Arguments for Civility

Frank Stevenson
May 18, 2017

In my experience, civility is the hallmark of a successful and respected lawyer. And our Texas bar as a whole is fully committed to promoting civility and integrity in our profession. We demonstrated that in 1989 when our highest courts adopted the Texas Lawyer’s Creed, and again in 2015 when lawyers from every practice area and setting worked to add a civility pledge to our Lawyer’s Oath. I asked the Professionalism Committee to pursue the Day of Civility project to both celebrate and strengthen the longstanding commitment of Texas lawyers to civility.

There are over 100,000 Texas lawyers, but by every other measure, it’s a remarkably small community. How you behave will become how you are known and who people think you are. So, ultimately, civility is a matter of identity—how you are known and understood by other lawyers; even how you know and understand yourself. 

There’s always the temptation to “fight fire with fire” when you are dealing with an uncivil lawyer. But we have to remember that civility is never graded on a curve. The behavior of opposing counsel is wholly irrelevant to our own behavior. The authentically civil lawyer will never allow the incivility of opposing counsel to change the person she is.

In my experience, there are several compelling arguments for civility. 

First, civility gets you business. Whether you are a transactional lawyer or a litigator, your opposing counsel and client are two of your best sources of business. Few of those individuals will want to recommend or retain an uncivil lawyer. 

In fact, being uncivil can actually cost you business. I’ve seen clients change lawyers when they determined existing counsel was acting in an uncivil way. Sophisticated clients that care about their reputations realize that their lawyer’s poor behavior reflects poorly on them; they will not tolerate that.

Second, civility enhances the satisfaction of being a lawyer. Dealing with obnoxious or overly aggressive lawyers wrings out the sense of fulfillment that otherwise results from practicing law.

Third, civility serves your client. In my transactional work, I’ve actually seen deals fail because of the incivility of counsel. Short of that, unnecessarily hostile tactics can stiffen the opposing counsel’s resolve on otherwise solvable issues, protracting negotiation and generating needless delay, cost, and risk. 

I’ve also observed uncivil litigation tactics backfiring profoundly.

While serving as 2012-13 President of the Texas Bar, Buck Files personally met with 372 judges across the state to discuss the Texas Lawyer’s Creed. All but three of them expressed support for the Creed and its applicability to what transpires in their courts. So, if you ignore or dismiss the Creed in your litigation practice because it’s technically non-binding, you have a roughly three in 372 chance of being matched with a sympathetic judge. Not good odds.

Fourth, we are required to act with civility. Since 2015, our oath as Texas lawyers has included the promise “that I will conduct myself with integrity and civility in dealing and communicating with the court and all parties.” And even before that was added, the oath required we each pledge “that I will honestly demean myself in the practice of law,” which refers to how we conduct ourselves and how we behave.

Fifth, acting with civility burnishes the public’s perception of who we are as lawyers and as people. We often overlook that the citizens we swore to serve are always taking the measure of us. They have no understanding of—and even less interest in—the degrees we’ve amassed or the recognitions we’ve achieved. Instead, they will know us and our profession by how we act.  Uncivil behavior will convince them that we are less an honored profession and more an amalgam of organized appetites.

Finally, we ought to be civil simply because it’s the right thing to do. For example, “honor everyone” is what we are told in 1 Peter. We do that by treating one another with civility.

We bear a precious privilege—namely, the opportunity to practice law as Texas lawyers. We thus have obligations to the lawyers who preceded and will succeed us, as well as obligations to our profession, our clients, our principles, and ourselves. Without civility, every one of those obligations goes unmet.

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