John G. Simon
BAMSL President, 2018-19
Managing Partner, The Simon Law Firm, P.C.
Out-of-town lawyers sometimes mention to me that lawyers from St. Louis are pleasant people who are easy to work with. Whenever I hear those sorts of comments, it makes me proud to be a St. Louis lawyer, but not just because it is good to be polite. As lawyers, we share with opposing counsel the duty to show civility—to work with our opponents to make the legal system run smoothly. Based on these comments from out-of-state lawyers, we lawyers from St. Louis apparently take this duty seriously.
The duty to act with civility is encompassed by the Preamble to Rule 4 - Rules Governing the Missouri Bar and the Judiciary:
"A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice."1
"Civility" means far more than simply being polite, although being polite is an important part of being civil. The Institute for Civility offers this definition:
"Civility is about more than just politeness, although politeness is a necessary first step. It is about disagreeing without disrespect, seeking common ground as a starting point for dialogue about differences, listening past one’s preconceptions, and teaching others to do the same. Civility is the hard work of staying present even with those with whom we have deep-rooted and fierce disagreements..."2
Civility is thus the process of productively working together to reach a common end in court—the resolution of the case— especially when that task is difficult. Given the multitude of challenges one faces when trying cases, it benefits all of us to work together to efficiently move our cases through the legal system.
As lawyers, we love win-win moments where we creatively work together to quickly resolve a dispute. On other occasions, however, we are faced with a true zero-sum game. Some cases involve a claim for the transfer of money, property, or the purported need for incarceration, where we are forced to draw upon our sharpest legal training to go head-to-head against our opponents. In these pressurefilled situations, the need for civility is more difficult and more important. Indeed, those are the moments when we especially appreciate working with welltrained opposing counsel, lawyers, those who fight hard, do not take it personally, and take seriously their responsibility as officers of the court.
People who are not lawyers sometimes do not grasp the importance of civility in the courtroom. Based on conversations I have had with non-lawyers, it is a common misconception that lawyers can or even should feel animosity toward opposing counsel. This is not true, of course. Some of my closest friends are attorneys against whom I have tried high-stakes cases. I am sure this is the case for many of you as well. Similarly, we sometimes need to reassure our own clients, who get uneasy when they notice that we are acting cordially with opposing counsel during trial. We sometimes need to explain to our clients that we can zealously represent them while also acting civilly. Trying a big case does not require lawyers to engage in the shenanigans that one commonly sees on TV courtroom dramas.
In "Civility as the Core of Professionalism," Jayne R. Reardon concurs that zealous advocacy is entirely consistent with civility. In fact, civility is a condition of lawyer licensing:
"A civility imperative permeates bar admission standards... Capacity to act in a manner that engenders respect for the law and the profession – in other words, civility is a requirement for receiving a law license and, in some jurisdictions, for retaining the privilege of practicing law. It follows that aspiring and practicing lawyers should be disabused of the notion that effective representation ever requires or justifies incivility."3
In my experience, Missouri judges highly value civility. It makes them happy and allows them to be more focused on the case when opposing attorneys get along in the courtroom. Almost all attorney organizations emphasize the importance of facilitating the administration of justice, which encompasses civility. BAMSL’s Mission statement calls for attorneys to maintain the highest "professional standards among attorneys" and to "improve the administration of justice." The Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Association has adopted eight "Principles of Civility," including an opening declaration that, "civility and professionalism among all lawyers is essential to the operation of our legal system."4
Many of those guidelines are specific, e.g., "respect the time and schedule of others and work cooperatively in scheduling all matters." In the June 2017 issue of St. Louis Lawyer, venerable St. Louis attorney Eugene Buckley is quoted:
"Over the years I have enjoyed being active in BAMSL with the Trial Section and more recently with the Senior Lawyers Committee. I believe BAMSL promotes camaraderie among lawyers with resulting civility and professionalism."5
In 1998, the New York State Unified Court System adopted nonbinding guidelines of civility6 to encourage lawyers, judges and court personnel to observe principles of civility and decorum, and to confirm the legal profession’s rightful status as an honorable and respected profession where courtesy and civility are observed as a matter of course. Civility is not only the right thing to do. It makes cases easier to resolve. It turns courtrooms into more inviting work places. It cultivates valuable relationships among attorneys, co-counsel and judges. And now the evidence is stronger than ever that the existence and quality of your relationships with those around you is one of the best indicators of your own happiness.7
So let us offer a toast to civility: There is only upside, no downside, it improves public perception of our profession, and it makes it much more enjoyable to do our work.
- St. Louis Lawyer, June 2017, p. 2.
This article also appeared in the June 2018 issue of the St. Louis Lawyer magazine.