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DTCI: Take a moment to breathe before hitting 'send'

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dtci-thornburg-robertAt the time I am writing and submitting this column to the Indiana Lawyer, Indiana’s primary election is only days away. One can’t help but notice one political ad after another airing in ever-increasing frequency. Whether these advertisements are deemed “attack ads,” “issue spots” or “comparisons,” one thing is clear: the grainy black-and-white photographs and videos of the political opponent with the menacing voice-over intend to portray the opponent in an unflattering light. Indeed, some would claim in an inaccurate or misleading light. The heated and vitriolic rhetoric employed by politicians and commentators on the daily talk shows seems to be on the rise. Many believe that this ever-heated and impolite discourse has seeped out into the legal profession. Indeed, many in the legal community have begun to posit that incivility is on the rise, particularly in regard to email communication. I for one certainly hope not.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, 2nd Edition, defines civility as “a polite act or utterance.” Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines it as “civilized conduct; especially: courtesy, politeness.” Shouldn’t civility in the legal profession, however, mean more than simply being courteous or polite?

I suspect most would agree that in our adversarial system, civility should be synonymous with professionalism. It must mean that in addition to being polite, courteous and respectful, we must not intentionally belittle, demean or unnecessarily attack our colleagues, adversaries, any party, witness, the judiciary or the judicial staff involved. We must strive to use appropriate language, volume and tone to advance our arguments and our clients’ positions and to disagree with our opponent or the court. Simply stated, treat everyone with consideration and respect, even during heated debates and contentious moments at deposition, hearing or trial.

Oft cited in defense of incivility is the duty to act with reasonable diligence and promptness. (See Indiana Professional Conduct Rule 1.3.) It is frequently said that an attorney has an obligation to zealously represent his clients. Reasonable diligence, promptness and zealous advocacy, however, do not and should not require one to be impolite or uncivil. In fact, the second sentence of the Preamble to Indiana’s Rules of Professional Conduct reads, “Whether or not engaging in the practice of law, lawyers should conduct themselves honorably.” And the Official Comment to Rule 1.3 explicitly provides, “The lawyer’s duty to act with reasonable diligence does not require the use of offensive tactics or preclude the treating of all persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect.” (Prof. Cond. R. 1.3, Comment [1].)

We live in an age where instantaneous communication is the norm. Time to reflect and respond after considered deliberation seems to be vanishing. It is increasingly expected that we respond immediately to every voicemail or email we receive. Indeed, even correspondence is increasingly being sent via facsimile or as an attachment to an email.

Most can recite examples of email being a large source of incivility in the practice. Email incivility can be avoided. Clicking the “send” button before allowing time for reflection can escalate a contentious situation. In fact, all can easily recall a situation where something became more contentious because of email. The next time – before hitting “send” – give yourself some space and time to deliberate and to let the emotion drain. Type the message, but let it sit. Return to the message later, reread it, and then hit “send” after some time for reflection and consideration. Even consider having a respected colleague read it to ensure that your tone is correct. Take a breath before hitting “send.” In this election year filled with negative ads, speeches and attacks, let us all strive to disagree when necessary, with respect and without being disagreeable.•

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Robert B. Thornburg is a member in the Indianapolis office of Frost Brown Todd and sits on the DTCI Board of Directors. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
 

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  1. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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