Achieving Civility Means Managing Relationships

From: Small Firm Innovation, November 2013

All lawyers are ultimately in the people business. Every day lawyers deal with human lives, no matter to what extent their technical skills are needed, and should strive to communicate honestly and directly while maintaining respect for those with whom we deal. That is easier said than done, when clients expect immediate answers to stressful and emotional problems, when opposing counsel take the "cobra approach” (churning the ground, striking out indiscriminately and seeking to inflict the maximum amount of damage on anyone in the way), and when law offices let worry about cash flow and billings overwhelm teamwork. But each of these challenges to civility can be managed through the right approach to human relationships.

Clients. Make sure clients understand this two-way relationship: the lawyer agrees to perform to the best of his or her ability in accord with professional standards, and the client agrees to communicate and cooperate fully, as well as make timely payments. Avoid a client who has unrealistic expectations or demands, who will in the future express irritation with delay, who will chronically complain about everything, who will demand constant or instant attention, or who expects unrealistic or abnormal hand-holding. Such attitudes strain civility and often create malpractice claims.

Counsel. Simple self-interest should dictate that being rude and obnoxious to legal adversaries is self-defeating. Do we truly believe that such conduct will win us points or cause our client’s position to be moved forward? On the contrary, such behavior often merely entrenches the opposition further. Any lawyer can be a zealous advocate of a client’s interests and still do so with what Rule of Professional Conduct 1.3 calls "courtesy and respect.”

Colleagues. Lawyers primarily focus on immediate tasks and results, leaving little room for camaraderie and support. Inclusiveness will produce more harmony for all, increase productivity and therefore profitability of the firm. But studies have shown that inclusiveness is difficult for lawyers, who tend to be more skeptical, impatient and intense, and less interactive and able to take criticism, than people in general. When a lawyer’s connection with team members is positive, it creates a shared work ethic and belief that the firm’s work is worthwhile. Failure to do so will create inefficiencies and disharmony in the firm, and thus poor client relations.

The lawyers who serve their clients, colleagues and the profession best are problem solvers, not cobras. Our goals should be to bring a sense of order to troubled situations. We can stand forthright to advocate our client’s interest and position, yet still be civil. The law cannot be a profession unless we ourselves maintain professionalism.

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