Today’s Lawyers Are More Civil, But Not to Everyone, Commission Survey Says

Civility in a red quote

Today’s lawyers are being more civil to each other than in the past, according to the Commission on Professionalism’s 2021 Survey on Professionalism.

The percentage of lawyers who said they’ve experienced incivility from another attorney in the past 6 months dropped more than 30% compared to the Commission’s 2014 Survey on Professionalism. However, issues of incivility tied to race, age, and sex are on the rise and impacting diversity in the profession.

“While the data shows that incivility in the legal profession is improving, the rise of incidents that generally impact underrepresented attorneys remains concerning,” said Martin Sinclair, Chair of the Commission on Professionalism. “Recruiting diverse attorneys is an important first step that must be paired with an ongoing commitment to retaining these individuals. The Commission urges the legal profession to focus its efforts on actions that will create a culture of inclusion and belonging for attorneys, clients, and the public as a whole.”

The Commission on Professionalism’s third Survey on Professionalism surveyed a randomized sample of more than 1,500 Illinois attorneys across practice areas on their experiences with civility and professionalism in their workplaces and as individuals.

The survey was conducted in August and September 2021 in partnership with the National Center for Principled Leadership and Research Ethics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Lawyers are overwhelming civil

The vast majority of lawyers (89%) surveyed indicated that the attorneys they engage with are civil and professional. These numbers are similar to the 2014 survey.

While a majority of respondents (54%) said they had experienced incivility from another attorney in the past 6 months, this number is significantly lower than the 2014 survey, when roughly 85% of respondents reported that they had experienced incivility from another attorney in the past 6 months.

Attorneys in civil rights law, family law, criminal law, and personal injury law all reported experiencing incivility significantly more than in other practice settings.

Incivility tied to race, age, and sex is growing  

While incivility between attorneys, in general, has dropped, it’s growing in areas that traditionally impact underrepresented groups.

2021 Survey on Professionalism infographic

The most common experiences of uncivil or unprofessional behavior reported were sarcastic or condescending attitude; misrepresenting or stretching the facts or negotiating in bad faith; inflammatory writings in correspondence, memos, briefs, or motions; and playing hardball (such as not agreeing to reasonable requests for extensions). These results are similar to those reported in 2014.

However, instances of incivility tied to race, age, and sex grew significantly.

  • In 2014, 4.0% of respondents who had experienced incivility reported that they had been the target of inappropriate comments about their age or experience; that number is 16.6% in 2021.
  • In 2014, 2.8% of respondents who had experienced incivility reported that they had been the target of sexist comments; that number is 12.3% in 2021.
  • In 2014, 1.6% of respondents who had experienced incivility reported that they had been the target of racially insensitive comments; that number is 6.5% in 2021.

And respondents said these actions are significantly impacting diversity in the profession. In 2021, 62% of respondents said incivility discourages diversity in the profession, up from 51% in 2014.

Incivility and organizational culture

While the vast majority of respondents (83%) said their workplace cultivates a culture where people of all backgrounds are welcomed and valued, some organizations are coming up short when it comes to action. Just 63% of respondents said their organization always takes strict action against intolerance and discrimination.

More lawyers earlier in their careers said their workplaces allow them to express their ideas, opinions, and beliefs than their counterparts with more experience. Eighty-seven percent of attorneys with 0-4 years of experience said they were free to share ideas and beliefs whereas only 76% of lawyers with more than 35 years of experience agreed.

The trend is also similar for expressing opposing views, suggesting organizations may be more tolerant of ideas from the next generation of attorneys.

When it comes to sexual harassment, a particular area the 2021 survey explored, 41% of practitioners reported that their workplace doesn’t conduct sexual harassment training or they’re unaware of these trainings.

And, when reporting sexual harassment concerns or complaints, 21% said they aren’t confident or are unsure their concerns would be handled in a thorough, confidential, and impartial manner.

Consequences of incivility

Most respondents (86%) tend to take the high road when confronted with incivility, opting to ignore or address the behavior in a civil way. The chances of a civil response increase with age.

However, incivility has unintended consequences that can extend beyond lawyers. According to respondents, uncivil or unprofessional behavior harms public/client confidence in the profession (90%), makes it more difficult to resolve a matter (95%), makes the practice of law less satisfying (92%), and leads to an increase in litigation/transaction costs (88%).

To read the full Survey on Professionalism, click here. The 2007 and 2014 surveys are available on the Commission’s website.

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism uses education to promote civility and professionalism to the lawyers and judges of Illinois. Check out our free online CLEs, attorney mentoring program, and blog covering pressing topics in attorney professionalism.

About the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism was established by the Illinois Supreme Court in 2005 under Supreme Court Rule 799(c) to foster increased civility, professionalism, and inclusiveness among lawyers and judges in Illinois. By advancing the highest standards of conduct among lawyers and judges, the Commission works to better serve clients and society alike. For more information, please visit and follow us on Twitter @2CivilityOrg.

Press Contact

Laura Bagby, Communications Director

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