Civility is No Longer Optional

In case you missed it, the Florida Bar in September amended the lawyer oath to include the following:

“To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications.”

In the per-curiam order, the Florida Supreme Court noted that civility is important in the “inherently contentious setting of the adversary process.” Which pretty much makes it official—the lack of civility has become a noticeable problem, and not just in our state. New Mexico, South Carolina, and Utah have all added similar language to their oaths.

Robert Cole, the immediate past president of FLABOTA (the Florida chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates) was a key figure in ushering in this change, the first revision to the oath in 50 years.  He said he had noticed civility generally declining, particularly with young lawyers who have just finished law school and simply do not have much legal work experience. Cole noted that civility should be taught, and practiced.

The revision to the oath is a good thing. It makes civility more salient in our minds and reminds us to make it a part of our professional selves, and our practice. At the same time, it raises a few questions.

First , what exactly is civility? Is it simply being courteous and respectful, or something more? Is it specifically definable, or is it something where “you know it when you see it?”

And then:  what about all the lawyers who took the oath prior to September 2011? At this point, only a very small percentage of Florida attorneys have taken the new oath. Are the more experienced lawyers not bound to be civil?

Consider also that the other parts of the oath are heavily ethics-based and include premises such as confidentiality and truth, where civility might be considered a behavior. Does civility logically fit in with these other concepts? Do we want to include civility under the umbrella of professional responsibility?

But perhaps what students want to know most of all is how to become trained in civility. What can law schools do to teach us, and what can we do to learn, how to be more civil to one another? Of course, that may be a whole different discussion.

Do you think the new lawyer oath will lead to demonstrable impact in the way lawyers treat each other?

Citing references:
http://www.floridabar.org/DIVCOM/JN/JNJournal01.nsf/8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829/2f23276b6f8e70fe8525796e0056534f!OpenDocument
http://www.floridabar.org/DIVCOM/JN/jnnews01.nsf/8c9f13012b96736985256aa900624829/f0058f33ea1ffefc8525791700476e37!OpenDocument
http://www.floridasupremecourt.org/decisions/2011/sc11-1702.pdf