Inspiring Higher Standard of Conduct For All

Higher Standard of ConductWorking at the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism tends to sensitize us Commission staffers to issues of incivility. After all, our mission is to promote civility, integrity and professionalism among the 94,000 plus members of the bench and bar across the state. Various studies, and our own research, show that incivility leads to an increase in litigation/transaction costs, harms public confidence in the justice system, and makes the practice of law less satisfying.

All of us on the Commission staff spend days thinking, writing, designing programs and talking to lawyers about civility. Unlike our sister agencies the ARDC and the MCLE Board, we don’t have sanctions or sticks. We can only encourage attorneys to aspire to a higher standard, and to treat their colleagues, clients and opponents the way they’d like to be treated. It sounds like the Golden Rule, or maybe “Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” and in some ways, it is.

Incivility Epidemic

Not many people are “in favor” of incivility. Even so, incivility persists. In case there was any doubt, it’s not just lawyers who are treating each other poorly. Reading the news these past few weeks, my incivility antennae were quivering. There seems to be an epidemic of incivility happening all over the place.

  • Condominium management professionals are reporting increasing instances of lawsuits against and among condo board members, and increasing disregard for condo associations’ governing documents, according to the Chicago Tribune.
  • Government official in Japan have banned photography at many of the country’s most visited temples, due to inconsiderate tourists blocking walkways, leaning against cultural icons and trampling gardens to get the perfect photo. New guidelines remind visitors that the temples are, first and foremost, places of worship and contemplation
  • A recent paper published in the Journal of Communication reported on the relative frequency of uncivil comments by online users of the Arizona Daily Star. Analyzing more than 6,400 comments to 706 articles, the authors found more than one in five comments (22%) contained incivility of some kind, most prevalently, name-calling. Further, it wasn’t regularly-commenting “trolls” who were most likely to demonstrate incivility, but those posting only once over the relevant period. Sorting on article content, “hard” news topics, about the economy, politics, taxes and foreign affairs garnered the greatest percentage of uncivil comment, roughly one in four. One-third of articles containing quotation from President Obama had an uncivil comment attached.
  • Speaking of incivility and politics, it’s not your imagination—political ads have become increasingly negative. A recent National Journal article reported on the results of a Wesleyan University study showing that, for the first two weeks in September, 55% of U.S. Senate ads were negative. In addition, from 2012 to 2014, negative ads for gubernatorial campaigns jumped by 20 points—from 23.3-43.8%. If there is a bright side to this, the article reported that a separate study in the Journal of Politics found that viewers tend to remember negative ads better than positive ones. But just because they’re memorable doesn’t necessarily make them effective—it turns out that negative ads are no more likely to spur voters to the polls.
  • In case you think that four stories do not an epidemic make, see the following recent articles on the increase in workplace bullying, graduate and professional student bullying, and the diversion of three commercial airline flights this fall due to squabbles over legroom.

Although the societal trends are disturbing, we are not giving up. Neither are the majority of lawyers and the inspired individuals across the state we collaborate with. Most lawyers joined this profession to make a difference in our world. And they are in so many ways. Our lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program has enthusiastic participation of over 3,500 so far. They pass along nuanced wisdom and judgment that con only be learned through experience. Lawyers participate in and facilitate conflict-resolution, emotional intelligence and other skills-building CLE programs that equip us to rise above and get past the positional name-calling that seems to characterize our societal incivility.

Higher Standard of Conduct

But why, if condo boards, tourists in Japan, politicians and online commentators are wrestling in the mud, should lawyers behave any differently? Here’s why: Lawyers and judges hold a special place in the community at large. We are charged with facilitating the resolution of disputes, often when both high stakes money and emotions are involved. Further, we represent the justice system to the public, and thus have a responsibility to model a higher standard of conduct.

As the decades have passed, the respect the public has for lawyers has declined precipitously. It is up to us to ensure that we do not lose the status our profession has long held in the eyes of our fellow countrymen, by keeping civility at the heart of our profession.

Lawyers also can lead the way for those outside our profession by how we behave on our condo boards, as tourists, online, etc.  What do you think?

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