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Be the better person

I’m going to put this out there as a universal truth in the legal profession: at one point, everyone’s been on the other side of the table to another lawyer who’s not been civil. Perhaps it’s been in the courtroom, perhaps just in the hallway, or maybe it was in a letter or a series of letters, or it’s just been during a short phone call. And it seems it doesn’t matter what area of law you practice — civil litigation, corporate-commercial, real estate, family, criminal, immigration law, etc. — there’s always a bad egg out there somewhere. And it’s such a scourge on the profession that law societies, bar associations, and legal academics have tried to tackle the “problem.” But the “problem” really is that rudeness can’t be cured or legislated. “You can’t change an a-hole,” one distinguished member of the bar recently noted at a panel I attended on civility.

While lodging a complaint with the law society against such individuals is an option, the best way to deal with it, according to the above noted panel, is to be the better person. “Don’t be civil because it’s the honourable thing to do, but because it’s strategic.” Too true. The best course is not to engage in a back and forth, be reasonable, be prepared for objections that may come up, and don’t lose your cool.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Healey, who presides in Barrie, Ont., noted that as a judge she sees a tremendous number of lawyers going through the courts, and offered up some invaluable tips on combating incivility and making yourself look good in the process. I will share them because they were good, especially the first one.

• If you’re in court with an a-hole, don’t point it out to the judge. The judge can pretty much see it for herself.

• Behave well. The more professionalism and integrity you show, the greater the contrast with the other lawyer.

• Surprise attacks are a bad idea.

• Don’t be dragged down by the combative attitude of the other side.

• Don’t interrupt the judge.

• Don’t talk among yourselves and disregard the judge, you know, who is running the courtroom.

While her tips above apply to litigators, here are some words of wisdom from Healey that every lawyer should live by: “Arrogance and swagger are not a show of competence.”

So, as the famous sportswear manufacturer says, “just do it.” Behave well and stay above the fray and both you and your client (not to mention the profession) will benefit.