The story of my first involvement with a lawyer could be called "Lunacy and the law." It occurred back in 1977 after I started my first EHS job. Working for a county health department, I was conducting an inspection in the field. I saw a woman, actually an employee at the location I was inspecting, being beaten by three youths and I intervened. I was attacked with a broken ketchup bottle and scissors, but putting my U.S. Marine training to use the youths were subdued until the police arrived. I received a letter of commendation from the police department. At the direction of the county attorney, however, I was also reprimanded by my boss and informed that if I took any similar action in the future I would be fired. Why? My actions could have posed a liability to the county!
A few years later I was working in a safety department for a company that had approximately 1,000 employees. I reported to an individual who had a graduate degree in engineering and was a certified safety professional. He was very smart and ambitious, and I admired his technical abilities.
But he believed that career advancement was limited in the technical areas, and he wrestled with the idea of getting an MBA or a JD. He chose the latter, taking law courses at a local university and eventually graduating cum laude.
Along the way to getting his JD, the way he conducted his EHS work, and how he wanted me to conduct mine, changed. At first it was just little things, like choosing the most appropriate words to put into reports. But gradually it transformed into a whole new way of thinking and acting.
An opportunity opened up for me to take a job in the risk management department for a large corporation (over 20,000 employees). Here I reported to someone with an insurance and business background. It was a relief to go back to practicing traditional EHS work and not legal work with an EHS slant. As fate would have it, though, within six months at the new job, the company reorganized. My job was transferred into the legal department and I ended up reporting to the associate general counsel for the corporation. That was more than ten years ago, and I've reported to a lawyer in the legal department ever since. Here's what I've learned during this time and from past experiences:
Avoid legal confrontation: Avoid legal confrontation at all costs. Many people may feel they are dead right and there's no way they could lose a particular legal issue. Is the background on this paper you're reading white? Are the letters black? Want to bet on it? Sure you can get a lawyer to see your point of view but just a stone's throw away is another lawyer who will say you're wrong. The best you can hope for in most legal fights is a 50 percent chance of winning. Only a fool would want to play with those odds. Remember, lawyers thrive on conflict. You may recall the story of a town that only had one lawyer, and this lawyer was always broke. Then another lawyer came to town and now both lawyers are rich.
Avoid legal debate: If you're not a lawyer, don't debate with a lawyer. Sure you may feel you're smarter; you may even be smarter. But the practice of law is a game which is stacked heavily in favor of the lawyers. They made the rules and they make the rules as they go along. One rule to remember is that only a lawyer can debate with a lawyer. If you're not part of the brotherhood, you lose any debate regardless of the merits of your position.
Respect a lawyer's pride: One common trait among lawyers is their strong pride. This trait is a credit to their profession. Many people may feel this pride sometimes borders on arrogance. Perhaps, but so what? Treat every lawyer with respect. Don't tell lawyer jokes in their presence. What you're trying to do by being discreet is avoid conflict and debate.
Here's my philosophy about lawyers: They are like the atom bomb. You have to have one simply because your enemy has one. It's the deterrent effect. But there's more to it than that.
Shakespeare said that the whole world is a stage and we must each play our part. If we are indeed actors on a world stage, then certainly the director must be a lawyer.
With all the faults of the law profession we cannot overlook that it is this profession more than any other that drives us to greater civility. The laws made and enforced define what we should strive to be. Laws are the script that each actor, each of us, must follow if the play is to succeed.
The EHS profession is driven by laws. I'd like it to be otherwise, but we all know it could never really work without laws. I'm not trained as a lawyer and I often see laws as imperfect and at times even idiotic. But the more I work with lawyers, the more I respect what they, as a whole, are trying to achieve. I also realize that there are rules of engagement that must be followed.
Heed my recommendations, including letting your lawyer direct your acting when the need arises, and you should do OK. But if a day should ever come where a life is at risk, do what you think is morally right, even if it may not be legally correct. I think the county could have been sued if I didn't intervene. I think I could have sued the county if they fired me for intervening. I'm sure there's an attorney who would see my point of view.