Question for lawyers and law types, but not asking for legal advice
December 14, 2013 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Suppose two adverse parties meet in a formal legal setting (for instance, suppose plaintiff is being deposed and defendant shows up to observe). Should the parties shake hands? Would it be rude if one of the parties doesn't want to shake hands? I certainly appreciate that the lawyers or other representatives of the parties should shake hands, but what (if any) are the customary duties of civility with respect to hand-shaking between adverse parties themselves? Is it necessary, or is a grim-but-civil "How do you do?" statement between parties enough? (Or is this simply a huge plate of beans that I'm overthinking?) I guess my own view is that there is significant tension between the basic duties of civility between any two members of society and the hostile behavior or insult that has created a lawsuit.
posted by Mr. Justice to Law & Government (12 answers total)
Lawyer here. I am an adherent of the school called, "Fight Your Worst Enemy To the Brutal Death, But Good God, Shake His Hand First" in all circumstances. At a deposition, mediation, hearing or otherwise, I always shake hands with the opposing lawyers. The parties themselves are generally only present at certain depositions or mediation, and I shake hands with them, too. If my client is present, they will also shake hands.

I generally keep things cordial with opposing lawyers throughout the litigation, and I think this generally trickles down to the client. (I recently had opposing counsel invite me to spend the night at his parents' house) Of course, I have seen cases where the parties are so embittered that they won't be in the same room unless absolutely necessary. Thankfully, this is actually pretty rare in my experience, but I have a largely commercial practice where it's more about business. I could imagine that family law cases have a potential to be nastier in this regard.
posted by Tanizaki at 4:48 PM on December 14, 2013 [4 favorites]

I attend about a dozen depositions each month and it really just depends on the parties. I don't instruct my clients either way. Nobody really cares what the parties do; you're there to take their evidence, and so long as that proceeds then no matter the social niceties. It would be polite of course and I personally do shake with everyone in attendance.
posted by Pomo at 4:51 PM on December 14, 2013

I guess I would usually shake hands with opposing counsel in a deposition or mediation, but not in court. I would NEVER expect my client to shake hands with the defendant (but then again, I represented clients in sexual harassment & wrongful termination cases, so perhaps that's a special case). Also, at a deposition you typically wouldn't have any client there who wasn't going to be deposed, so it wouldn't be an issue there.
posted by yarly at 5:36 PM on December 14, 2013

Just don't body check the opposing party into the hallway wall on the way back from the restroom.

(Source: having been through litigation and noticed the moment when our attorney got prepared to step in.)
posted by slidell at 5:53 PM on December 14, 2013

The only required behavior is the rules of the court. Everything else depends on the dynamic between the parties.

Sometimes a civil handshake can be passive-aggressive dagger.
posted by Flood at 6:57 PM on December 14, 2013

A lot depends on the type of case. I would not be surprised to see the parties to a commercial dispute shake hands. I would be suprised in a wrongful death case.
posted by yclipse at 7:06 PM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't imagine that a handshake or lack thereof between a plaintiff and defendant would have anything more than the most negligible, fuzzy, indirect effect on the eventual result of the legal proceedings. Shaking hands would be the civil thing to do of course as it's a way of showing your respect for another person's basic humanity and your commitment to polite and civil behavior. On the other hand, if one or both of the two parties found it to be just too distasteful I feel like it would be no big deal. Hand-shaking falls under the heading of implicit rather than explicit social norms, and hence sanctions for failing to do so are almost always of the informal (e.g. shaming) rather than formal (e.g. jail time) nature.
posted by Scientist at 8:35 PM on December 14, 2013

You do not need to shake hands, if that's what you're asking. If you're on the fence about offering and someone proffers their hand to you, then take it, but otherwise nobody cares at all.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:36 PM on December 14, 2013

To follow up, in case there is any confusion, I don't "make" my clients shake hands. I am just describing the social dynamics of the situation in that I usually handle business litigation so there isn't usually a deep-seated grudge arising from a failed marriage or injured/dead child. It's just basic courtesy, the same reason why I offer opposing parties and their counsel refreshment when they visit my office and let them use our restroom.

Although, thinking of some past depositions, I have deposed a woman who claimed my client's product killed her mother and the mothers of molested children (they sued my client for not knowing/doing anything about the molestation - the employee who committed the offenses was not my client and is in jail). They all shook hands with me and were cordial. While no one "has" to shake hands, I think this is a very ingrained social practice.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:57 AM on December 15, 2013

I don't think it matters either way.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:35 AM on December 15, 2013

Just a quick follow up on my jokey comment above.

It sounds like you're in litigation because civil discourse broke down. I agree with you that sometimes there is "significant tension between the basic duties of civility between any two members of society and the hostile behavior or insult that has created a lawsuit." In my experience, the judge and attorneys are aware of that, and the system does not expect much from you. We maintained civil and respectful dialogue until hiring the attorney, but it was a relief to then let him do that work. In the many times we saw the opposing parties after that, I'd say we exchanged grim nods 10% of the time and just left one another alone the other 90%. The other attorney did introduce himself, so we found ourselves expected to be polite to him, which came easily.

(And no body checking happened! Our attorney just turned around like he thought it might, which made us wonder what other situations he must've experienced.)
posted by slidell at 11:29 AM on December 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Totally overthinking, I suspect. Don't spit or hit, and you're good. In some kinds of litigation, the parties might not be genuinely passionately hostile, and might shake (e.g., some big corp business litigation), in others (divorces) they might be, lots of space in the middle, who cares?
posted by paultopia at 3:04 PM on December 16, 2013

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