Skip to content

The importance of being civil

|Written By Megan Seto
The importance of being civil
Law Society of Upper Canada Treasurer Laurie Pawlitza spoke to law students at the University of Ottawa about new sanctions for uncivil conduct.

Uncivil conduct in law school is as pervasive as it is in the courtroom.

In light of the recent disciplinary hearing for Toronto securities lawyer Joe Groia, the issue of civility has dominated discussions in the legal profession and the classroom.

The Law Society of Upper Canada has introduced sanctions to curb the bad behaviour of lawyers. The law society established civility complaints protocols to improve civility in the courtroom. Judges and justices of the peace are empowered to refer incidents of misconduct to the law society.

Uncivil conduct is the latest concern to emerge in the LSUC’s movement towards improving the perceptions and practices of the legal profession. In the 2010 “Treasurer’s Report on the Civility Forum,” uncivil conduct was reported to be more common in larger city centres than in smaller communities. In the latter case, lawyers felt more inclined to resolve conduct on a one-on-one basis.

The type of behaviour reported ranged from harassment to lack of respect. Young lawyers described feelings of powerlessness by more senior lawyers and conversely, senior lawyers felt disrespect from younger lawyers — and even reported bullying.

But how do you identify an “uncivil” lawyer?

In an excerpt from the LSUC’s Ontario Lawyers Gazette, the theme of lawyers behaving badly was strongly articulated. The excerpt identifies uncivil litigators, such as the “novice” litigator, who is bright-eyed and lacks proper mentorship, and the “mimic” litigator, who copies the bad behaviour of lawyers on TV.

The law society states that a reason for incivility is a lack of mentorship. Specifically, the issue appears to be lack of guidance in balancing dual roles as a zealous advocate and duties to the profession and public. In March, LSUC Treasurer Laurie Pawlitza told students at the University of Ottawa that a sanction for bad behaviour includes a referral to mentoring.

With the LSUC recognizing the need to combat the “Rambo litigator,” lawyers who use rudeness and unrestrained aggression as weapons, the response has been to turn to education. The goal is to develop strong theory to foster effective practices in advocacy.

The law school environment can easily serve as a breeding ground for uncivil conduct. The very nature and practice of law school is fierce competition. Getting in is highly competitive. Once in law school, obtaining an articling position can also be challenging. Just as the law society is trying to change the bad reputation of the “Rambo litigator,” law schools are rejecting the image of the textbook-ripping law student.

One potential concern for law schools is that uncivil conduct observed in large urban environments has the potential to be replicated in learning institutions. According to the civility report, greater anonymity creates an environment where one-on-one problem solving becomes more difficult.

The importance of “student professionalism” has gained traction among law schools, including the University of Ottawa. The alternative dispute resolution course offered to first-year students includes an exercise on drafting a model code of conduct for students.

While there is no guarantee that these initiatives will wipe out the “Rambo litigator,” it is a positive sign that more law schools are recognizing the importance of professionalism in both the classroom and the courtroom.

Megan Seto is a second-year law student at the University of Ottawa.

  • RE: The importance of being civil

    Well, maybe it's time for these old school lawyers to read the New Lawyer of Julie McFarlane. Being a pitbull doesn't necessarily translate into being a good lawyer. There is uncivility in law school; some might call it self-confidence, it is uncivility. When you have very presumptuous students going around ignoring or looking down on classmates because they're from a less advantaged social background or they don't seem as smart as them, how do you call that? When you have members of a profession who walk around as if they're the cream of the society, why would you expect the public to like you? Stop deluding yourself: people aren't looking for a ruthless hitman, but a competent person. The best lawyers, those who are well respected by their peers and praised by their clients, are the most humble, the ones who bark the less in a courtroom or around their office. So time to face the music! The profession has a bad name because of lawyers who behave like insecure bullies in schoolyards.
  • mendicant

    As a non-lawyer but frequent family-law observer (probably not what Security Lawyers experience very often) I see lost of very poor behaviour that is definitely uncivil, but appears polite. It is passive-aggressive not necessarily belligerent. That is why alot of frustration builds up in/out of the court-room. I support Joe Groia as working for the best interests of his clients and "calling" opponents for their conduct. Also, students-at-law have not yet been subjected to the real-world and should be advised to see how that goes first. In my experience they will a good mentor to explain to them how it works.
  • Lawyer

    Joseph Groia
    Megan's comments are both timely and fair ; but they do not consider the damaging effect that the civility movement and my case is having on the core principle for all lawyers ;the zealous representation ,within the law,of our clients interests,especially against the powers of the Government,is why I became a lawyer.
    That goal was as sorely tested by the Bre-X prosecution as it now is by the chilling effects of my Law Society's case on the profession at large .
    There is lots of material online about my case for you to read .When you do I hope you will realise that what is needed to help us restore some of the trust we have lost in the eyes of the public is a renewed commitment to fearlessly represent them when they are at their greatest peril.Even if it means that 12 years later you may lose your licence for doing so.
    Until that goal becomes as important and as widely discussed as civility we will have failed both ourselves and the public that we swear to serve .
  • incivility in law school?

    John G
    The author of the story is a law student, so I will presume she knows what she is talking about when she says that incivility in law school is as much of a problem as it is in the courtroom. However, I don't. How is incivility displayed in law school? I recall none when I was there, which was some time ago, though at the time it was said to be competitive. I didn't notice the competitivity either. It was often hard work, but it was pretty collegial. What has changed?