Most young attorneys have a general idea of what professionalism entails from law school professionalism classes and the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, but most young attorneys, especially newly admitted attorneys, do not have a practical understanding of professionalism rules. Navigating professionalism as a younger attorney is undoubtedly challenging and easier said than done, but along the way, we have learned the following lessons every young lawyer should know about professionalism and about the practice of law.
Always Be Civil
Yes, even when opposing counsel is difficult or intimidating. Patience is a virtue, and it is especially true in the legal profession. It can be difficult to take a step back or hold your peace when you are not being treated professionally. Everyone will experience that lawyer in their career who will be openly rude and unprofessional. However, it is important in these circumstances to take a step back, breathe, and respond in a professional and civil manner. There will, of course, be times when you need to walk away, temporarily, from the situation to give everyone a breather, but always do so with integrity and with your head held high. There is no sense in engaging with an overly aggressive opposing counsel, especially over email. If you find yourself on the receiving end of an offensive email, always wait until you have calmed down to respond to the email.
When another attorney is being discourteous and obnoxious, it is almost impossible not to match that attorney’s attitude and tone. Personally, I know it all too well, especially as a young minority attorney. But do not take the bait. Your most important objective is to never compromise when it comes to professionalism and when it comes to your “brand” as an attorney. Never compromise your integrity, respect, beliefs, or standards. It is OK make compromises in your legal position—that is what lawyers do to resolve cases—but never compromise your fundamental values as a lawyer or a person in this profession.
Finally, understand that attorneys are people first. There are times when other lawyers, including adversaries, are going through hard times, either professionally or personally. It could be a challenging client, colleague, or decision, or a personal matter outside of the office. Always extend grace and be compassionate, reasonable, and understanding, and keep in mind that you may also be in similar situations throughout your career. Be sure to exercise courtesy and professionalism by agreeing to extensions and other requests; however, do not allow opposing counsel to take advantage of you, and always act in your client’s best interest.