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Bar News - June 23, 2006

Professionalism: Daily Practice Should Include Civility and Courtesy



“The Courthouse”


One day a month, it becomes a kind of fortress

Besieged by lads in haircuts and new ties

Shifting between their cigarettes and briefs--

Men of letters sprawled on granite walls

Wherein a flurry of vowels and balding wigs

Is thick around the pillars and closed doors.

On other days, the silence is upheld:

No one breathes a word; new light is thrown,

Unnoticed; a damp patch slurs;

The windows in their cases, rattle on.


[by Vona Groarke. From “Other People’s Houses”. The Gallery Press, April 1999.]


Whenever I read this poem, the images remind me of Dickens’ “Bleak House” and that seemingly endless chancery case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce. In that novel Dickens was critical of how long it took cases to work their way through the court of chancery. It is even said by some that this novel spawned change in the old courts of chancery.


Court practices have certainly changed a great deal since those days.  Courts in most countries today forbid smoking. The wearing of wigs is now optional in Ireland and courts are generally open for business more frequently than once a month. Indeed even the scrivener has been replaced by type (typewriters and ultimately the laptop computer).


Yet, while the courtroom of yesteryear is far different from the court of today, one thing remains unchanged and that is that most litigants still retain and rely on lawyers to actually represent their cause or claim.


When I sat down to prepare this article on professionalism, I asked myself what are the traits in a lawyer that I value highly. Two such traits immediately spring to mind. They are civility and courtesy.


When reviewing New Hampshire’s rules of professional conduct, while comprehensive in many respects, I can’t help but wonder why we don’t include something that references civility towards other lawyers. Such a provision is included in the code of conduct of the Bar Council of Ireland.  This code has been developed by the governing council for barristers in the Republic of Ireland. I would direct you to the relevant part as follows:


Relations between barristers and between barristers and foreign lawyers.


“It is the duty of a barrister to treat each of his colleagues with civility and respect and to treat each barrister with equality and not to discriminate in favor or against a barrister.…”


Whether you are in solo practice or are a member of a large firm, and regardless of the nature of your work, you will inevitably have to deal with the “opposition,” more commonly referred to as opposing counsel. Now, with some of the opposition, you may well be on first-name terms or simply surnames. We all have the good days followed by the bad days, but when dealing with opposing counsel we should maintain civility and respect towards each other at all times.


Some years ago I sat for an English test. There was a question on the exam concerning a poem entitled “Courtesy.” The question went something like this: describe the rhyme and rhythm of the poem “Courtesy.”  It so happened that there had been two similarly entitled poems on our curriculum for the year. One was written by a recognized author and one by an anonymous author. I answered the question and discussed the rhyme and rhythm of the poem that had been authored by the anonymous author. The examiner’s question had asked to discuss the other poem and flagged it as such. Obviously, I had not followed the golden rule: read the question!


In any event, I never forgot the opening line to that poem:




Of courtesy it is much less

Than courage of heart or holiness,

Yet in my thoughts it seems to me

That the grace of God is in courtesy.



These are the words as they were written. I think you will agree that it rhymes pretty well. It’s hard not to forget the message of courtesy. Courtesy towards each other as lawyers should be a daily practice, not just an aspiration.


Paul V. Fitzgerald is the Plymouth Area Prosecutor and a member of the NHBA Professionalism Committee.



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