Letter to the editor: Courteous and professional? We can do better

Having just completed my fifth year of practice, I do not proclaim to be the expert on how to be a well-respected attorney. Our bar is full of professionals with decades of experience who have seen and learned far more than I in my short (yet also long) five years.

Nonetheless, I have learned a few things about our great profession along the way. I certainly am a wholly different person than the bright-eyed, first-year associate who reviewed her first appearance for about an hour prior to filing (true story.) And one of those things I have learned is this: professionally, we can do better.

We commit to hold ourselves to a higher standard — to be pillars of our community, to put our clients’ interests first and to exemplify professionalism. Indeed, the 7th Circuit’s Standards for Professional Conduct make this point clear in the opening line: “A lawyer’s conduct should be characterized at all times by personal courtesy and professional integrity in the fullest sense of those terms.”

And yet, we are missing the mark. I can count on both hands the instances where opposing counsel have acted like teenagers. I generally cannot go but a few weeks without having a phone call with opposing counsel littered with interruptions. I can tell you several names of opposing counsel who have simply hung up on me (most of the time, they are the ones who called in the first place).

I could make you laugh (or cry) at the number of times I have had to, as politely as possible, say, “Counsel, I have answered that question four times now.” And I have plenty of examples where opposing counsel have doubled back a day or two later to apologize for their behavior.

Candidly, this is all purely anecdotal. However, I can tell you that, unfortunately, every instance involved behavior conducted by a male attorney. This in no way diminishes the daily interactions I have with male colleagues who treat me with the utmost respect. But the point is salient. In 2020, there are endless problems to solve, many of them far more important than attorney decorum and courtesies. But I was moved (maybe pushed) to write this commentary after ending yet another call with opposing counsel, enduring blatant disrespect (telling me “use your head” when asking him a question to which he did not have the answer).

I have sympathy for the added pressures we are facing this year, especially the working parents out there. But just as much as your bad day causes you to interrupt or hang up on a fellow member of bar, know that you are equally ruining their day when you do so.

I submit to my colleagues in the bar — let’s try to live up to the standards we set for ourselves and not engage in behavior that necessitates an apology the next day. Could we please just do (and be) better? If you are not persuaded by me, take these words of the great and late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: “Reacting in anger or annoyance will not advance one’s ability to persuade.”

I will pause now for response, and hold any follow-up until you are finished.

— Jackie S. Gessner,
Barnes & Thornburg, LLP

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