How Young Attorneys Can Increase Civility

I attended a CLE on ethics and civility among civil litigators. By far, the most shocking part was the guy in front of me clipping his nails during presentations.

That aside, a common theme was that civility between lawyers continues to erode. For the most part, the panel felt that younger attorneys were more likely to go off the deep end. If you are a young attorney (I am currently raising my hand), here are some tips for keeping your cool.

Bring it down a notch

When something does not go according to plan, do not fly off the handle. For example, opposing counsel never responds to an e-mail inquiry or perhaps disregards discovery altogether.

It is easy to call up opposing counsel and rant about how they are required to respond or that you are going to bring a motion to compel. It is also realistic that opposing counsel has a valid reason for non-action.

Wait until you have all your facts before you do something you might regret.

Avoid e-mail when possible

If you need to discuss something, call opposing counsel. Do not send a twelve paragraph e-mail. It can be impossible to interpret the intended tone in e-mails. On the flip side, it is easy to misinterpret tone and put a negative spin on things.

On my first couple of cases I hated phone calls. I felt like my inexperience was oozing through the handset. After a few calls, however, I realized that it helped me get a much better feel for what opposing counsel was like, which made working with them a whole lot easier.

Try and meet face to face

It takes time to meet opposing counsel for coffee or lunch at their office, but it is time well spent. Phone calls are superior to e-mail and face-face is even better than phone calls.

E-mail makes it too easy to de-humanize the other person—which makes it easy to forget manners. Meeting people face-face will make you remember you are dealing with a person. You do not have to become best friends, but it can make adversarial relationships a lot less stressful and contentious.

You are likely to encounter opposing counsel more than once. Rather than start World War III, make an effort to develop a working relationship. Hopefully, it will make future interactions less contentious.

(Photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ludiecochrane/4540762900)

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  • Good advice, esp. regarding phone calls instead of emails. I would also add that we have to do what is best to advance our clients’ matters forward. Even if a call could me more difficult, avoiding a difficult conversation by sending an email may not be the quickest or most effective way of serving the client.

  • I’m not a lawyer, but I do occasionally hire attorneys to deal with personal and business litigation and contracts. As a client, I avoid hiring attorneys that are hot-heads or advocate bullying as a sound strategy for negotiation. While being strong has it’s place, I’ve found that in business, and in my businesses legal affairs that being courteous and polite often leads to opportunity and in many cases, helps avoid making a bad situation much worse by angering the other party, the court or unnecessarily fanning the flames in the press.

  • Incivility among litigators has been a problem for decades. I didn’t think it would get much worse, but with so many newer lawyers having to fend for themselves without mentoring, perhaps it is. Thanks for offering some strategies for keeping oneself in check.

    The Texas Lawyers Creed was adopted by the Supreme Court of Texas in 1989 to address the incivility issue. I would like to suggest it as a guide that lawyers can strive to align their practice with.

    It doesn’t really seem like one should have to STRIVE to comply with the Creed, but for some it may be a stretch right now. I wish I could say that the adoption of the Creed did the trick, and that it is universally followed in Texas. Sadly, when lawyers feel insecure due to their inexperience, or a weakness in their case, or just because a lawyer gets assailed daily, most default to belligerence, rather than courtesy. Sometimes that works in the short term, but in the long term it destroys opportunities for cooperation and resolution. I don’t believe it serves the client’s best interests, but rather, the lawyer’s ego.

    As one commentator said in an article about the adoption of the Creed, “Rambo litigators taint the heritage of the profession and wring the enjoyment and pleasure from the law practice, which should be exciting, challenging and rewarding.”

  • It does not surprise that the panel consensus would blame the younger lawyers for incivility because, I’m assuming, the panel was made up of older “experienced” attorneys. That’s just “old people” talk (you know the kind, “We were so much better back when I was younger”).
    I do not mean to disparage anybody, but as the previous poster noted, incivility has been raised as an issue for the entire 20 years I have practiced. In my first day of practice seminar, the older attorney said the exact same thing (newer lawyers are the problem).
    We have an adversarial system. There will be disagreements and arguments. I suggest that we stop complaining and instead lead. Be an example of what civility really is.
    I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestions, but stop blaming the young for today’s problems in all aspects of our society, including our profession.

  • John, you make a good point about too much blaming of young lawyers. I’m not even sure that the incivility is worse now. Regardless, it is a big problem that contributes to lawyer burn-out, without a corresponding benefit to clients, IMHO. That is one of the reasons that I am a big proponent of Collaborative Law.

  • I agree with the comments that it’s not just the fault of young lawyers. We know rudeness has been a problem in the profession for years and the legal profession has always attracted a fair number of jerk personality types. That said, the nature of practice in 2010, in particular, the increased availability of increased electronic means of communicating makes it a lot easier for practitioners to forget that this is a human profession. What used to require a phone call or a in person meeting can now be done remotely. Folks have less reason to actually interact in a personal way making it a lot easier to behave badly.

    There is a generational component to this, however. Younger attorneys are more used to using electronic methods of communicating — they started using them as teenagers (or even younger). Their norms of communicating are different and not necessarily informed by the experiences of prior generations of lawyers. There’s much for younger lawyers to learn from more experienced lawyers about how to communicate in more personal, productive ways, much as there is much for more experienced lawyers to learn about how to efficiently use new electronic tools in practice.

  • Debra and Steve, I completely agree with your posts, and I apologize if my comment was somewhat curmudgeonly (seems kinda ironic in a discussion of civility). But I appreciate that you got my point which may have been buried: Civility is a goal for ALL of us, and each of us has a personal obligation to set an example.

  • I don’t think avoiding e-mail is a realistic way to improve civility amongst lawyers. Perceived civility has decreased because the number of lawyers has increased. When there were fewer lawyers, there was a greater risk in being rude because the likelihood that you would face that lawyer again in another case, or get a referral from that lawyer, or need to ask that lawyer a question, was much greater. Even today, lawyers in narrower practice niches who have to engage with the same lawyers over and over again cannot afford to be rude because they never know when they may need a favor, such as an extension, in some future case.

    If you want to be more civil, get to know more lawyers. Treat them as your colleagues, not your enemies.

    • I agree that you have to be civil across all mediums. That said, I suggest avoiding e-mail because it is much easier to be a jerk in writing as opposed to a phone call or meeting in person.

      Then again, if you are a jerk, you probably have no problem being that way in every situation.

  • I’m fortunate to work in a small legal community (NV). The bar is small in this state and attorneys who think they have to act like jerks are quickly identified and labeled as such. As a young attorney, you have only one chance to build your reputation. Rudeness rarely benefits a client and can in fact be detrimental (blow back). I follow the golden rule in my practice: treat others as you would like to be treated (while protecting my client). This has worked out well for me thus far.