The importance of being civil

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.

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