Bloomberg Law
Sept. 30, 2020, 8:00 AM

Professional Civility Is Essential in the Pandemic

Elizabeth Holt Andrews
Elizabeth Holt Andrews
Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP
Andrew Trask
Andrew Trask
Williams & Connolly LLP

We’ve all come to learn that nearly every aspect of life is more difficult in a pandemic. We rarely leave the house. We fret about the health of loved ones. We’ve canceled or scaled back vacation plans. Simple but profound sources of enjoyment—like date nights or coffee with friends—are nonexistent or severely curtailed. Those living alone may struggle with isolation. Those with young children at home, like the two of us, have transformed our dwellings into full-time offices, daycares, and schools rolled into one.

On top of all that, there is work. Employees in general are facing more meetings and longer workdays during the pandemic, and lawyers are no exception. Our rigorous pre-pandemic schedules, filled with late-night emails, midnight filing deadlines, and conference calls during vacations, now seem comparatively quaint.

Practically overnight, lawyers with young children have found ourselves balancing full-time law practice with full-time family responsibilities. For some, it simply can’t be done. For our part, our respective families have crafted elaborate schedules for childcare and household tasks, all with an eye toward carving out precious time to meet clients’ needs.

If we’re lucky, an important meeting may coincide with naptime. If not, we may find ourselves joining the videoconference with a baby in tow, while a toddler gleefully empties a box of paper clips behind us.

But for members of the bar, this extraordinary time may have a silver lining: Given the challenges we all face, there is no better time to recommit ourselves to our profession’s deep-rooted ideals of civility and professional courtesy.

ABA Code of Legal Ethics Dates to Pre-1918 Pandemic

Our profession has long maintained that civility among counsel is critical to our system of justice. A decade before the 1918 flu pandemic, the American Bar Association promulgated its first national code of legal ethics, which included this directive: “Clients, not lawyers, are the litigants. Whatever may be the ill-feeling existing between clients, it should not be allowed to influence counsel in their conduct and demeanor toward each other or toward suitors in the case.”

The wisdom of those words persists today, with efforts to encourage civility in the legal profession proliferating in recent decades among courts and bar associations.

The current pandemic thus pairs unprecedented challenges with an unrivaled opportunity. Whether in the midst of contentious litigation or protracted contract negotiations, we cannot know all the burdens our colleagues may be carrying. But we can recognize these trying times as an opportune moment to showcase our profession’s commitment to civility.

So, if opposing counsel requests a reasonable extension of time, we should consider consenting if doing so would not adversely affect our client. In scheduling calls and videoconferences, we should avoid creating unnecessary calendar conflicts for others.

And above all, we must strive to practice courtesy, consideration, and civility in all professional settings. In court, as the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg sagely advised, “[y]ou should aim to persuade the judge by the power of your reasoning and not by denigrating the opposing side.”

Likewise, outside the courthouse, our communications should reflect our collective commitment to civility. These small, meaningful acts ultimately benefit our clients and our profession—and, perhaps, may help lessen the difficulties we all are now experiencing.

Law Firms Should Exemplify Courtesy, Respect

By a similar token, law firms can foster collegiality among employees during this unprecedented period.

Many firms have hosted virtual happy hours, established focus groups, and formed parents’ committees. Others have covered in-home tutoring costs. Firms have arranged online story times and magic shows, giving attorney parents time to take a call or focus on drafting a few emails. Some have provided special treats, like cupcake deliveries on the first day of virtual school.

With such acts, our own firms and others have exemplified the courtesy and respect that is needed now more than ever.

Amidst the hardships that many of us now face, finding pleasure in the practice of law can seem like a distant goal. But as Justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed, "[m]ore civility and greater professionalism can only enhance the pleasure lawyers find in practice.”

That seems like a worthwhile objective on any occasion, most especially in a global pandemic.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

Write for Us: Insight Guidelines

Author Information

Elizabeth Holt Andrews is an attorney at Troutman Pepper Hamilton Sanders LLP in San Francisco. She specializes in appellate and business litigation.

Andrew Trask is an attorney at Williams & Connolly LLP in Washington, D.C. He focuses his practice on litigation and appeals involving intellectual property and technology.