THE NEOPHYTE LAWYER, DAY 122: PROFESSIONALISM AND CIVILITY

THE NEOPHYTE LAWYER

 

DAY 122: PROFESSIONALISM AND CIVILITY

 

Sorry for the delays in posting. The grand move has proven to be a little more challenging than we first thought. Everything is now in the new place, the satellite T.V. and DSL lines in place and working (more or less), and my daughter is slowly adjusting to her new bedroom. We still have to find permanent homes for a lot of our stuff, and the home office needs some serious re-organization. But it is all coming together slowly but surely. So now back to the life of the Neophyte Lawyer.

 

I just had a very productive meeting with my mentor. As a brief recap, newly-admitted lawyers in Utah have to go through the New Lawyer Training Program sponsored by the Utah Bar Association. This pairs the new lawyer with a more experienced mentor. They are supposed to meet regularly (once a month), and develop a training plan to start the transition from law student to practicing lawyer.

 

I have a very good relationship with my mentor (which helps in the whole mentor-mentee process). I have known him literally all my life. In fact, he is my older brother. And any chance I get to have lunch with Jim (and my nephew Matt, who is also a lawyer and practices with his father) is a good thing. Especially when he buys… .

 

Anyway, today’s discussion was on the Utah Standards of Professionalism and Civility. Unlike the Utah Rules of Professional Conduct, which deal with the ethical regulations governing the practice of law in the state of Utah, the Standards of Professionalism and Civility govern the conduct of lawyers toward each other, the courts, the public, and the profession at large.

 

There are 20 of these standards. The one that stands out to me today is number 2:

 

Lawyers shall advise their clients that civility, courtesy, and fair dealing are expected. They are tools for effective advocacy and not signs of weakness. Clients have no right to demand that lawyers abuse anyone or engage in any offensive or improper conduct.

 

Often, clients seem to expect us to “beat up” on the opposing party, their counsel, and/or their witnesses. After all, that’s what lawyers do on television and in the movies, right? How many times have we seen Perry Mason badgering a witness into confessing to the murder? And it works every time! Poor A.D.A. Hamilton Burger sits there helplessly while the witness breaks down on the stand.

 

On a similar note, earlier this summer my wife and I watched the premier of “Franklin & Bash” on TNT. I was, shall we say, underwhelmed (So much so that I won’t even dignify the show with a hyperlink. Take that, TNT!) The title characters are a pair of (in my opinion) ethically-challenged lawyers out to win at any cost, ethics be damned. For example, in one scene, an automobile accident takes place outside of the diner where they are eating. Our two intrepid “heroes” immediately race out to the scene of the accident, not to see if anyone needs first aid or other assistance, but to hand out business cards to one of the drivers. Knee-slapping humor, that.

 

They also engage in courtroom antics designed to humiliate witnesses, mock opposing counsel, and in general demonstrate disdain for the entire legal process. And are they ever called to account for their juvenile behavior? What, are you kidding? They are rewarded for it. They get hired by a big (and presumably) prestigious law firm. The senior partner turns a blind eye to their antics, and they are basically left free to continue their frat boy antics. Yeah, in case you couldn’t tell, I didn’t like this show at all.

 

These shows (and others) seem to send a message: All you have to do to be a successful lawyer is to act like a jerk and flout the rules.

 

And it’s totally inaccurate.

 

Let’s go back to Standard 2 for a minute. “Civility, courtesy, and fair dealing are expected. They are tools for effective advocacy and not signs of weakness.” Treating someone else with respect and civility does not weaken your position or make your representation of your client’s interests less effective. If you want someone to belittle or demean the other side, you can find another attorney. I don’t operate that way.

 

If I were to do anything like Franklin & Bash, I would be hauled before the Office of Professional Conduct faster than you could say “disbarment.” And if I were to attempt to badger a witness on the stand, I daresay that opposing counsel, not to mention the judge, would put me in my place in short order. And rightfully so.

 

Perhaps a more statement of proper professional behavior comes from, of all places, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, in the words of Bill S. Preston, Esquire:

 

Be excellent to each other.

 

Or, to put it a little more bluntly:

 

Don’t be the asshole.

 

It may give you an immediate short-term benefit, but in the long run, it harms both your reputation and your client’s case.

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About W. Lewis Black

W. Lewis Black is an associate attorney at Dunn & Dunn, P.C., located in Salt Lake City, Utah. His practice focuses on personal injury, employment law, workers compensation, and Social Security Disability claims. He is a past member of the Ensemble at Pinnacle Acting Company in Midvale, Utah. He can be contacted at wlblack@dunndunn.com.
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