March 27th, 2019
Professionalism is the Best Type of Advocacy
The American Inns of Court publishes a magazine called The Bencher, and the recent March/April 2019 edition had an article titled “Professionalism Benefits Attorneys, Their Clients, and the Legal Community.” The article touched on several important aspects of professionalism in the legal community and the vast benefits that attorneys and their clients reap when they choose to conduct themselves with the highest standards of conduct.
The article addressed the difference between ethics and professionalism, which is a distinction that often gets overlooked, but an important one nonetheless. All attorneys are bound to a code of ethics through their state’s Rules of Professional Conduct, which require attorneys to do a number of things in their practice, including protecting confidentiality of communications with clients, exhibiting honesty and candor to the court, and ensuring that they are not engaged in any conflicting relationships through their representation. While there are many other requirements imposed upon lawyers by the codes of legal ethics, and while many of those rules would naturally give rise to a lawyer behaving well, it is also possible for lawyers to be both ethical and unprofessional. Professionalism centers around how a lawyer acts while performing all of his duties, and even more importantly, how the lawyer treats others he encounters while engaging in the practice of law.
Unfortunately, some expectations and misunderstandings of what legal professionalism means have led to a belief that a lawyer who is acting unprofessionally is actually doing a better job of fighting hard for his client. For example, lawyers who present their arguments in an aggressive or intimidating style are often touted as bulldogs who are advocating as hard as they can for their client’s case, while lawyers who deliver their arguments in a more even-tempered manner may be seen as not fighting hard enough to win. Lawyers who are agreeable to extensions of deadlines or rescheduling case events due to another lawyer’s schedule may be viewed as pushovers or giving up control on the issue. Clients may mistake a friendly attorney who shakes everyone’s hand and asks how opposing counsel’s children are doing during a break in a deposition for being “on their side” rather than the client’s. Much of this is a misconception, and there are a lot of ways that a lawyer’s calm or pleasant behavior can benefit the client much more than raised voices or pounding fists.
The Bencher article referred back to “the Golden Rule” of treating others as we would like to be treated as the foundation of professionalism, and suggested that the three main characteristics of a lawyer who behaves professionally are civility, integrity, and dignity. Each of these traits is rooted most solidly in respect – for others, for the law and justice, and for oneself. When you can view situations that arise during litigation through this lens, it is easier to see how behaving professionally produces benefits all around. A lawyer who has agreed to a request by opposing counsel to extend a deadline or reschedule a deposition is more likely to receive the same courtesy when it is his client who needs more time to answer discovery or had an unexpected scheduling conflict. A lawyer who is polite and reasonable when presenting his arguments to the court, and explains the reasons why the court should accept his position over the other side’s, is more likely to be taken seriously each time he appears before that court. An attorney who is civil and pleasant to everyone he encounters, including opposing counsel and opposing parties, is more likely to be able to work out litigation disputes without resorting to court intervention, saving clients time and money in their case.
Finally, the article discussed a benefit of professionalism that is probably most overlooked by lawyers themselves – the increased positivity of the practice of law when you and your colleagues behave professionally. Situations are much less stressful when no one is screaming, making threats, or refusing to cooperate on minor issues. Lawyers are able to advocate much better for clients when they can approach situations with a clear head and reduced anxiety. Networking and interactions within the legal community are also more enjoyable when lawyers treat one another with respect both in and out of the courtroom, and this can produce benefits to a lawyer’s practice such as co-counsel or referral relationships, receiving advice from colleagues with varied experience, and learning of new opportunities for involvement in legal community organizations.
So the next time you see lawyers shaking hands after just having sat on opposite sides of the table during a mediation, or presenting an argument to the court without raising voices, keep in mind that those lawyers are still advocating hard for their clients, they are just also advocating for professionalism in the practice of law.