Assertive vs. Aggressive: What Kind of Lawyer Do You Need?

By Timothy Henderson  |  July 14, 2022

Timothy Henderson

with assistance of Olivia Andrade (Law Student)

It’s not unusual for a prospective client in a separation, divorce or child parenting case to want an “aggressive lawyer who will fight” on their behalf. However, it’s helpful to take a step back and think about the most effective and least damaging way to get to the outcome you want. When you’re choosing a lawyer for your family law matter, consider the points in this conversation between Henderson Family Law lead partner Timothy Henderson and law student Olivia Andrade.

Tim: In family law, we don’t tend to talk in terms of winning; rather we focus on successful outcomes for the family. We try to avoid court and litigation because it’s typically expensive, stressful, time-consuming and has unpredictable outcomes that are often less beneficial to both parties, as well as the children involved. Whenever possible, we look to alternative dispute resolution methods like mediation or negotiation. Being tactical and strategic is much more productive than being unnecessarily aggressive. Olivia, what’s your take on the difference between being “assertive” and “aggressive” as a lawyer?

Olivia: I think that the difference between these is subtle, kind of like the difference between being confident or arrogant. Being assertive means being direct and up-front about your goals and position, while communicating in a way that’s respectful and professional. Being aggressive also means being direct and up-front about your position, but while being disrespectful and overstepping professional courtesy. Being aggressive implies uncontrolled anger or emotion. While the lawyer may seem like a “shark”, the lawyer is more likely to be reprimanded by a judge for uncivil behaviour, or brushed off by opposing counsel. This style reflects poorly on the lawyer and her client.

On the other hand, being assertive suggests that the advocate is in control. The assertive lawyer advances client interests in an effective manner, while maintaining relationships with other lawyers. Reputation is everything. The assertive lawyer is often strategic, in the sense of making timely proposals, or taking a strategic approach to their client’s case.

Tim: How do you think others view each of these lawyer types?

Olivia: Aggressive lawyers are often perceived poorly, as “rude” personalities who trample on others and have little respect for the judge, colleagues, or others they encounter. They are seen as offensive. Some people may believe these aggressive lawyers are effective, and “win” more – but I think this is a misconception. Assertive lawyers are perceived as confident and attractive – this is because they advance their clients’ interests without invading that brash, offensive territory.

Tim: What alternative styles, if any, do you see to either of these approaches?

Olivia: I see calculated advocacy as an alternative to both options. Calculated advocacy involves receiving information, processing it, and replying in a respectful manner. It doesn’t require the initiative that assertiveness or aggression requires. It involves being reactive instead of proactive — being the aggressive or assertive party is not an automatic key to success. Calculated advocacy requires a full understanding of the law, and the ability to successfully advance the client’s interests. I would prefer not to be seen as someone who is aggressive, but rather someone who knows the law and can advance their clients’ interests effectively and coherently.

Tim: These are excellent points Olivia. Ultimately, whether a client’s matter is in or out of court, it’s crucial to assess the situation. What is your client facing? (including their ex-partner and the opposing lawyer). What issues is your client working through? Then, match the appropriate level of assertiveness to your client’s case. Generally, my approach has always been that I am most effective when I am assertive on behalf of my client without being aggressive. In many cases, parties will remain connected to each other through their children – and so it is vitally important that they be able to retain a working relationship, wherever that is possible.

If you’re dealing with a family law matter and would like to discuss an approach that is likely to be most effective and least damaging, please contact us at Henderson Family Law.


This content is provided as a general informational source by Henderson Family Law, and does not constitute legal advice or opinion, or establish a lawyer-client relationship. Every situation is complex and fact-specific, and appropriate advice will vary accordingly. Do not rely on this information for legal decision-making under any circumstances. Please consult with us and obtain proper advice and strategy concerning the specifics of your particular situation.

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