Before You Click “Send” …

December 9, 2019 § 1 Comment

There is a difference between ethics and professionalism.

Ethics are the principles and values to which we adhere as a profession. Ethics set us apart as a profession and qualify us to call ourselves professionals. Our ethical standards are embodied in the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Professionalism, on the other hand, is the manner in which we go about the practice of our profession. Unlike ethics, there are no specific rules to follow to be professional. There is, however, the Lawyer’s Creed, which lays out a broad outline of what genuine professionalism looks like:

A LAWYER’S CREED

To my clients, I offer faithfulness, competence, diligence, and good judgment. I will strive to represent you as I would want to be represented and to be worthy of your trust.

To the opposing parties and their counsel, I offer fairness, integrity, and civility. I will seek to fairly resolve differences and, if we fail to reconcile disagreements, I will strive to make our dispute a dignified one.

To the courts, and other tribunals, and to those who assist them, I offer respect, candor, and courtesy. I will strive to do honor to the search for justice.

To my colleagues in the practice of law, I offer concern for your reputation and well being. I will extend to you the same courtesy, respect, candor and dignity that I expect to be extended to me. I will strive to make our association a professional friendship.

To the profession, I will strive to keep our business a profession and our profession a calling in the spirit of public service.

To the public and our systems of justice, I offer service. I will strive to improve the law and our legal system, to make the law and our legal system available to all, and to seek the common good through effective and ethical representation of my clients.

Over the past year I have heard of lawyers using social media to ridicule and criticize other lawyers and judges. One instance even involved a lawyer surreptitiously using a cell phone to record another lawyer in the courtroom and then posting it on social media with critical comments. I wonder how those lawyers consider that kind of conduct to “offer fairness, integrity, and civility”? Or how it makes their dispute “dignified”? How does that fit with “concern for your reputation and well-being” or “I will strive to make our association a professional friendship”? Would you want that demeaned colleague to show you the “same courtesy, respect, candor and dignity” that you showed them? And, in the case of the courts, how does it show “respect, candor, and courtesy”?

It’s no wonder that the legal profession is no longer held in high esteem by the public when its own members are publicly petty, spiteful, and whining toward each other, particularly in a forum where the person ridiculed or criticized has no way to respond. It’s actually a malignant growth on our profession that needs to be excised and eliminated.

And as for the courts, it is true that we have a First Amendment right to criticize a judge’s rulings, but that can be done in a respectful, reasoned manner that does not demean and call the court system into disrespect. Besides, just because you have the right to say something does not necessarily mean that it must be said. Sometimes it’s better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.

The most damaging thing about this sort of conduct is how it diminishes the reputation of the one who posts it. It reveals an unattractive, sleazy character. It certainly reflects poorly on the poster’s professionalism. On which would you want people to judge your character: a petty, small-minded, ungracious comment; or your good judgment, uprightness, calm temperament, and graciousness? Honestly, I don’t care to have anything to do with people who do the former; and I strive to get to know better the people in the latter. I think most people are like me in that regard.

Before you hit that “Send” button, stop and think. Is that really how you want people to see you?

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§ One Response to Before You Click “Send” …

  • Donald Campbell says:

    Excellent point. It is easy to forget that professional responsibility is more than making sure that you stay above the floor required by the Rules of Professional Conduct. Georgia has a separate CLE requirement for professionalism. I found this out the hard way when I submitted “standard” ethics CLE material for a professionalism presentation and it was rejected as not sufficiently focused on professionalism. My revised material was based on the premise of the book “All I really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” We are never too old to remember that courtesy and kindness are the attributes of being a good human being and a good lawyer.

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