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DTCI: What happened to practicing ‘civil’ litigation?

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DTCI donald smithIt is unusual to open a lawyers’ magazine without seeing an article about civility. What happened to “civil” litigation? It must be like the weather – a lot of people are writing about it, but no one seems to be doing anything about it.

My remarks are not based on scientific studies, and I have no empirical data to support them. My opinions are based solely on my own experience as I wander through this career based primarily on civil litigation.

We practice in a world that is becoming less and less personal. Rarely these days does an attorney meet with opposing counsel to discuss an issue. Instead, he snaps off an email, often riddled with abbreviations and misspellings. The message that comes across is that the attorney cares too little about his position in the case to contemplate what is being said, review it and send a carefully drafted message.

Please don’t get me wrong. I love that I can send emails back and forth efficiently; but emails lead to an impersonal approach to the practice of law.

A well-timed telephone call can be disarming, yet remain very civil. Recently – instead of receiving an email telling me that my client’s position was sanctionable and I was incompetent – I received a call from the opposing counsel. He happened to be older than I (which is getting rarer these days) and with a gentlemanly Southern drawl, he explained his client’s case and the position it was taking. The telephone conversation set the tone for our continued litigation. It was civil. Although we attacked our opponent’s positions, we never attacked our opponents.

Let’s contrast that approach with another recent incident. A case was set for hearing. The opposing attorney and I spoke briefly while we were waiting for our case to be called, but the attorney never said anything about wanting a continuance. It was only when we were before the judge that the attorney – for the first time – advised that his client wanted to testify, but he was not going to appear for the hearing that day. The attorney made no attempt to contact me about a continuance in advance of the hearing or even to advise me while we were waiting for our case to be called. That shows a lack of civility.

Another reason I believe lawyers are less civil to each other is that there is less time for mentoring new attorneys. During the recent economic crisis, fewer law school graduates were able to secure jobs, so they “hung a shingle” to practice by themselves. Although I admire the entrepreneurial spirit, I think it has resulted in a generation of attorneys who have become isolated, without mentors and co-workers to provide guidance. Mentors and co-workers help to temper a new lawyer’s primal instincts when it comes to litigating a case.

In addition, the economic pressures on both new attorneys and law firms have provided for fewer opportunities for new lawyers to accompany senior attorneys to depositions, conferences with clients or trials. I learned much about the practice of law from spending time with more senior attorneys and observing their interactions with other lawyers.

As the practice of law has become less personal, it is easier to attack the other attorney without considering the consequences. We all know attorneys who draw our ire with scathing emails only to find them suddenly civil when we are face-to-face. There used to be an emotional filter when an attorney dictated a letter that was typed by a secretary. It took time for the letter to be typed, so there was an opportunity for the lawyer to cool off before he received the dictation back from the secretary. It is now too easy for attorneys to send those nasty emails themselves while they are still upset.

Perhaps a final reason in my anecdotal examination of why litigators are not as civil to each other is the speed at which the practice of law now operates. Attorneys used to mail letters and could count on a few days before receipt. Then came the fax machine, which cut down the mailing time. Email later took hold for instantaneous communication. I am not saying these are bad developments, but they do lend themselves to the impersonal nature of the practice of law, which in turn leads to incivility.

So, the next time we have a case together, do not hesitate to pick up the phone and call me. If I do not pick up the call immediately, it is because I have been swamped by all of these emails that other attorneys are sending me.•

__________

Mr. Smith is a partner in Riley Bennett & Egloff LLP in Indianapolis and is a member of the DTCI board of directors. The opinions expressed here are those of the author.

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  1. All the lawyers involved in this don't add up to a hill of beans; mostly yes-men punching their tickets for future advancement. REMF types. Window dressing. Who in this mess was a real hero? the whistleblower that let the public know about the torture, whom the US sent to Jail. John Kyriakou. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/26/us/ex-officer-for-cia-is-sentenced-in-leak-case.html?_r=0 Now, considering that Torture is Illegal, considering that during Vietnam a soldier was court-martialed and imprisoned for waterboarding, why has the whistleblower gone to jail but none of the torturers have been held to account? It's amazing that Uncle Sam's sunk lower than Vietnam. But that's where we're at. An even more unjust and pointless war conducted in an even more bogus manner. this from npr: "On Jan. 21, 1968, The Washington Post ran a front-page photo of a U.S. soldier supervising the waterboarding of a captured North Vietnamese soldier. The caption said the technique induced "a flooding sense of suffocation and drowning, meant to make him talk." The picture led to an Army investigation and, two months later, the court martial of the soldier." Today, the US itself has become lawless.

  2. "Brain Damage" alright.... The lunatic is on the grass/ The lunatic is on the grass/ Remembering games and daisy chains and laughs/ Got to keep the loonies on the path.... The lunatic is in the hall/ The lunatics are in my hall/ The paper holds their folded faces to the floor/ And every day the paper boy brings more/ And if the dam breaks open many years too soon/ And if there is no room upon the hill/ And if your head explodes with dark forbodings too/ I'll see you on the dark side of the moon!!!

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  5. My mother got temporary guardianship of my children in 2012. my husband and I got divorced 2015 the judge ordered me to have full custody of all my children. Does this mean the temporary guardianship is over? I'm confused because my divorce papers say I have custody and he gets visits and i get to claim the kids every year on my taxes. So just wondered since I have in black and white that I have custody if I can go get my kids from my moms and not go to jail?

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