SACRAMENTO - Did you hear the joke about the two opposing lawyers who were really nice to each other?
No? Don't worry, neither has anyone else.
Concerned that the practice of law has simply gotten too darned mean, the California State Bar this summer authored new "California Attorney Guidelines of Civility and Professionalism."
The rules are a sort of Miss Manners guide to legal etiquette, instructing lawyers to use appropriate language, not exaggerate about their cases to the media, and try to show some common courtesy when scheduling depositions or serving papers.
State Bar President Sheldon Sloan said he saw the need for the guidelines because of increasing nastiness in the profession.
"I've been practicing a long time and over the years I've noticed a decline in the civility accorded between lawyers in a profession where traditionally the lawyers on opposite sides have gotten along pretty well," Sloan said.
"I really noticed it, frankly, in the large urban areas more than the smaller areas. The truth of the matter is, you can win a case without having to be uncivil to your opponent."
Among the guidelines?
Attorneys should avoid hostile, demeaning or humiliating words.
Attorneys also should be punctual for court appearances, should not disparage the intelligence or ethics of others when they're not relevant to the case, and should not produce disorganized or unintelligible documents during the discovery process.
Sloan said some attorneys play games - such as intentionally scheduling a deposition on an inconvenient day for opposing counsel, such as the Friday after Thanksgiving, or a child's school graduation day.
When asked to reschedule as a courtesy, they refuse. The other attorney then has to complain to the judge, wasting valuable court time to resolve a petty matter.
While the guidelines are nonbinding, Sloan hopes encouraging attorneys to sign a pledge to follow the rules can help rein in bad behavior.
And, he added, judges could decide to use the rules as guidance to impose sanctions when faced with nasty or petty bickering among lawyers in court.
Still, naturally, when many lawyers are involved in an issue of rules, there is plenty of debate. California has more than 210,000 lawyers, more than 156,000 of them actively practicing.
Some attorneys feel that the guidelines are unnecessary, simply because the legal profession already has plenty of rules governing conduct. And with the new guidelines being nonbinding, some think they aren't likely to make rude lawyers suddenly start playing nice.
Within the Los Angeles County Bar Association, two subgroups - the litigation section and the Professional Responsibility & Ethics Committee - opposed the new rules.
"To the extent that there's a civility issue that needs to be addressed - and there always will be and has been since the beginning of the practice of law - we didn't think we needed another set of rules," said Los Angeles attorney Richard J. Burdge Jr. Instead, Burdge, chairman of the County Bar Association's litigation section, suggested that the State Bar should press for more courses on the issues of civility in law schools.
Some experts believe there has always been a lack of courtesy among some elements in the legal profession.
UCLA law professor Adam Winkler, who specializes in legal ethics, said the lack of professional courtesy has been a problem for decades, but that the growing size of the profession might be pushing attorneys to be more competitive and aggressive. The larger number of attorneys also makes it less likely for repeat interactions, making it less likely for attorneys to feel obligated to be polite to one another.
Winkler also said the perception of rudeness can sometimes be fed by the proliferation of television shows featuring attorneys - though often real life is worse.
"The public perception of lawyers has been bad for a long time. Television shows don't do anything to make lawyers' reputations better," Winkler said.
"Maybe that enhances the public perception of lawyers lacking civility. But I think people watching those shows might get a better impression than if they saw actual lawyers in practice. Any lawyer who's worked in litigation has seen his share of unprofessional and uncivil conduct."
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