An invitation to speak on the topic of lawyer civility came my way recently and two things about the request caught me a bit off guard. One was that the initial time slot was three hours and the other was a desire for the focus to be on sharing practical tips on how lawyers could be civil toward one another.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the topic of civility is one that deserves serious attention, given that incivility seems to rule the day, particularly in D.C.; I just felt there was no way I could talk for three hours on the topic, and speaking honestly, I still have trouble wrapping my head around sharing a list of tips.
As I see it, perspective is at least part of the problem. Think about it. How many lawyers solely focus on winning, try to justify any and all antagonistic actions as zealous representation and view opposing counsel as a courtroom adversary? This, coupled with a far too common belief that intimidating or making life miserable for an opponent is in a client’s best interest and that civility and common courtesy are signs of weakness, is it any wonder incivility is a problem in our profession?
JFK got it right when during the cold war he famously said, “Civility is not a sign of weakness.” I agree wholeheartedly. Civility is a sign of strength. It is incivility that is the true sign of weakness. If a lawyer needs to rely on rude, obnoxious, condescending, or overly aggressive behavior in order to try and make the case, it seems to me the legal argument being made, or legal position taken isn’t being built on solid ground. Stated another way, people act like (and I’m toning it down here) “knuckleheads” when they have nothing to work with.
All of this helps explain why I was taken off guard by how the speaking request was framed. Civility is a choice. That’s it. That’s the best tip I have. It isn’t hard. Be a lawyer who chooses to be civil, who chooses to be courteous, and find strength in making that choice.
That said, I have one additional comment I feel compelled to share. If any clients have a problem with a decision to be civil, it’s time to do a little educating or time to find a new client. Life’s too short as it is. Clients who expect or demand their lawyer act like a knucklehead are wanting their lawyer to play a game, their game. But know this: Whenever a lawyer agrees to play a client’s game, he or she risks becoming the target of a new game should things not play out the way any of those clients expected. It’s one of those “what goes around, comes around” kind of things. JFK got it. Hopefully, now you get it to.