The importance of professionalism

 By Stuart D. Colburn

This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Texas Lawyer’s Creed, so it seems fitting to take a moment or two to pause and reflect on what it means to be an attorney—how we work, interact with colleagues and clients, and uphold the rule of law. In a profession as honorable and noble as ours, it is imperative that we treat others with respect and courtesy. The following account will hopefully act as a reminder—and a prompt—to reaffirm your commitment to the Texas Lawyer’s Creed and our profession.

“We are not used to plaintiff and defense attorneys getting along,” said the bailiff to a shocked out-of-town attorney following a two-day civil trial. The bailiff, affable and well-liked as evidenced by the number of folks who admitted knowing him during voir dire, explained that most attorneys openly disparage each other—and not necessarily under their breath.

Some Texas litigators might assume this trial had taken place in a large city, where Rambo-litigation tactics have been common and are sometimes still practiced. But the setting for the trial was a small Hill Country hamlet. The bailiff’s comments were surprising because this small town should be a place where attorneys get along.

The good behavior of the lawyers in this case was not because the two attorneys were long-time friends. Indeed, we had never met before. We had our objections and our legal disagreements. However, we could make our points without hate or contempt. In fact, we played the part of small-town lawyers that even the small town did not recognize.

Others have criticized attorney behavior with far more insight and articulation than I. Some clients and jurors even expect bad behavior. The media portrayal of lawyers strengthens these perceptions, and our own commercials and billboards tell the world that successful lawyers win by intimidation and bully tactics.

Some—but not all—judges lament this behavior, as I discovered several years ago. I had presented motions to abate in two cases in two different cities. In each case, my client was paying benefits. The suit was filed to protect against a statute of limitations, but the parties were awaiting a ruling from the Texas Supreme Court that would fundamentally change the governing law and therefore the attorney’s preparation and discovery. My client would owe the other side’s attorney fees if we did not prevail. Therefore continuing discovery would have increased the legal expenses that my client might have been obligated to pay.

A judge in northern Central Texas listened to the lawyers’ arguments and asked opposing counsel what harm to his client would granting the request for abatement cause. My adversary (an exceptional attorney) didn’t answer the question and instead reiterated his argument. The seasoned judge calmly repeated his inquiry, only this time perhaps with more emphasis. I don’t remember the specifics of the non-answer, but I do remember the judge’s response: “Do you know the green-card rule here?” The other attorney admitted he was not familiar with that rule. Neither was I. The judge continued, “When a fellow attorney asks you for something and it does not hurt you or your client, you grant the request. Otherwise your green card to practice . . . [here] will be revoked. Do you understand?” My then-immediate feeling was elation that my arguments had won the day. Upon reflection, however, the more meaningful lesson—and the reason for the decision—is the admonishment to treat lawyers as lawyers should be treated.

A couple of months later, we appeared in another courtroom ready to make the same arguments in a different courthouse to a different judge. I arrived early to observe the judge’s style. The judge would decide early on in his ruling and then proceed to mock the “losing” lawyer until satisfied with the gallery’s response to his comedic routine. My opponent’s arguments won the day this time.

Divergent results in a courtroom, especially in different geographical locales, are not surprising and even expected. I examined the courtroom behavior, and the treatment of lawyers by the bench and other lawyers was the sharpest distinction.

I have often repeated the green-card lesson to young lawyers, believing such courtroom culture best matches the ideals of justice and professionalism. Although we do not always reach our ideal, it is far better to reach and fail than to settle for the low expectations of bad behavior.

My friend and former State Bar of Texas President Richard Pena recently returned from Turkey, where attorneys were being arrested for standing up for the rule of law. As we discussed his trip, I could not help but think that half a world away, our honorable profession struggles with professionalism.

Changing a culture takes determination, patience, and leadership. If change will come at all, leaders must envision it, judges must require it, lawyers who value professionalism must encourage it, and we all need to expect it.

A culture of professionalism at the bar is worthy of our aspirations. A small-town bailiff should not be surprised when litigants behave as they should.

Upcoming Law Student Professionalism Program in Dallas

On May 29, 2014, the Dallas Bar Association will host its annual Law Student Professionalism Program to educate future attorneys on embodying the ideals of the Texas Lawyer’s Creed and the Guidelines of Professional Courtesy.

“Both future and practicing lawyers face the same issue,” said Kathryne Morris, an associate at Strasburger and Price and co-vice chair of the DBA’s Morris Harrell Professionalism Committee that sponsors the program. “The public’s confidence in lawyers is diminishing as the result of the perception that unprofessional conduct and ‘Rambo’ tactics often win out over what’s right. As a result, the lack of professionalism is compromising the public’s esteem of the justice system itself.”

