At the Opening Assembly of the American Bar Association’s annual meeting on August 6, 2011, in Toronto, Canada, ABA President Stephen N. Zack made an impassioned plea for civility in our profession: “Let us rededicate ourselves to the proposition that words matter, how we treat others matters and how others see us matters.” Zack elaborated, “We learn a lot from our Canadian brothers and sisters. They have a word in their lawyers’ oath that is sometimes oddly missing from American lawyers’ oaths, and that word is civility. In part it reads, ‘In all things I shall conduct myself with honesty, with integrity, with civility.”
Civility may be missing from the attorney’s oath in California, but it has not been completely ignored at the local level. Many people may not be aware that in 1999, the VCBA adopted Guidelines on Professional Conduct and Civility. Past VCBA President Mike Case chaired the committee that developed these guidelines, which can be found in VCBA’s legal services directory or on our website. The guidelines address issues such as scheduling, continuances and extensions of time, service of papers, communications, discovery, motion practice, candor to the court and opposing counsel, settlement and ADR, trials and hearings.
Unfortunately when we first think of trial attorneys, the immediate image that comes to mind is the belligerent, cutthroat, and unethical lawyer portrayed in so many movies, on TV and in legal fiction. I have certainly noticed a trend in the past few years with the level of civility deteriorating among attorneys (whether at big or small firms, plaintiffs’ or defense counsel), exhibiting a lack of professional courtesy, respect and cooperation, and an overall disparaging tone and litigation tactics. Why are some attorneys compelled to be uncivil when it really does nothing to further the merits of their case? Perhaps they think it is a sign of weakness or that they are not being a zealous advocate unless they act that way. Of course,
such behavior makes them less credible in the eyes of the other side and the court.
Apparently those attorneys have never practiced in Ventura County, where the atmosphere is more collegial thanks to organizations like the Ventura County Trial Lawyers Association (VCTLA). VCTLA is committed to bettering the civil justice system, the lawyers who serve it, and the community it serves by, among other things, promoting professionalism. When I recently asked 2012 VCTLA President Allen Ball (a past Trial Lawyer of the Year recipient) about this issue, he stated that civility more or less swings like a pendulum depending on where you practice geographically and the times we are in. One interesting observation Allen made is that we are experiencing a societal change in terms of how we communicate with opposing counsel. Attorneys are willing to say things in text messages and e-mails that they wouldn’t say to your face or on the phone. As noted by VCTLA Board Member Brook Carroll, attorneys lately seem to be more contentious and unreasonable toward each other on what seems to be unimportant issues. This sense of unnecessary posturing is more self-defeating than helpful.
Although VCTLA is affiliated with the Consumer Attorneys of California (CAOC), what makes VCTLA unique among local chapters is the fact that VCTLA is inclusive of the defense attorneys and is not strictly limited to the plaintiffs’ bar. All the events and activities of VCTLA really set the tone for advancing this guiding principle of civility and professionalism. VCTLA’s signature and most popular event is Judges’ Night in March, where the recipients of the Judge of the Year Award (since 1978) and Judicial Portrait are honored. In selecting the honorees, VCTLA looks for attributes of wisdom, wit, patience, understanding, and compassion. A few months later, VCTLA honors one of its own with the Trial Lawyer of the Year Award. It is this sense of bringing together the legal community to recognize those who exemplify the best of our profession, and the consistent contact with the bench that sets this organization apart. VCTLA’s strong ties and lines of communication with the bench will be even more critical in dealing with the court’s ongoing budget crisis.
VCTLA has expanded its focus to the community at large by actively supporting the annual Ventura County Mock Trial Competition (with over 30 high schools participating this year) and encouraging VCTLA members to volunteer as scorers in February (by not having a regular monthly meeting). Through the influential leadership of Immediate Past President Bill Grewe, VCTLA also generously donated $1,000 to VCBA’s Volunteer Lawyer Services Program, setting a great example for other VCBA sections, committees and affiliates. All of these efforts have not gone unnoticed. In 2007, past president Joel Mark was recognized by the CAOC as Local Chapter President of the Year.
By offering monthly MCLE programs with the same high-quality speakers as those offered in Los Angeles, but at a fraction of the cost, VCTLA is doing a great service for the next generation of trial lawyers who benefit from the passing on of knowledge and a wealth of experience. VCTLA also hopes to bring back its mentorship program, something that I remember benefiting from previously with mentors such as past presidents Judge Mark Borrell and Greg Ramirez. One of the new ideas that VCTLA would like to develop in the future is a mediator/arbitrator database or listserv where members can find analyses of arbitrators’ experience, their decisions, and procedures.