Civil Actions

Civil ActionsOver the past month, I have had the privilege of attending professionalism ceremonies at various law schools across the state.  At these ceremonies, every 1L student in the class stands before an Illinois judge or justice and recites the law student Pledge of Professionalism.  The Pledge reads, in part: “As I begin the study of law, I acknowledge and accept the privileges and responsibilities inherent in becoming a lawyer, and the high standards and ideals that accompany such an undertaking.”  The Pledge continues on to mention dignity, integrity, courtesy and, of course, professionalism.  These are all goals of the Commission.  However, as I listened to these students repeat the phrase “high standards and ideals”, I was reminded that while professionalism is a goal of our Commission, it is not, nor should it be, the goal.

The Supreme Court does not simply want to create more professional lawyers.  Rather, the Court’s goal is to better our entire system of justice.  The Court created a professional responsibility educational requirement to assist in developing (1) a professional bar of (2) diverse attorneys (3) kept in good mental and emotional health, who (4) act with civility, and (5) abide by a fully internalized code of ethics.  It is those attorneys who, through their every day practice, can and will create equitable, efficient, and effective justice for all.

We still have work to do to achieve that goal.  To that end, we want to start a discussion on how to fulfill the five-part mission of the Commission on Professionalism: civility, professionalism, diversity, mental wellness, and ethics.

Let’s start with civility.

95% of Illinois attorneys report having faced uncivil and unprofessional behavior in their practice.  You can read the Commission’s report here.  Attorneys across the state have experienced incivility, not just ones in Chicago and Springfield.  And incivility has clear repercussions, including increased burdens on clients, taxpayers and the judicial system.  We know incivility is a problem.  That’s why we’re seeking solutions – from you.  We want your input on how to stop the incivility that Illinois lawyers face on a daily basis.  I’ll lead off with my own incivility story.

I practiced litigation for several years before joining the Commission.  I was truly fortunate to work with and against some excellent people.  Therefore, when I  talk about my experience with incivility in the profession, I’m lucky that I don’t have that many stories to sift through.  However one will always stand out in my mind.

I had just moved to Chicago from New York and was attending my first hearing as an Illinois-licensed lawyer.  It was a simple hearing that was expected to take about five minutes.  It involved asking the judge to set a new date for the defendant to attend an in-court examination as the defendant had not shown up for the previous date.  We had served the original notice on who we believed, based on our other pending civil actions, was the defendant’s attorney.  After the date passed, we heard back from the defendant’s attorney who said that he was not the attorney of record for this action, that the defendant was proceeding pro se, and therefore the defendant was entirely in his right not to show up for the hearing.  We apologized for our mistake and said we would send notices directly to the defendant instead.

We scheduled a court date, the sole purpose of which was to reschedule the  in-court examination date.  We, as discussed, sent the notice directly to the defendant.  We also emailed and called him.  We received no response. Given those circumstances, the lead partner on the case told me that I could attend by myself.

I went to the Daley Center that morning.  I called my office three times to see if either the defendant or the attorney had called.  Neither had.  So I sat in the courtroom and waited for the clerk to call the case.

After two hours, the clerk finally called the case.  I walked up to the bench.  To my surprise, two people walked up with me.  One was an older gentleman who I had never seen before.  The other, I knew, was the defendant.  Opposing counsel didn’t say anything to me before we reached the dais.  That changed when we got there.  As soon as the judge asked us to identify who we all were, opposing counsel started talking.  I’ll paraphrase: “Your Honor, counsel’s conduct has been nothing short of outrageous.  We received no notice of this hearing.  We received no notice of the previous hearing.  I’m only here by chance today.  Counsel has engaged in reprehensible conduct that’s really characterized her behavior for this entire case.  Not only should the date not be granted, but the entire action against my client should be dismissed.  And counsel should be sanctioned for her behavior here today.”

The judge turned to me and asked if the case should be dismissed.  I was floored.  I honestly couldn’t think of anything to say.  We did exactly as he had asked us to.  How could he accuse us of unprofessionalism?  And sanctions?  Sanctions??  He wasn’t even the defendant’s lawyer.  When the judge repeated his question, I stammered out something, the gist of which was, please, whatever you do, do not dismiss this action.  Opposing counsel kept rolling his eyes and muttering under his breath the entire time.

Eventually, the judge told us both to go outside to work this out.  Opposing counsel and his client walked outside with me.  That’s when opposing counsel’s berating truly started.  Loudly, so everyone in the hallway could hear him, he started shouting at me.  I was inept.  I was a liar.  I was unprofessional.  My behavior was the absolute worst he had ever encountered in his decades of practice.  My entire firm should be sanctioned for my conduct today.  I tried to keep calm and explain why he was mistaken.  But between his shouting and waving his arms in the air, he didn’t give me the chance to say a word.  Finally, when it was all over, he said “We’re going back in there now.”  We hadn’t resolved a thing.

At the end of the day, the judge didn’t dismiss the case and we received a guarantee from opposing counsel that he would file an appearance in this case and that his client would attend an in-court examination in two weeks.  We wrapped up, counsel walked out of the courtroom with a smile on his face, having achieved, in my opinion, nothing more than what I sought in the first place.

That entire experience ranks as my most uncivil experience in practice.  But incidents like that are ones the Commission wants to ensure to no longer take place.  Which is why we want to hear from you.  How should I have dealt with the situation?  How could I have avoided it in the first place?  What can I or any lawyer do to make sure it doesn’t happen again?   Discuss in the comments.  Send us an email.  Talk about your solutions to incivility.  And story by story, perhaps we can work toward that ultimate goal, equitable, efficient, and effective  justice for all.

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Michelle Silverthorn

Michelle Silverthorn

After spending seventeen years living in the Caribbean, Michelle undertook a number of around-the-world detours before ending up at the doorstep of the Commission, including four years as a general litigator in New York and Chicago. She remembers pretty much everyone she’s met in her travels but she would especially like to meet again the passengers on a January 2001 flight from Miami to JFK. At the pilot’s request, they donated enough money for Michelle, who had her wallet stolen, to get back to college safely. She would very much like to tell them all thanks.
Michelle Silverthorn

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