COMMENTARY: Civility and professionalism in the legal profession

By Agenique Smiley

Law has long been an adversarial endeavor; however, the adversarial nature of the legal profession does not have to dictate the manner in which we as legal professionals interact with one another. We in the legal profession must realize that we all carry the same burden of the administration and protection of justice and, therefore, must treat one another with dignity and respect. Civility and professionalism are important in the legal profession for so many reasons. Experienced practitioners must keep in mind that most young attorneys take their cues on how to practice from them. It has been said that young lawyers will likely adopt the attitude and practices of senior attorneys even if it is against their better judgment. The reason being is that the young lawyer sees the older practitioner's success and longevity of their career and wants to also be prosperous and with a long career. Therefore, the young lawyer often adopts the bad habits of the more experienced attorney, believing that they are the way to gain success. Keeping this in mind, civility and professionalism amongst attorneys is important for the future preservation of the dignity of the profession as a whole.

The present state of the legal profession is also dependent on the existence of civility and professionalism. No matter the reason why an attorney entered the profession, a lawyer's continuance in the practice of law often depends on the joy that they derive therefrom. Despite an attorney's particular area of practice, no joy or satisfaction can be derived from a system filled with questionable behavior and underhanded practices. Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Berger once said that "lawyers who know how to think but have not learned how to behave are a menace and a liability, not an asset to the administration of justice."

In an uncivil and unprofessional system that allows unethical acts and degradation of fellow attorneys, a "good" attorney may feel helpless and become disenchanted with the profession. Many "good" attorneys feel that the legal profession has declined and that it not only allows but often times rewards unethical and unprofessional behavior. The result is often those attorneys leaving the practice of law altogether. The loss of a "good" attorney for lack of civility and professionalism is a tragedy that is suffered by the entire legal community. Civility and professionalism are important in the preservation of "good" practitioners. The existence and practice of civility and professionalism not only allows for and encourages meaningful attorney interaction but they also make the practice more enriching by helping to resolve difficulties and conflicts in a respectful and productive manner.

Additionally, the need for civility and professionalism is present in all aspects of the legal profession. From the moment a case is filed until a judgment is entered, civility and professionalism are important. They are important in attorney communications, client communications and interaction with the court. A case running smoothly and ultimately coming to a resolution often centers on how well the two attorneys work together.

The "official" title for an attorney is Attorney and Counselor. Looking at that title it is obvious that both civility and professionalism play important roles in a lawyer's success. The title of "Attorney" carries with it the presumption that the person carrying that title is not only educated but conducts themselves with professionalism and integrity. As attorneys we are strictly contracted to conduct the business of our clients; we are their advocates and their speakers. The things that we say and do reflect on our client and courts often determine the credibility of a litigant based on the conduct of their attorney. Moreover, every time a person reveals to another that they are an attorney, that person immediately becomes the representative for the entire profession. Members of the legal community are held to a higher moral standard; therefore, people scrutinize their actions. Conducting one's self professionally not only on the professional but also the personal level is imperative on a broader scale for the judgment and perception of the profession on a whole.

The title "Counselor" denotes that a certain level of humanity, or even compassion, is present in the person carrying that title. Clients often look to their attorneys for guidance on matters beyond the legal issue at hand and it is at that point where we become "counselors" and where civility becomes important. I am not suggesting that an attorney should play the role of a psychiatrist; however, the civility shown to a client can often help an attorney understand that client's point of view, turn a case around and, most importantly, lead to repeat business.

Members of the legal community, especially attorneys, must also be counselors to one another. Demeaning conduct, whether it be toward the judge, the system or the opponent succeeds in only demeaning the attorney and the profession. We in the legal community must recognize the fact that the protection and administration of justice is a difficult task and that, at some point, one of our members may need assistance. In a truly civil and professional system, that fighter for justice need only contact their local bar association for the help that they need.

The Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct are filled with things an attorney "shall not" do. Things like falsifying evidence or making frivolous discovery requests are strictly prohibited. Although the main reason why such things are prohibited is so that the court can discover the truth of the matter and make a just ruling; the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct, at the very least, have a peripheral purpose promoting civility and professionalism amongst attorneys. Most rules contain some language that promotes and protects fairness, be it to the client, court or another attorney. Professionalism and civility are the blocks on which the practice of law are built; therefore, without them, the system will surely crumble. Also we must not forget that if the common sense of civility and professionalism is not enough to convince a practitioner to act with the decorum and respect owed to the profession, the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct have fines, sanctions and other disciplinary actions in place to remind them just how important they are.

In order to appreciate the importance of civility and professionalism in the legal profession all one must do is envision their absence. Without the presence of both civility and professionalism the legal system, at least in its present state, could not exist. Civility in the practice of law requires striking a balance between aggressive client advocacy and professional conduct. The nature of litigation is adversarial and without certain checks and balances, both written and inferred, no true justice can be had by any party as the matter would be judged not on the merits but on the prevailing attorney's ability to deceive the court. The system itself would break down as it would be over run with delusory practices and meritless claims.

In litigation, civility and professionalism can make all the difference. Attorneys approaching a case as two professionals trying to work out a solution as opposed to approaching the case as two adversaries in a fight promotes resolution without the need for trial. Moreover, just like in the case of newer attorneys, clients take their cues from their attorney. Civility and professionalism amongst two attorneys in a conflict often sets an example for their clients and encourages them to be more amicable and, often, more flexible. Professionalism also boosts client confidence and makes them more prone to listen to and follow their attorney's advice and direction. If a trial cannot be avoided, civility amongst the attorneys can make the trial move smoother and faster because they can often settle small conflicts without the need court intervention. This saves both time and money.

Civility and professionalism before the court is not only important but essential. Every attorney has been or will be in a situation with a judge that is unhappy. It is important for an attorney to not only stay professional but also civil in said situation. Not responding or showing emotion to the judge's conduct and continuing to advocate for the client is the mark of a true professional and will often earn that attorney the respect of that judge.

Moreover, civility and professionalism preserves the public trust in the justice system. The public's confidence in the justice system is eroded and the integrity of the rule of law is compromised when the public observes misbehaving lawyers and unprofessional conduct. It is a well-known fact that the average person's perception of an attorney is one of a liar or manipulator of the truth. People believe that there is no true justice and lawsuits are decided based on which litigant has the most expensive attorney. Some people even believe that attorneys intentionally drive up the cost of litigation. However, the practice of civility and professionalism can prevent the erosion of the public's opinion of the legal system and lawyers and maintain the rectitude of the rule of law. The witnessing of an attorney practicing with integrity and conducting said practice with decorum can and often will change a person's attitude towards the legal profession and restore their faith in the legal system.

Civility and professionalism go hand in hand in the legal profession and are just as important to the practice of law as a good legal education. Without them the current legal system cannot exist. Bad practices will be handed down from generation to generation until there is total chaos in the legal field. In order to prevent the perpetuation of the cycle of "bad" practice, we as legal professionals must pledge to always practice with integrity and fairness.


Agenique Smiley is a native Detroiter and a graduate of Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She is currently working in Mt. Clemens and serves on the Board of Directors of Solid Ground Transitional Shelter, located in Roseville, Michigan; which provides food, shelter and other essential services to homeless and at risk families and individuals.

Published: Fri, May 4, 2012