While Morris noted that law schools have been “a bit slower than the rest of the profession to make professionalism a priority,” she noted that more are placing an increasing focus on professionalism education in orientations, classes, clinics, lectures, and mentoring programs. Resources like these, as well as DBA’s event, play an important role in preparing young lawyers for a career marked by integrity and respect.

“Students and young lawyers generally know the golden rule, and that rule provides a good baseline,” said Morris. “But the practice of law includes a number of other rules that can complicate young lawyers’ abilities to intuit how to act professionally. For example, it may not be immediately apparent to a new lawyer that he or she should always agree to reasonable requests for extensions of time and for waiver of procedural formalities, provided legitimate objectives of the client will not be adversely affected. In other words, there are aspects of professionalism that need to be taught.”

To address common professionalism-related issues that law students and young lawyers frequently encounter, the DBA’s Law Student Professionalism Program will feature a keynote presentation by the Honorable Tonya Parker, judge of the 116th District Court in Dallas; a panel discussion on helping young lawyers succeed; a peer-to-peer discussion on the Texas Lawyer’s Creed; small group discussions of real-world professionalism issues led by local judges and lawyers; and a business etiquette presentation by past DBA President Frank E. Stevenson.

The program, held from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Belo Mansion in Dallas, is free and open to all law students, young lawyers, and recent law graduates.

Hearings continue this week on proposed amendments to the disciplinary rules

A series of public education hearings on proposed amendments to the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct began this week. Those interested in the proposed changes are encouraged to attend. Attorneys who attend will receive one-half hour of ethics MCLE credit. 

The Supreme Court of Texas has asked the State Bar of Texas Board of Directors to consider proposed amendments and provide recommendations or comments to the Court by Oct. 6, 2010. Read details on the proposed changes at www.texasbar.com/ethics and provide comments here.

The public education hearings will take place:

Lubbock – Monday, Aug. 30, Noon – 2 p.m.

Texas Tech University School of Law
Lanier Auditorium, Room 153
1802 Hartford Avenue
 
El Paso – Tuesday, Aug. 31, Noon – 2 p.m.

Commissioners Courtroom, 3rd Floor
500 E. San Antonio
 
Houston – Wednesday, Sept. 1, Noon – 2 p.m.
Hyatt Regency, Dogwood Room
1200 Louisiana Street
 
Tyler – Thursday, Sept. 2, Noon – 2 p.m.

Traditions
6205 S. Broadway Avenue
 
Dallas – Friday, Sept. 3, Noon – 2 p.m.
Dallas Bar Association
Belo Mansion, Winstead Ballroom
2101 Ross Avenue
 
Corpus Christi – Tuesday, Sept. 7, Noon – 2 p.m.
Town Club, 6th Floor
800 N. Shoreline Blvd.
 
McAllen – Wednesday, Sept. 8, Noon – 2 p.m.

Casa de Palmas Renaissance
101 N. Main Street
 
San Antonio – Thursday, Sept. 9, Noon – 2 p.m.
Bexar County Courthouse (Old Courthouse)
Presiding Courtroom, 2nd Floor
100 Dolorosa
 
Austin – Friday, Sept. 10, Noon – 2 p.m.
Texas Law Center
Hatton W. Sumners Conference Room
1414 Colorado Street

A Milestone for Legal Ethics in Texas

Happy Birthday to the Texas Lawyer's Creed! The Creed contains principles for civility and courtesy between lawyers and honesty in statements to judges and lawyers and was promulgated in 1989 by both the Supreme Court of Texas and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

On Thursday, Nov. 5, two former justices of the Texas Supreme Court were on hand to help celebrate the 20th anniversaries of the Texas Lawyer’s Creed and the Texas Center for Legal Ethics and Professionalism at a ceremony at the Texas Law Center in Austin. Former Chief Justice Jack Pope and former Justice Eugene Cook were instrumental in the creation of the Center and the Creed. Also on hand were Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Jennifer Elrod, who served as master of ceremonies, as well as current Supreme Court Justices Nathan Hecht, Phil Johnson, Paul Green, and Don Willett.

After several speeches commemorating the anniversaries, those in attendance sang "Happy Birthday" and celebrated with cupcakes and a reception.

“Today we are honoring hundreds of people, those who had vision, raised money [for the creation of the Center], and worked day-to-day to keep that vision alive," said Chief Justice Pope. “The organization is here because of them.”

The November issue of the Texas Bar Journal (www.texasbar.com/tbj) includes a special section about how and why the Creed came into existence. A free 30-minute online ethics CLE on the Creed is available at www.texasbarcle.com. For details on the Center, visit www.txethics.org.