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Vol. 38, No. 3

Reap what you sow: Bar leaders as cultivators of civility

by Joseph Paul Justice Burke III

The concept of promoting civility among lawyers is not new.  Older lawyers in every bar association across the country wax stories of how the practice of law was more civil in their day. Some point to modern technology as a culprit. 

All too often, lawyers quickly email a nasty barb to opposing counsel, almost as a knee-jerk reaction. It is as easy as clicking “send”—as opposed to the lengthy process of dictating a letter, waiting for a secretary to type it, then finalizing it and sending it by snail mail. This process needed several hours or even a full day to be completed, which gave time for a calming period and for reflection. Thus, the letter finally mailed to opposing counsel was often quite different from that first dictated. 


Whatever the cause for the increased hostility among lawyers, judges, legislators, and even the public, how can bar associations and their leaders help cultivate civility? Here’s a look at two projects: one that involves 42 different bar associations, and an effort by my own bar association which admittedly was much smaller but nonetheless made a difference.

Palm Beach County bar heads joint project with 41 other bars

It is likely that lawyers who actively participate in a bar association have at least some exposure to the concept of civility. But what about those who just pay mandatory dues and leave it at that? That’s one important segment that the Joint Civility Project—begun in 2012 by the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Bar Association, with 41 other bars participating—aims to reach.

Adam Rabin recalls having the idea for the Joint Civility Project in the fall of 2011, when he was president-elect of the PBCBA. The Florida Supreme Court had recently amended the Oath of Admission for attorneys to include a pledge of “Fairness, Integrity, and Civility.” Rabin realized that talking about this “Oath of Civility” at the bar’s annual bench-bar conference was really like “preaching to the choir.” 

The lawyers who probably most needed to hear it were not present—and the thought developed that they were not present as they were not members of the PBCBA, and maybe they were not members of any voluntary bar association in South Florida. Rabin began to reach out to the other major bar associations in the region: Broward County Bar Association, Dade County Bar Association, Martin County Bar Association, South Palm Beach County Bar Association, and the Cuban American Bar Association

From there, the effort expanded, and a “Joint Resolution of South Florida Voluntary Bar Associations Regarding Lawyer Civility” was adopted, with the aim of promoting the Oath of Civility within the respective counties and reaching both members and nonmember practicing lawyers. 

Eventually, the Joint Resolution and the Joint Civility Project came to include the support and involvement of the general and special-focus bar associations, the state and federal bar associations, and the state and federal judges and magistrates, plus the various chapters of Inns of Court throughout South Florida. 

The resolution also recognized the need to promote the oath and message of civility through concrete efforts. This included forming a joint committee consisting of the voluntary bar associations’ presidents and select board members and professional chairs to conduct bimonthly conference calls to ensure that the joint resolution was being promoted, and to set core goals and outline specific projects. 

A big part of the plan was communication and outreach, including direct mailings by the individual voluntary bars to the practicing lawyers in their counties (both members and nonmembers), maintaining the support from the judges, developing press releases to get the message out in the media (especially the legal media), publishing articles, and hosting seminars and membership lunches. To help sell the message, it was felt that a catchy, visual trademark that would stick with lawyers was needed. 

The slogan “Got Civility?” was adopted.  Not only was this phrase already familiar because it played off the popular “Got Milk?” campaign, but it was also simple enough to be reproduced on buttons and other items to show support. The individual associations paid for and arranged to have buttons distributed. 

The Joint Civility Project also included mass retaking of the attorney admission oath—this time, with the Oath of Civility in it—at the various bench-bar conferences of the associations, with the chief judges administrating. The photographs from these events are great visual reminders of the support that is to be given and maintained over time. 

In June, the project received the 2013 Group Professionalism Award from The Florida Bar through its Standing Committee on Professionalism. Its organizers continue to pursue new ways to promote the Oath of Civility, and they hope the joint project will be adopted elsewhere in the state. Another goal is to create uniform professionalism standards that do not vary by judicial circuit.

When asked what has led to the project’s success, Rabin says, “We had a great team in place.” At the Palm Beach bar, he credits Executive Director Patience Burns, the board during his term, including Jessica Mason and Ned Reagan (who prepared the award application), and also his successor as president, Jill Weiss. Teamwork was essential not only within the PBCBA, he notes, but also within and among the 42 bars, total, that have participated.

Wilkes-Barre bar helps community leaders learn about dispute resolution

Since 2005, the Association for Conflict Resolution has designated the third Thursday in October as international Conflict Resolution Day, and the governor of Pennsylvania has signed a proclamation calling for it to be observed there. Steve Yusem, chair of the Pennsylvania Bar Association Alternative Dispute Resolution Committee, writes that this is “in order to promote awareness of mediation, arbitration, conciliation and other creative, peaceful means of resolving conflicts in schools, families, businesses, governments and courts, among others.”  

In Luzerne County, the Wilkes-Barre Law & Library Association—the county bar association—placed a novel twist on this celebration. We invited the up-and-coming community leaders from Leadership Wilkes-Barre—a professional and civic development program that’s similar to a bar leadership academy—to come to the courthouse and learn the skills and problem-solving approaches of mediation and arbitration. Our hope was that this would help foster greater civility among the parties in a dispute. 

These rising community leaders listened as President Judge Thomas F. Burke of the Court of Common Pleas of Luzerne County, retired Judge Joseph M. Cosgrove, and Joseph F. Saporito Jr., then president of the county bar, talked passionately about people trying to work peaceably and with civility toward resolving a problem.

This message seemed to have an impact, and it may have helped dispel the belief that resolution is always best achieved through an adversarial trial—or that lawyers are always eager to undertake such a trial.

For me, this effort called to mind some lessons I learned in law school—more than 20 years ago—and that perhaps you did, too. I was taught that the practice of law was a noble profession with certain etiquettes, protocols, and professional courtesies that are still to be embraced by the true attorney: the “lawyers’ lawyer,” as it were.

However we address the matter of civility, I think it’s important that we as bar leaders and executives do something to help cultivate it. This seems to be in keeping with our true calling—and what is required of us if the law is to remain that noble profession, and not just another line of work.

To learn about civility-related projects from three other bar associations, please see “Three state bars participate in ABA national dialogue on civility.”

(Note: This article has been edited to correct a problem with its links.)

Joseph Paul Justice Burke III

Joseph Paul Justice Burke III is an attorney and the executive director of the Wilkes-Barre Law & Library Association. He is also director and law librarian-in-chief of the Hon. Max Rosenn Memorial Law Library.