyard.  So much of bullying is a product of a lack of respect; in fact, I would hesitate to say that all of bullying starts it.  If someone is different because of the color of their skin or their sexual preference or their size then they are not worthy of respect, right?  Teachers are not worthy of respect because their sole focus is in being a disciplinarian, they don’t really care about the students.

I want to suggest an alternative.  Instead of adhering to the philosophy that respect is earned, what if we just live by the tenet that everyone shall be given respect until they prove that they are not deserving of it?  You can think that my client is a terrible person, but you will respect me until such time as I prove to you that I don’t deserve your respect, such as when I fail to comply with a deadline, I deliberately mislead you to gain an advantage or I lie to you.  Then you may adjudge me to be unworthy of your respect.

The problem is that we simply don’t know enough about each other to make decisions about whether someone is deserving of respect.  The guy you bump into on the street, you don’t know if he cheats on his taxes, does drugs or works three jobs to feed a family of 5.  The attorney across the courtroom from you, you don’t know if he was top of his class at Harvard or took the BAR exam 7 times.  The kid on the playground who doesn’t have the newest Nikes, you don’t know if his parents are divorced of if he and his family are homeless.  You aren’t deserving of my respect because you don’t have the same fancy clothes that I do.  You aren’t deserving of my respect because you didn’t go to an Ivy League school for your master’s.  You aren’t deserving of my respect because you don’t work in a big downtown accounting firm, you’re just a solo practitioner working out of your house.

Life is incredibly difficult.  What’s the meaning of life?  I can tell you what it shouldn’t be.  It shouldn’t be about having to deal with people who disrespect you.  It shouldn’t be about enduring criticism or reprimand or disparagement or denigration.  It should be about happiness and satisfaction.  And having to deal with people who show you disrespect can certainly impede you other pursuits.

It is so much harder to gain respect then it is to lose it.  So why not avoid stacking the deck against each other.