Standards of Civility – It’s a Lawyer’s Duty

We attorneys who engage in litigation must be zealous advocates for our clients and their interests.  In a positive sense, to be zealous means to be “ardently active” or “devoted.” And most lawyers aim to represent their clients with dedication, enthusiasm and passion.  But can zeal go too far?

I was recently affronted by what I’d describe as an overly zealous opponent in the courtroom. His behavior certainly surpassed the above definition, extending into the realm of excessive blustering, rudeness and hostility.  He repeatedly interrupted me mid-argument and resorted to calling my client derogatory names. The offensiveness of this lawyer was so unsettling, in fact, that I felt the need to reflect on why it is integral to uphold standards of civility in our practice of law.

I turned to Appendix A of the New York Rules of Professional Conduct, which sets out “Standards of Civility.”  In the preamble to that section, it is explained that while they “are not intended as rules to be enforced by sanction or disciplinary action … they are a set of guidelines intended to encourage lawyers, judges and court personnel to observe principles of civility and decorum….”  Specifically, as they relate to my experience, the standards address lawyers’ duties to other lawyers and, in particular, suggest that “[l]awyers should act in a civil manner … [and that] [e]ffective representation does not require antagonistic or acrimonious behavior….”  Not following such standards, the preamble concludes, interrupts the judicial process and diminishes its effectiveness.

When an attorney engages in coarse behavior, it tempts one to respond in kind. When confronted with such behavior, however, I reminded myself that in my practice I represent charitable organizations.  Therefore, not only do I have a duty to myself and my profession, but I owe it to my clients to hold myself to the highest standard of professional integrity.  My conduct as a lawyer is, in many cases, the only representation of who the client is and what they stand for in the public arena of the courtroom.  Lawyers and charities depend, in large part, upon the trust of the public and civility is a currency we both trade on in gaining and maintaining that trust. Without it, our ability to advocate for the greater good of society is compromised.  And in the end, that is the reason we chose to do the work we do.

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