The Work Continues:
Professionalism in 2015
By Albert A. Menashe & Julia M. Hagan
In the late 1990s, many Oregon attorneys contemplated leaving the practice. It wasn’t the economics. It wasn’t the lack of work to be had. The complaint was “law is less of a noble calling, but more a battle to endure.” In short, it was an indictment for a lack of civility.
Out of that era arose the 1997 Multnomah Bar Association Summit on Professionalism, an impetus for the Oregon State Bar Commission on Professionalism, and a broad based commitment by Oregon’s chief justice, three law school deans, many trial judges and bar leaders. They committed to implement recommendations that not only endorsed professionalism, but advocated for it — to restore the public’s respect for the profession as well as our own satisfaction with the practice of law.
Signs of that era remain in many of our courthouses and law offices in the form of framed certificates of the Oregon State Bar Statement on Professionalism. County bars and specialty bars instituted committees that bestowed professionalism awards. New lawyer mentoring programs were created to encourage relationships among the younger bar with seasoned practitioners that would inculcate what has, at times, been referred to as “The Oregon Brand” of professional practice.
Fortunately for our bar, many of those early measures have taken root and endured. Yet as our society has changed, so have our legal practices, and the challenge is ongoing to operate as professionals in all contexts. One particular area continues to challenge: civility. Modern day practice presents evolving frontiers for the application of basic courtesy, kindness, decency and dignity.
Technology and Social Media’s Impacts
Only 25 years ago lawyers used to meet at the courthouse for the daily morning “cattle call,” otherwise known as trial assignment. This presented opportunities to develop relationships in hallways or afterwards over coffee. Likewise, statewide CLEs and other opportunities to socialize at bar functions were much more frequent.
Modern technology has allowed for rapid exchange of information, but far fewer opportunities to interact with other counsel, the court and our clients. The velocity and volume of information has brought increasing expectations for quick emailed response to complex legal issues. Not only does it limit the back and forth that allows attorneys and clients to develop creative options, but it limits the exercise of informed judgment, and in the family law context, forecloses more positive outcomes for counsel and families that arise in face-to-face communication.
Our personal and professional worlds have merged in the social media age and with it, the real potential for attorneys to cross boundaries of basic civil discourse and decency. What judge or attorney has not winced at a colleague’s list serve response, blog, tweet or Facebook post? Where have a family’s private, personal anguish over a child or parent’s indiscretions become the salacious fodder not just in a private law office or courtroom, but foisted into a public arena under the guise of litigation, but with lasting consequence?
Sometimes the intent is not as bad as the interpreted written communication, but without understanding the tone and affect of the sender, the message is misconstrued.
As attorneys, we are called to not only comport ourselves in our personal and professional practices with dignity and respect for our colleagues, but also to challenge the social media norms that may cultivate the written “boasts” made at the expense of our clients, their families, opposing counsel and our judicial system.
Not only within our law firms, but in the court system and the families we serve, the economy has taken its toll. Increasing numbers of self-represented parties come to our courthouses seeking access and speedy “justice” in a system fully stretched to meet their basic legal needs. Limited docket access for judicial resolution of conflicts along with the real financial cost of litigation fuels a view that the system is not available to all segments of society.
Families come to law firms with increasingly complex legal problems and limited resources. Firms are challenged to meet clients’ needs, to continue to invest in technology and best practices, and at the same time handle their cases responsibly. Preparation remains the cornerstone in professional practice for the client and the court, but judicious use of litigation tools and dispute resolution options is necessary to make the whole process more affordable. In that respect lawyers are called to only pursue positions in litigation that have merit and not “drain the college fund” through litigation tactics.
As lawyers, we are called to return the public’s trust and make a commitment to pro bono work, financially or with professional hours, as we respond to the economic challenges of our community. It is becoming harder to do everything required of us.
More Face Time, Less Facebook. Be aware of how technology distances you from relationships. Log out. Call or otherwise meet face-to-face with other attorneys. Develop professional relationships by serving on local bar association committees, civic groups or religious groups. Take another attorney to lunch or meet after hours for a social activity on an ongoing basis.
Positive Reinforcement. Compliment other attorneys when you see true civility, whether in the courtroom, a law firm or elsewhere within the legal community. Recognize professionalism awards as an ultimate honor in our legal community. Model responsible use of social media that promotes civility and respect for our judges, opposing counsel and parties, as it mirrors our legal profession.
Integrate Professionalism Into Your Daily Practice. Provide basic courtesies in requests and responses to opposing counsel for setting depositions, allowing additional time whenever possible for responses, setting court cases and responding to settlement offers. Model civil behavior with the court, counsel and opposing parties whenever you are in a courthouse or courtroom. Educate your clients and the public on professional ways of interacting with the court and counsel.
Preparation. Preparation, not chest pounding, is the key to success. Be ready, be on time and be prepared to settle cases. Educate your client on the range of legal options, judicial outcomes and consequences for litigation and high conflict in their personal and family lives.
Pro Bono Commitment. Make a commitment early each year — financially, or in service to your legal community, or in individual representation without expectation of payment. Recognize your colleagues for their pro bono commitment, efforts and investment in our community.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Albert A. Menashe is past president of the Oregon State Bar and the Multnomah Bar Association and is the recipient of the 2010 OSB Professionalism Award. Julia M. Hagan has served on the MBA board of directors and the Oregon State Bar Commission on Professionalism.