The end of this month marks seven years since I moved to the Lowcountry from the outskirts of Philadelphia, a city ironically—and perhaps unintentionally so—known as The City of Brotherly Love. Like so many other asylum seekers from the northeast, I fled not only the snow but also the frosty personalities of those who shovel it, and I too was charmed by the courtesy and graciousness to which I became accustomed during my undergraduate work at Auburn University and my later experience in journalism in the Upstate. I missed the South, and was clamoring to return.
(I often say that, just as Caitlyn Jenner was born a man but claims to have always identified as a woman and required surgical removal of certain parts to finally be at peace, I may have been born in California and raised outside of Philadelphia, but I’ve always identified as a southerner and required the surgical removal of the northeast to finally ensure that my home was in harmony with my personality.)
When I arrived in Summerville seven years ago, natives were the norm and transplants the anomaly; now, it seems the other way around. For the most part, even with the floodgates having been opened to many refugees like myself, the traditional southern charm and kindness for which this area has always been known has somehow survived – the possible exception being in our Family Court, in which civility is showing signs of crisis.
Believe it or not, most lawyers aspire to civility. When Martin G. Murphy, Jr.—Lowcountry Divorce & Family Law, LLC’s newest attorney—is sworn in by the South Carolina Supreme Court and admitted to the South Carolina Bar on Monday, he will raise his right hand and take an oath that all Palmetto State attorneys before him have taken in one form or another. That oath includes a sworn affirmation as to civility:
To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications;
Murph comes to us having previously practiced law in New Jersey, where civility may be sworn but remains relative to the overall behavioral predispositions of a geographic area in which smiling and saying “hello” to strangers at the local supermarket is a sign not of traditional and expected gentility, but rather of latent mental illness. In fact, one of the major draws that brought Murph and his family here was the congeniality of the local Bar.
For the most part, our local Bar is wonderfully friendly and civil, a notion that astounds clients and other outside observers. I am asked all the time by clients and friends alike how I can maintain a close relationship with so many colleagues when they are occasional adversaries in the most hyperemotional of legal controversies. Often, clients even seem put off by the ease with which we attorneys communicate about other matters, about the practice of law in general, and about life overall as we await a few minutes before a Family Court Judge which can determine the course of the next few years of their lives.
The truth is, those relationships are essential. Part of the reason retaining counsel is so advisable is that the subordination of emotion to logic is vital, especially true in the most emotional of domestic matters. If litigants were able to set aside emotions and dispassionately approach issues inherent to the dissolution of their marital relationships or to the needs and interests of children in common, I’d be out of a job, and thankfully so. Instead, mothers and fathers and husbands and wives are understandably and often justifiably emotionally compromised, leaving people like me and my colleagues better equipped to solve problems and find stability.
It is civility that allows for those relationships to develop and flourish, and it is those relationships that can prevent clients from incurring unnecessary cost and dealing with unnecessary heartache and discontent, and even insulate children from being unnecessarily placed and caught in the middle.
A good example of this is my relationship with Donnie Gamache, a Summerville-based attorney who, like me, is known for being assertive, headstrong, and competitive. Assertiveness is often confused with incivility, though generally by those attorneys who for some reason have their own difficulties with the subordination of emotion to logic and therefore tend to inappropriately internalize the interaction inherent to domestic matters. Donnie and I know of each other’s capabilities, and we trust each other’s judgment, assessment of case and client strengths and weaknesses, and ability to [strenuously if necessary] ensure that our respective clients are similarly aware thereof. He and I are honest with one another, and if we must be firm or even unyielding, it is not something that either of us take as a personal or professional affront. As a result, we settle cases. We both know that unnecessary conflict will only result in our own enrichment – at the expense of our clients and their children.
I have similarly good relationships with attorneys all over the tri-county area. Many I count as close friends. These associations pay off for clients and their families, as we work to save money and preserve personal relationships as best possible under the circumstances. On the other hand, there are a few attorneys—some even being close friends—with whom I know that no case will ever be easy, whether it be because of a clash of personality or a difference in practice theory. In those cases, I know that my clients will be paying the price.
When civility wanes, see, it is the non-attorneys who bear the consequences. And, for that reason, I have been increasingly disheartened to see incivility on the rise.
This week, I heard from a female colleague a tale of extreme and inexcusable condescension from her male counterpart in a matter. All too often, unfortunately, it is my female colleagues who have to deal with incivility – it is not uncommon for male attorneys to assume that they are a paralegal working for someone else, to call them “dear” or “sweetie” or “darling” when the context demands otherwise, or to dismiss them as just a pretty face in a well-tailored suit.
Thankfully, as a man standing at six-foot-two-inches and upwards of 260 pounds, this isn’t something I have to deal with very often. My experience with incivility generally consists of condescension from upper-echelon attorneys who have been practicing since I was in grade school, and who will happily remind me of same. Occasionally, I’ll see my advocacy of my client’s best interests met with personal slights or even threats – this tends to happen when opposing counsel is too emotionally attached to a case, when the opposing party has lied to their attorney and the attorney is too prideful to admit it, or when the advocacy of my client’s position exacerbates an already inherent disadvantage on the other side.
More and more, though, I am hearing of attorneys who are not conducting themselves with any measure of courtesy in the courtroom – interrupting, objecting improperly, or addressing counterparts with a dismissive lack of respect. It also seems that pure petulance is on the rise, as is a lack of macro-level understanding of the long-term consequences of leveling inflammatory allegations and pursuing unnecessary conflict in the name of building unnecessary leverage.
Our clients may be at war, but our stock and trade should not be the perpetuation of needless strife through pejorative and ad hominem attacks, through patent dishonesty, and through outright disrespect. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being steadfast, resolute, and even unyielding in the context of a contested matter, but that should not be the starting position. Frankly, it is even okay to be unreasonable, but only if myriad opportunities to the contrary were afforded beforehand.
As attorneys, our duty—first and foremost—is to our client. This crisis of civility only serves as an abdication of that obligation which, if left unchecked, will only result in harm to those who need us most.