Lawyer Manny Sanchez began his committee a few months ago, when he decided he’d had enough. Among the things that appalled him? The time he saw a couple of lawyers screaming at each other in Judge Foreman’s courtroom. And the time he saw lawyers fighting in Judge Gomberg’s courtroom; when Judge Gomberg tried to stop it, the judge got “all bloodied up.” And the time a male lawyer got mad at his female adversary and told her to shape up or he’d give her a clitoridectomy. And the time a lawyer bragged to him that colleagues in his firm would never act that way, and Sanchez had just come from court where one of the guy’s colleagues had been, raising his voice, calling his opponent a liar, rolling his eyes, and “engaging in all kinds of incivility,” according to Sanchez.
These incidents made him so mad he contacted scores of other lawyers and judges to help put an end to them. And thus a group of lawyers and judges committed to civility was born.
Today, the group’s second luncheon meeting is being hosted by lawyer Curt Rodin–who is encouraging the early arrivals to partake of a bountiful buffet. The sandwiches are set up in an alcove in his firm’s large, sunny conference room; picture windows frame a magnificent view of the Loop. Lawyers and judges take their seats at the huge conference table, squeezing their chairs together, inching their paper plates a little closer to their neighbors’ so that no one has to go alone to the smaller table set up nearby to handle the overflow. Several low-volume conversations take place around the table as the lawyers clean their paper plates in preparation for the start of the meeting.
Circuit court judge Lester Foreman proposes an acronym for the group: CALM. The Committee to Alleviate Lawyer Meanness. “No,” says one of the lawyers, “It should be ‘abolish.'” OK they all agree, it will be the “Committee to Abolish Lawyer Meanness.”
Former federal judge Susan Getzendanner–who’s been quoted in Newsweek calling herself and her colleagues at Skadden Arps Slate Meagher & Flom “assholes”–chats with attorney Al Hofeld, unsuccessful candidate for U.S. Senate. She points out, to him and others within earshot, that ironically the lawyers who file unworthy, frivolous lawsuits seeking quick settlements are usually the “most agreeable.” The most civil. “They know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going,” she says.
Impishly she asks Hofeld if he has any future political ambitions. He grins. She tells him that when her name came up as a possible candidate in the race to unseat Alan Dixon, her father warned her, if she decided to try, not to spend any of her own money. Hofeld squirms a little and looks sick.
Then Sanchez calls the meeting to order. “We have an incivility problem,” he says. He hands out some papers. One is a list of “commandments” put out by the Seventh Federal Judicial Circuit, delineating standards for proper lawyerly behavior. These include:
In our dealings with others, we will not reflect the ill feelings of our clients.
We will abstain from disparaging personal remarks or acrimony toward other counsel, parties, or witnesses….
We will not falsely hold out the possibility of settlement.
During depositions we will ask only those questions we reasonably believe are necessary for the prosecution or defense of an action….
We will not engage in any conduct that brings disorder or disruption to the courtroom.
We will act and speak civilly to court marshals, court reporters, secretaries, and law clerks with an awareness that they, too, are an integral part of the judicial system.
Sanchez also hands out a court order, for a jury trial, that he says exemplifies the problem at hand. Signed by U.S. district judge Wayne Alley from Oklahoma, it digresses a bit to comment on the behavior of the lawyers involved in the case:
“I suppose counsel have a penumbral Constitutional right to regard each other as schmucks, but I know of no principle that justifies litigation pollution ….This case makes me lament the demise of duelling.” The reason? “I cannot order a duel, and thus achieve a salubrious reduction in the number of counsel to put up with.”
When the attendees finish reading Sanchezs handouts, Judge Foreman says that judges are afraid to end incivility in their courtrooms because of lawyer retribution. “Even though we complain about our salaries and our we don’t want to lose our jobs,” he says. He goes on to explain that a lawyer from one of the bar committees evaluating Foreman’s judicial qualifications told him that his courtroom, was “not a fun place to be” because of Foreman’s attempts to maintain order.
Taking the situation to heart, Sanchez stands and flails his arms as he responds to Foreman: “No member of an evaluation committee should be able to vent a vendetta,” he says forcefully. “There are benefits to running a tight courtroom.”
Then personal-injury attorney Phil Corboy offers a suggestion. He says that Illinois Supreme Court Chief Justice Ben Miller told him that a good way to combat lawyer-to-lawyer incivility is to require young lawyers to take courses in civility–nipping the problem in the bud. Some committee members nod; others turn up their noses.
Attorney Cornelia Tuite says one thing young lawyers are learning is that many of their more experienced colleagues, making up to $500,000 a year, also happen “to be sons of bitches.” She says, “What we should do is highlight…salute…award civility. You can’t legislate against, or sanction, incivility any more than you can truth or love. There should be rewards for real grace. It’s always easy to find ways to hurt lawyers who are miserable bastards, but it’s harder finding ways to help regard good lawyers.”
Linda Davenport of the Du Page County Bar Association says she’s had a good lesson in civility lately. “We’ve gone from 34 courtrooms to 51” she says (the Du Page County courthouse is being redone due to “sick building syndrome”). She explains that crowded conditions have meant strict enforcement of courtroom rules. “We’ve learned lawyers are looking for limits. The majority of lawyers,” she says, “would kill for limits.”
The venting keeps up as the meeting winds down. A young, stylish, indignant lawyer shares his displeasure with his colleagues. He’s sick of being called a liar by his opponents. “I’ve been called a liar and felt very, very bad about it. If I’m called a liar on the phone,” he says in a quiet voice, “I can hang up. But if it happens in open court, how do you handle it? I want to take [my opponent] in the corner and shake him by his tie.”
As the meeting ends, Tuite adds: “Incivility doesn’t help the decisional process. We don’t need cute remarks, insults, sarcasm, and the rest of the dog and pony show. It aggravates decision making.”
Corboy notes that Judge O’Connell has a great method of dealing with lawyer incivility. “Once, when I was involved in verbal fisticuffs, he walked off the bench.”
Says another dignified-looking lawyer, “We educate children–we bring them up in a certain way. It should be the same with lawyers.”