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August/September 2014: Professionalism: Lessons Learned Early Last a Lifetime
The need to reclaim “civility” in the practice of law has become a rallying cry in the profession (footnote1). Lack of civility has been blamed on everything from an increase in the cost of litigation to the cause of the public’s lost faith in the legal profession. To help curb the lack of civility in the legal profession, our Supreme Court established the annual requirement of continuing legal education credits in “professionalism.”
But what is “professionalism”? Merriam-Webster defines it as “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.” For the most part, as it is used in the legal community contexts, it deals primarily with polite behavior and civility among fellow lawyers.
Some have noted a potential for natural tension between a lawyer’s duty to represent a client zealously and the emerging duty to act in a professional and civil manner in representation. But zealous representation does not mean that one must become a zealot. Nor does civility or courtesy reflect weakness on the part of the lawyer. For instance, The Mississippi Bar underscores this point in its “A Lawyer’s Creed” by stating that effective advocacy does not mean that any tactic is acceptable or that effective advocacy requires antagonistic or obnoxious behavior. Even if clients have ill feelings between them, that does not justify ill feelings between the lawyers.
Over the past decade, new methods of communication in the legal profession have lent themselves to a notable decrease in civility among lawyers. Instant communication by email and text messaging has made lawyers more reactionary and defensive rather than thoughtful and considerate. Oftentimes, because of our instinctive defense nature as lawyers, we tend to take brevity of emails and text messaging out of context because we are not communicating through voice, but typed words. As a result, we may respond without forethought . . . something that might come back to haunt us for years to come.
You should learn these lessons early on without having to experience them firsthand. We typically run “ninety to nothing” and are juggling dozens of cases each day. We don’t always take the time to prepare a proper response to an email or text message, but instead toss something back equally as offensive. We lob bombs to one another and think this is just the nature of the profession. Make a promise to yourself . . . don’t pick up this dirty habit. It will haunt you for years.
As a young lawyer, you should never fall prey to this method of communication. As my former boss, Mike Palmintier, would say: “Type it out, read it and think — what would I think if I got a letter or email like this?” I have always tried to adhere to this rule because when you take time to think about what you have written, more often than not, you will rewrite it every time.
Another suggestion is to simply pick up the phone and talk to the opposing side. Verbal communication is much more valuable in resolving conflicts because you can talk it out and not simply do the back-and-forth over email.
In closing, I recall nearly every day a piece of advice from a senior lawyer when I first began practicing: Your reputation is everything and how you treat other lawyers will follow you throughout your career. If you don’t take the time to engage in civil communication, you will be labeled in the community as the lawyer who cannot be trusted and will have a tarnished reputation for a long time. Don’t learn these lessons the hard way. Keep an open line of verbal communication with your fellow lawyers. It makes all the difference.
Information in this article is attributed to the “Report of the ACREL Working Group on Ethics and Professionalism,” Sept. 27, 2004; and Donald E. Campbell, “Raise Your Right Hand and Swear to Be Civil: Defining Civility as an Obligation of Professional Responsibility,” Gonzaga Law Review, Vol 47:1, Nov. 2, 2011.