For the sixth year in a row, Michigan Super Lawyers has recognized me for Business Litigation. To my peers who elected me, I thank you. I do not know who you are, but I am guessing we share the same philosophy vis-à-vis civility. Civility is defined as “civilized conduct; especially: courtesy, politeness.” For me, it means not being a jerk. It does not mean I have to be best friends with my opposing counsel; only that that I do not have to be unnecessarily rude to be effective. Here are several reasons why civility is a cornerstone of my everyday practice.
First, being civil is the right thing to do. When you were sworn in as an attorney, you agreed to maintain the respect due to the courts and judicial officers, abstain from all offensive personality, and to conduct yourself in conformity with the high standards of conduct imposed upon Michigan lawyers. It is an honor to practice law in this state, and one that comes with the responsibility of helping maintain the decorum and respect of the profession.
Second, being uncivil does not help your client. In fact, it usually hurts your client in numerous ways, including financially, because it unnecessarily creates fees. When there is no reason to be overly adversarial, you are manufacturing a dispute. By creating more disputes, you are creating the need for more solutions. It is like the reverse of the Notorious B.I.G. song – more problems, more money.
Third, judges and clerks abhor unprofessionalism. Judges and their staff are there to help resolve a case on its merits. They are not (and should not have to be) the arbiters of petty disputes that have little or nothing to do with the case. If you are being uncivil to a clerk or an opposing counsel and the judge learns of it, how do you think the judge is going to view you and your client for the remainder of the case? Uncivil behavior gains you nothing in the eyes of a judge, but costs you valuable credibility that, once lost, is hard to win back.
Fourth, being disrespectful to your opposing attorneys could motivate them. It makes things personal and could make your opponent want to win for reasons other than getting a good result for the client. Like a trash-talking athlete giving bulletin-board material for the opposing team, disrespect can cause your opposing counsel to think about the case more, turning a passive attorney into a proactive advocate.
Fifth, if you are habitually inconsiderate towards your opposing counsel, you are inviting similar behavior. This could decrease the likelihood of obtaining professional courtesies, such as extensions, and in turn, increase the likelihood of involving the judge and, again, creating fees.
Sixth, being respectful and earning the respect of your peers could lead to business. If you have a history of being uncivil, people will know. For as many attorneys as there are who practice law in Michigan, it is still a relatively small community. Reputations often precede us, whether when meeting opposing counsel for the first time or being introduced to a potential client. I have never referred a case to an attorney I did not feel practiced law in a courteous and respectful manner. To do otherwise would be a disservice to my clients.
Seventh, being civil makes the practice of law more enjoyable. Instead of making personal enemies, you are extending your network of familiar faces and building professional trust among those you will likely encounter again in your career. This makes bar functions and other time spent with your colleagues – in a profession that may last a lifetime – more pleasant and rewarding.
As a business litigator, I am often retained to handle contentious disputes. This fast-paced and stressful profession can sometimes bring out the worst in a vast minority of attorneys. But lawyers who truly appreciate this profession, and the services we provide to our clients, understand that holding themselves up to a higher standard of professionalism is not just the better option – it’s the only option. To my colleagues who agree, again, I thank you.
Photo by John Meiu, courtesy of Detroit Legal News Publishing LLC