GPSolo Magazine - October/November 2005

Road Rage at the Bar

Everyone talks a good line about the decline of manners in America, but is anyone doing anything about it? Lawyers can be among the world’s rudest people, insisting that the mandate of zealous representation is some kind of excuse. “It’s all about conflict,” we assure ourselves. And in our hearts, we know that’s really a giant lie. In his book Civility, Yale Law School Professor Stephen L. Carter takes issue with the notion that incivility is a requirement of the profession, writing, “I am skeptical of their morality, because they fail to convey a message that we are, all of us, not lone drivers but fellow passengers.”

Clients with unreasonable expectations, arrogant judges, devious opposing counsel, and the simple economics of keeping the light bill paid make many a lawyer’s lot an unenviable one, not the one envisioned by those entering the profession. And it’s just too easy to lash back with all the manners of a rabid street dog in search of prey. More times than I care to count, I’ve been tempted to slap some sense into another lawyer, tell a client where to get off, and give a judge a taste of his own medicine. You’ve been there, too.

Supreme courts and bar associations toss off lofty pronouncements about professionalism, but more often than not, those rules comes off as simply exhorting an ideal that doesn’t play well in the trenches of practice. Sure, the message works if everyone plays by the same rulebook, but that’s a departure from reality. It’s hard to stay professional and civil when your client doesn’t show up for trial after you’ve pulled an all-nighter preparing, when opposing counsel subverts the rules, or when a judge tells you that it doesn’t really matter what the law is when it comes to a ruling. Those are the times when you’ve got to simply take a deep breath and keep on going. The stresses we blame for making us rude and uncivil affect everyone in one way or another. We’re not the only ones at the wheel.

Cultural change takes place one person at a time. Just as hostility begets more fury and anger, positive changes in our dealings with others can do likewise. The legal profession likes to think it’s at the helm of change in our society, but now it’s time that the profession does more than simply give lip service to those ideals. We can start by being more polite to others, by remembering those kindergarten lessons, by developing attitudes and creating environments that instill change in others, and by returning to those ideals we once held important.

This issue is brought to you by the untiring efforts of Chicago sole practitioner James Schwartz, who took on the mantle as issue editor, putting up with my whines and nagging to recruit, goad, and nurture a stellar panel of authors. Jim’s the go-to man in the General Practice, Solo and Small Firm Division’s Law Practice Trends & News e-newsletters, and he’s always looking for authors.

Coming up in December, GPSolo will bring you another exciting issue of Technology & Practice Guide, focusing on “Privacy and Security.”

jennifer j. rose, editor-in-chief of GPSolo , is a lawyer and writer living in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico. She can be reached at



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