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Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Civility Among Lawyers and Judges

Finding something that really wasn’t lost!

In the days following the recent tragedy in Tucson some speculated that a possible cause might be the loss of civility in the political process and in public discourse generally.  In other words, that folks have lost the capacity to be civil with one another when their ideologies, positions, and opinions differ. Whether those speculations as to the cause of this sad event are correct may never be known; thus I will decline to engage in that social debate.

However, the discussion in the wake of that tragedy did get me thinking about civility in the legal profession, particularly as I have known it to exist in Minnesota for over 40 years.

Having achieved a survival level of computer savvy in the last 15 years, I decided to see what “hits” I would obtain upon entering “civility in the legal profession” as a web search.  This produced an enormous amount of information.

One “hit” was to a 2007 posting on the American Bar Association’s “Your ABA” e-newsletter regarding Robert D. Krause’s article, “Toward Civility in Civil Law,” which was published in Business Law Today:

Lawyers have bemoaned the lack of civility in the legal profession for some time.  Almost 70 percent of lawyers surveyed for “The Pulse of the Legal Profession,” a comprehensive ABA study in 2006 surveying the opinions of 800 lawyers, believe that “lawyers have become less civil to each other over time.”1

I will, again, leave the debate as to the correctness of that conclusion for others to resolve.  However, I decided that I was probably aligned with the other 30 percent surveyed by ABA, as my personal experience has been that the vast majority of Minnesota lawyers and judges conduct their professional affairs, the affairs of their clients, and the business of the courts with a high degree of civility and professionalism. I have even found this to be true—perhaps especially true—in the litigation arena where often clients can perceive any civil behavior toward an opposing party, or their counsel, as weakness and not in the best interest of aggressive pursuit of the client’s cause.  My conclusion was that Minnesota lawyers were simply “a cut above” on the civility scale.

I vaguely remembered something about the adoption of “professionalism aspirations” in Minnesota, but, after brief reflection, I was still having trouble putting them in context.  After yet another web search, this one “Minnesota Professional Aspirations,” I found that context: a reference to the “Professional Aspirations” adopted by the MSBA House of Delegates on January 14, 2000, amended by the MSBA Board of Governors September 14, 2000, and approved by the Minnesota Supreme Court January 11, 2001, just ten short years ago, almost to the day.

At this point I should probably confess that my initial conclusion about Minnesota lawyers being perhaps more civil than those in other states could be inaccurate, at least as evidenced by the high number of other states and organizations that have adopted similar statements regarding aspirations for professionalism or civility.

Next, I actually located Minnesota’s Professional Aspirations in good, old-fashioned print in my desk copy of Minnesota Rules of Court.2

The preamble to Minnesota’s Professional Aspirations reads in part as follows:

We, the judges and lawyers of Minnesota, have a special responsibility for the quality of justice. We have taken an oath to conduct ourselves in an upright and courteous manner with fidelity to the court and the client, promising no falsehood or deceit. Commensurate with this responsibility and unique oath is the obligation to conduct our affairs according to the highest standards of professionalism.

The following standards reflect our commitment to professionalism. They memorialize our obligations to each other, our clients and to the people of the State of Minnesota.  They are designed to raise public confidence in the legal profession and the justice system through promotion and protection of professionalism and civility.  (emphasis supplied)

Most of us recognize that lawyers are largely a self-governed profession.  That we are governed by strict rules of ethics and professional conduct and that these rules are arguably the most demanding and most consistently applied and enforced rules governing any profession, anywhere in the world.

I realize that in the ten years since Minnesota’s Professional Aspirations were adopted that approximately 5,000 to 6,000 new members have joined our profession in Minnesota.  I wondered if they had “found” those professional aspirations tucked away in the rule desk book and had taken time to read them and consider their importance to their profession.  I hoped that they had.

I also wondered if longer serving attorneys, like me, who may have lost track of the aspirations since their adoption would appreciate a reminder as to their existence and location.  I hoped that they would, since my review of the aspirations made me proud to be a lawyer, especially a Minnesota lawyer, and I hope that they will feel the same.

Notes

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Terry Votel

Terry Votel was the 2010-11 president of the Minnesota State Bar Association. The division attorney for the Midwest Division of the Claims Litigation Department of Farmers Insurance Group, he practices in the area of insurance defense. He received his J.D. degree from William Mitchell College of Law.

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