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Commentary: Civility is always a winner

Edward C. Poll

Edward C. Poll

Civility — or, rather, the lack of it — was featured quite prominently at the Belmont Stakes in June, and that incident should be a reminder to all lawyers that civility is always a Triple Crown winner.

When California Chrome did not win the Belmont Stakes, one of its co-owners, Steve Coburn, went berserk and complained that the race was not fair. He suggested that all horses run under the same rules. In other words, a horse should not be allowed to be kept out of the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness before entering the Belmont Stakes in order to rest the horse. Tonalist, the winner of the Belmont Stakes, did not run in either the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness.

Taken in the abstract, his criticism might be correct. In fact, many commentators have agreed with his argument. Social media sites were abuzz with comments suggesting that the horse racing industry change its rules. However, even though Coburn later apologized for his unseemly behavior, the way in which he chose to express his displeasure has taken away from the effectiveness of his contention. In other words, because he ranted about it right after the race, he was perceived as a sore loser. He didn’t play by the “rules” of genteel civility.

This incident is a lesson that can be run on the tracks of the legal profession, too, and lawyers should take note. Civility is always a Triple Crown winner.

Recently, California has acknowledged that fact with a new rule. On May 1, 2014, the California Supreme Court adopted Rule 9.4 of the California Rules of Court. The rule modified the lawyer’s oath of office. The oath taken by every lawyer when being admitted to legal practice in California still begins, “I solemnly swear (or affirm). …” However, that oath now ends with newly added language: “As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy, and integrity.”

The rule applies only to lawyers sworn in subsequent to June. The other approximately 175,000 lawyers in California may or may not be governed by this rule; certainly, they did not swear to it as part of their original oath, and no subsequent oath is required.

Regardless, the rule is a court rule, not a rule of professional conduct, and, there do not seem to be any consequences for a violation of the new oath. As it stands now, the dignity, courtesy, and integrity language seems to be a subjective standard and does not increase the power of the court to impose sanctions on any lawyer activity.

Nonetheless, it is a rule that will, hopefully, have some punch. As my mother (like many other mothers, I am sure), used to say, “One can get more with honey than with vinegar.” This is certainly true in terms of clients and also usually true in terms of adversaries.

Furthermore, how we treat our adversaries affects how our clients perceive us. Although some lawyers seem to think that others have a “romantic” sort of idea that a virulent lawyer is effective and revered, that belief is misguided. The fact is that clients tend to disrespect lawyers who are not civil.

Thus, Rule 9.4, whether or not it is “enforceable,” is a good reminder of the type of behavior that will make a lawyer successful. Civility never comes in second place.

Edward Poll, J.D., M.B.A., CMC, is a law practice management thought leader and contributor to this publication. His website is at www.lawbiz.com. A version of this column originally appeared in Minnesota Lawyer, sister publication to The Daily Record.

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