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Civility made simple: It’s the right choice

No matter on which side of the case (or political aisle), the right choice is always civility, dignity, and respect for yourself, your adversaries, and your profession.

There’s no shortage of incivility in the country today. On what seems like a daily basis, we’re witness to more divisiveness, more violence, and more ugly rhetoric than I’ve ever experienced in my lifetime.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we, as lawyers and future lawyers, took it upon ourselves to set the standard for words and deeds?

Lawyers of the past

By the start of the 18th century, some Americans were already hiring lawyers to represent them in legal disputes. According to Daniel J. Boorstin in The Americans: The Democratic Experience, the system had become complex enough that clients needed a lawyer for preparing arguments, quoting precedent, and anticipating the arguments of opposing counsel.

Trained mainly through apprenticeships, nimble and motivated to earn their (usually low or fixed) fees, many of these lawyers used their free time to connect with their communities and become active in politics. Holding offices of public service allowed them to maintain and grow their visibility.

But by later in the century, most lawyers were professionally trained with growing areas of expertise in commerce and international trade. As the language of the law became more complex and foreign to the layperson, lawyers became more specialized and more expensive.

Along with fame and fortune, animosity toward lawyers also grew, and reports of lawyers cheating their clients became commonplace.

Albert P. Blaustein reported in his research on New York bar associations in 1968 that the advent of bar associations as an effective solution for organizing and policing lawyers began around the mid-1800s. But full professionalism within the profession, he added, wouldn’t become standardized until after the Civil War.

Lawyers of the present

My first introduction to a lawyer was TV’s Perry Mason—honest, civil, and always able to resolve any legal matter within the time confines of an episode. Others of my generation imprinted on the civil, moral, and empathic character of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Gen Xers had L.A. Law and the sexy legal power brokers who starred in it to model the “ideal” attorney of their generation.

While these media personae were all very different, they shared a common respect for how far the law, and acceptable legal behavior, could be stretched without breaking.

But current TV and movie portrayals of lawyers are a lot more complicated; even the lawyers who turn out to be “good” often have to overcome very bad internal desires. In real life, every lawyer I know knows of at least one other lawyer who has been reprimanded or disbarred for unethical or uncivil actions.

From lying to cheating, from stealing to covering up, from sending threatening correspondence to bullying, there are way too many ways lawyers today are breaking the professional bond they took an oath to uphold.

These bad behaviors are played out by young and old and men and women, and they occur in courtrooms and deal rooms from small towns to the hallowed halls of Washington.

Can we regulate civility?

While civility may be harder to regulate than ethics, the addition of the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam component to the bar exam in 1980 was a start. While adherence to high levels of “legal ethics” is often jokingly referred to as an oxymoron, the fact that the legal regulating bodies felt the need to add this additional section confirms the existence of the problem.

These guidelines form the basic principles of conduct that members of the bar are expected to uphold in their practice of the law.

Without passing the MPRE, you simply can’t become a licensed attorney. Extrapolating from the requirement that a lawyer must behave ethically is the concept that legal professionals should also behave civilly among themselves and their clients.

We can make it better

As with many of the issues plaguing our country today, this one seems overwhelming. But each time we choose to act or respond with civility and control, we make a difference.

Start at school. If you witness uncivil behavior, say something. Even if reporting the incident isn’t strictly required by your school’s honor code, bringing the event to light is still the right thing to do. There should be no tolerance for bullying of any kind, by any person against any classmates or colleagues. Cheating, lying, or making crude or disparaging comments about other students is wrong at the most basic level, and it violates professional codes of conduct.

Allowing these actions to continue is as bad as choosing to take the same action yourself. The longer people get away with misbehaving, the easier it is to continue acting in the same vein.

Sadly, if not challenged, these patterns become normalized, and we all suffer the consequences.

Lead by example. Your actions are a template for those who may not recognize that speaking and acting in a civil manner is always a choice. We can choose to be kind rather than hurtful or cruel. We can choose to focus on the facts of a dispute rather than resorting to name calling and stereotyping.

We can deftly pick apart an opponent’s argument without disparaging the opponent personally. We can stay and negotiate a compromise rather than pounding on a table and storming out of the room.

In each case, it’s critical to view this kind of civility as a demonstration of maturity and strength and not as a sign of weakness.

Seek out civility in your job search. If during an interview, whether on campus or in an office setting, you experience anything that feels unprofessional or leaves you feeling uncomfortable, share your story with your career services team members. They have leverage you may lack to call out an employer for incivility or inappropriate actions.

Besides, if you feel bullied, belittled, or shamed in an interview setting, just imagine how awkward working at that organization might feel. By speaking up, you can help prevent similar behaviors from being repeated in future situations.

Change for the future

The legal profession as a whole—and each client who relies on an attorney for expertise—benefits every time an individual lawyer makes the effort to behave better. Each of us stands as a role model for other members of the bar; if people experience one lawyer as thoughtful, civil, and ethical, they’ll extend that view to others in the profession.

By the same token, one negative experience will lead to painting all lawyers with the same soiled brush.

By getting this message across to future lawyers now, before they start down a less-civilized path, we all can help the entire profession keep moving in a positive direction.

Cheryl Rich Heisler Cheryl Rich Heisler, President/Founder of LAWTERNATIVES, offers individualized career consulting to lawyers and law students on exploring careers inside, outside & around traditional legal options. Her own career paths include big law, brand management, professional speaking/writing and mixology! Heisler currently sits on the ABA Career Center Board and writes for both Student Lawyer and Experience Magazine.