What young lawyers can do about incivility in law practice

Each day, the news media confront us with a new, bizarre permutation of Americans' incivility to one another.

A theatergoer texts incessantly during the live performance of a Broadway show, prompting actress Patti LuPone to leave the stage midshow and seize the offender's cellphone. Later, LuPone said she is considering retiring from the theater because of how pervasive the problem has become.

Donald Trump doesn't like a female television reporter who asks him a hard question during a televised debate, so he suggests she must be menstruating.

A professional football player, Richie Incognito, mercilessly bullies a rookie teammate, Jonathan Martin, who later becomes suicidal.

Then there is what surrounds us every day. People casually dropping f-bombs in conversations easily overheard in public places. Obscene gestures exchanged over trifles between motorists on the highway. And everywhere. the silent, unapologetic, brazen scrolling through email on cellphones during business meetings while someone is speaking.

Law practice is a profession that supposedly aspires to the highest ideals of integrity and ethics. Yet gross incivility by lawyers and judges is plentiful and has been for a long time.

On the record during a deposition in 1993, legendary trial lawyer Joe Jamail famously called an opponent an "asshole" who could "gag a maggot off a meat wagon."

My personal rogues' gallery includes a few memorable colleagues. The attorney from Perkins Coie who quietly rushed to take my clients' default, knowing our office had already prepared and filed an answer, and knowing the court would almost certainly set aside the default later (it did). The opponent who called me "duckface," or a word that rhymed with it, sotto voce, during a jury trial one afternoon last September as the jury filed in to Judge Griffin's department in Santa Ana.

Then there was the Ninth Circuit Judge, Andrew Kleinfeld, who needed to show off his intricate knowledge of tax law by dominating an oral argument with his stentorian lecturing (disguised as questioning) of counsel one morning in Pasadena.

Kleinfeld's lengthy interruptions consumed most of the morning's hearing time, delaying the hearings of the other cases on that morning's calendar and reducing the time available to hear them. After taking a recess, the judge cut everyone else's hearing time short (without warning), to get things back on track so he could recess the morning session by noon.

My client’s case was a plaintiff’s civil rights case. When our turn came, Kleinfeld interrupted me at least twice to tell all those assembled that "nice people" are “home in bed” at 2 a.m., not out in the streets like my African-American client, who had been falsely arrested and humiliated by white police.

My client was sitting in the front row at the time. He could not have taken what Kleinfeld said as anything less than a gratuitous insult. In an anonymous survey conducted by the Ninth Circuit in 2009, poor judicial temperament and demeanor ranked among the top three complaints from attorney-respondents.

Part of the solution to problems like these, like so many other things in American law, comes to us from the British. The Inns of Court began in England, possibly as early as the late 13th century. Records of one (Lincoln's Inn) date to 1422.

The Inns were residential colleges that featured lecture rooms, dining rooms, club rooms and sometimes theater. The Inns inculcated etiquette as well as knowledge. Senior members counseled their juniors. Students heard lectures, conducted moot courts and argued cases over dinner. The Inns continue to operate in London today, helping personalize the bar and enforce standards of civility in law practice there.

Fortunately for the American bar, the first U.S. Inn of Court opened — 35 years ago, in Provo, Utah. Today, the American Inns of Court is a national movement. More than 28,000 active members participate in 300 active chapters around the country.

Local U.S. Magistrate Judge Karen Crawford describes their mission this way: "to unite a cross-section of the bench and bar in an educational forum to encourage excellence, professionalism and ethics in advocacy, as well as to promote fellowship of bench and bar."

Years ago, when Karen was still a lawyer, I had a case with her. She was on the other side. For a time, we didn't get along, and each of us displayed some hard feelings toward the other. The case ended in a settlement.

Later, I started seeing Karen at Inn of Court meetings. Wine was drunk, food was eaten. And soon I began to forget what Karen had done to make me angry in the first place. To this day I look forward to seeing her. If you had told me in 2001 that I would feel that way in the future, I would have laughed and said, "Not in this lifetime." But life is long.

Often, we feel that our efforts are puny and pointless. Yet, in a small way, the American Inns of Court provide all attorneys a vehicle for doing something real about the incivility that has driven thousands of lawyers away from the bar or into a sort of loathing of their profession.

Young people, including young lawyers, don't read newspapers today. But if you are a young lawyer and you are reading this, do yourself a favor: Apply for membership in an Inn of Court near you. There are five chapters in San Diego from which to choose. Did you miss the deadline for the upcoming season? Then apply next year. You'll learn some skills.

Once a month, you'll sit down and break bread with lawyers and judges. Afterward, you'll find it harder to act like Joe Jamail. While driving home, you might even have the same sensation I've had in that moment: feeling glad to be a lawyer.

Dan Lawton is the principal of Lawton Law Firm in downtown San Diego.

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