“I’d rather stuff a pork chop down my pants and take a swim in the Piranha River,” a colleague wrote to opposing counsel to highlight his displeasure over yet another contentious point in the litigation. There must be something about the 1 to 2 lb. carnivorous Amazon-dwelling fish that lends itself to such humorous similes for dealing with the disagreeably disputatious. Novelist Joseph Wambaugh made an almost identical comparison in Hollywood Station when one of his characters, a female detective, registered her appall at the unwelcome romantic overtures from a fellow officer.
Civility and professionalism have been of longtime concern to the legal profession. But proscriptions against lawyers acting badly have often seemed honored more in their breach than in their observance. More than 2 years ago, the California State Bar went so far as to adopt civility guidelines along with a voluntary pledge for lawyers to sign to adhere to them. Earlier, in 2003, the Arizona State Bar trumpted to much fanfare, their elimination of “zealous advocacy” from the Professional Canons, replacing it with “acting honorably.”
Justifying the change as a means to stem the tide of ill-mannered lawyers hiding behind “zealous advocacy” to excuse cantankerous confrontational conduct, no less than Arizona Supreme Court Justice Charles Jones described the move as, “a significant foundational change in the Rules of the Court, and one that is designed to send a distinct message to attorneys.”
But just as criminal defense lawyers rely on “the other guy did it” defense, lawyers willingly adopt an exculpatory version of their own when defending their own misbehavior or when decrying lapses of civility generally. I’ll always remember attending a continuing legal education seminar in 2000 where an Arizona lawyer indignantly exhorted those in attendance to refrain from “acting like California lawyers,” as though uncivil conduct were exclusively the purview of lawyers from the adjoining state or not to mention that his own urgings belied civility. Last year, just before defending a deposition, opposing counsel, whose own bare-knuckled approach had riled my co-counsel no end, leaned over to me and avuncularly advised, “Don’t pick up any bad habits,” meaning from my beleaguered co-counsel.
Lawyers are part of society and emblematic of society’s general coarsening, which frankly exploded more than a generation ago when the Baby Boomer generation came into its own. Author Tom Wolfe tellingly wrote about the “Me Decade” in New York magazine in 1976 but in truth, that decade has never ended. It became 3 decades and continues unabated today. Self-awareness morphed into self-entitlement. After all, it was never just about “you” but really about “me” wasn’t it?
In the wake of pop singer Michael Jackson’s death, NY Times Columnist Bob Herbert recently bemoaned the “extreme immaturity and grotesque irresponsibility” of American culture. The best definition of maturity I ever found is that maturity is the ability to delay one’s own gratification. Society has lost that ability. Gratification of self is not to be denied. The roots of today’s economic mess can be traced directly there. We don’t want to postpone our wanting and our getting it now. Herbert’s points are well made.
Too many people believe in only their own self-fulfilment and their own self-gratification. They use cellphones indiscriminately, caring little whether others are dining, worshiping or talking and movie patrons obnoxiously provide their own loud and unwelcome narration to fellow theater-goers. Lawyers who obstreperously resist deadline extensions to opposing counsel, think nothing of asking for extensions when it comes to themselves. And the worst part is the blind spot these Me-centered lawyers hew to. Calling them on it is a waste of time.
You can’t legislate etiquette, politeness or good conduct. People always look to their own self-interest, especially when narcissism has become so commonplace. So try as they might, until such time as society and its lawyers become less self-absorbed, less self-entitled, and less self-righteous, the absence of professionalism and civility will continue to be deplored and lamented.