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Bar Journal - June 1, 1999

Things Your Mother Taught You: Common Courtesy & Common Sense in the Everyday Practice of Law

By:
 

After reading the umpteenth article about the decline of civility in the legal profession, it dawned on me that, to a large extent, these weighty problems are really simple issues of common courtesy and common sense. At the risk of being branded as a disciple of Miss Manners, Emily Post or perhaps even Robert Fulghum or William Bennett, I offer the following food for thought. (Remember, use your napkin!)

TREAT OTHERS AS YOU WANT TO BE TREATED

This principle is put to the test hundreds of times each week in the life of a busy lawyer. And, no doubt, the further away one is from this maternal admonition, the harder it can be to follow it. Indeed, the most natural tendency is to treat others as they have just treated you. It is often hard to avoid behaving like the last opponent you may have encountered. But, if your friend lawyer X were about to jump from a bridge, would you follow him?

DON'T RUN WITH SCISSORS

The practice of law is difficult even when you are being cautious. Of course, it takes time, sometimes non-billable time, to be as careful as you should be. Any time spent in documenting conversations and decisions for the file is time well spent. The amount of good will created by promptly returning phone calls cannot be overestimated. Life as a lawyer is hard enough without increasing the chances of self-inflicted injury. Be careful out there.

STOP THAT OR YOUR FACE WILL GET STUCK THAT WAY

Luckily, mother was wrong and your face always bounced back to a recognizable state. The world would be a frightening place if that timeworn cliché were literally true. However, keep in mind that those who see you at your worst may, unfortunately, always remember you that way. Most people are incapable of being full of sweetness and light at every waking moment, but it is usually worth the effort to try and be pleasant. Like anything else, unpleasantness may be habit-forming.

STOP, DROP AND ROLL

It is helpful to be reminded in times of safety how one should behave in the face of disaster. There are bound to be a few disasters along the way during even the most distinguished career. When disaster strikes, do not blindly run away from it. That may only fan the flames. Stop immediately and confront the situation. If the situation involves clients, deal with your mistakes. Running away only makes things worse.

DON'T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER

Lawyers make decisions for a living. Thus, we sometimes confuse the exercise of good judgment with being judgmental. Although judgmental behavior may occasionally enable us to do our jobs more quickly, judging without really thinking creates more problems than it solves. The real world is not divided into lawyers and non-lawyers, so it doesn't really make sense to treat people differently on that basis. Be cordial both to your colleagues and to the people who work with them. There is no reason not to.

LEAVE THE CAMPSITE BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT

When you leave a case or a client or someone else's conference room, leave the situation improved by your participation. If you are shipping a file to successor counsel, send it in well-organized format and offer a courtesy consultation. As you are working with clients, make a long-term investment and educate your clients about the legal system and its benefit to society. When you use or visit some one else's office, clean up and do not ask for staff help without first seeking the permission of your host.

BE A GOOD NEIGHBOR

This is the urban corollary to the business about the campsite. Actually, as a profession, we serve our neighbors in many ways. Volunteerism is alive and well. We can be very proud of this record. But what about the neighborhood inside our firms and office buildings? What are you doing to improve the lives or lighten the load of the people that you work with or near?

PLAY BY THE RULES

The corollary to this is, do not make up the rules as you go along. The rules of court and rules of law are there to level the societal playing field. No lawyer is well-served by a reputation as a rule-breaker.

LOOK BOTH WAYS BEFORE YOU CROSS THE STREET

In any given day, each lawyer travels through many intersections, often accompanied by clients. Before you and your client step off the curb, check the traffic in both directions. Cars can travel both ways even on one-way streets. When advising a client, help them understand the consequences of failing to watch the traffic, and enable the client to cross alone, if possible, in the future.

TWO WRONGS DON'T MAKE A RIGHT

This is my opportunity to rail against the self-serving, written diatribe that occasionally arrives on my desk. When sending a letter to opposing counsel, keep in mind that that letter will take on a life of its own. Your letter may well end up attached to a court filing, or worse. Don't put anything in a letter to opposing counsel that you would not want printed on the front page of the paper or on the Internet. Resist the temptation to respond in kind.

MIND YOUR P'S AND Q'S

The most basic lessons are easiest to forget. In the heat of the moment, "please" and "thank you" may be the first expressions of courtesy to disappear from the lexicon. However, these words are the most typical, easily-observable signs of a well-mannered person. These words are often-used and their absence is readily noticed. Make your mother proud: ask nicely.

LEND A HELPING HAND

Mother did not settle for passive courtesy alone. It wasn't enough to be nice to your friends. She expected you to be nice to all of the other kids-especially the unpopular ones. Being kind to other members of your firm is easy (well, most of the time). But what about lawyers who work elsewhere, or lawyers trying to find their way in strange courtrooms, clerks offices or areas of the law? Do you reach out to them? Do not stand idly by while your colleagues bump into walls and trip over obstacles.

CONCLUSION

Fortunately, this space is too small to hold all of the advice which was repeatedly administered during your childhood; not that you could possibly forget any of it. So, remember to be a good citizen, play well with others, put your best foot forward and do what needs to be done. Mother would be proud.

The Author

Attorney Emily Gray Rice is an officer and a shareholder with the firm of Dean, Rice & Kane, Manchester, NH.

 

 

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