“Youth Basketball Tourney Halted After Adults Fight,” read the headline. I don’t know why I was surprised. Maybe I am dismayed because these were “adult” leaders, serving as role models for youths at the tourney. After all, just the previous weekend, I watched sport games on television with coaches and players acting far beyond any reasonable bounds of sportsmanlike conduct. With thousands watching, prominent sports figures and leaders berated each other, the referees and fans with egregious behavior, frequently without any repercussions.
I confess there are many things that have aroused my ire as a lawyer over the years – things which brought me to a boil. And certainly, I have not always been at my best behavior, even in open court. On the other hand, never once did I consider taking a swing at another lawyer, opponent, judge or anyone in the courtroom. Or a deposition or negotiation. We lawyers are often passionate about our clients and our cases. But our encounters only rarely come to blows. Why is that? I hope it has something to do with what we teach at law school.
Articles and editorials bemoaning the loss of civil discourse abound everywhere. Many blame the Internet with instant access and instant response. If we had pondered and measured a response more fully, the vitriol, scorn or derision would be removed. If only there was time for reflection.
Yet, in law school, we weren’t always able to reflect. Most of us did not react with violence or intimidation in response to that cold call in Torts. Or the sixth hearsay objection in Trial Practice. Certainly, there were provocations. But, even in the heat of the moment, we learned that persuasion requires trust.
Convincing others of the value of an argument calls for a certain level of trust. At the very least, I need to trust that you will not come unglued when we engage in debate. Whether our dispute resolution preference is negotiation, mediation, arbitration or trial, we consciously and conscientiously teach at law school that trustworthiness is a character trait we value and cultivate.
From the moment new students enter law school, we stress that the practice of law begins at that instant. We impress upon them that their reputation for trustworthiness begins now and will follow them throughout their lives.
We try to teach it, not just preach it. Sure, students may learn about a lawyer’s role in preserving the “rule of law” from a particular class. Or they may begin to grasp the amazing professional ethics requirement of pursuing the truth. They also learn by doing. By the third year at University of Montana School of Law, students are putting their reputation for trustworthiness on the line in their clinic work. When dealing with their colleagues, opposing counsel, or a tribunal, their reputation for trustworthiness is tested and stretched, even before taking the oath.
In this market-driven society, law schools have become targets of criticism for what they don’t teach. But teaching civil discourse is something we do rather well. Law schools should get some credit for that.
As a former Montana Legal Services Association staffer, Klaus Sitte advocated for Montanans living in poverty for nearly 40 years. Family law, especially domestic violence issues, and landlord/tenant law were his areas of concentration. He left MLSA in 2012 to become Director of Student Services and Clinic Director at the University of Montana School of Law School.