How Florida Lawyers Can Be Better to Each Other
By Aaron H. Wallace, Esq.
I recently had an opportunity to participate in conversations with small groups of Florida lawyers all across the state — different ages, races, genders, counties, areas of practice, and so on. We talked about the state of legal practice in the Sunshine State today.
The one thing every single lawyer mentioned? A crisis of civility amongst their fellow practitioners.
Beyond billable hours, difficult clients, court calendars, competition, or exhausting research, the thing most on their minds as a source of frustration was their interaction with other lawyers.
I’m not entirely surprised. My findings echo those of The Florida Bar’s 2021 statewide membership survey, which saw Florida lawyers cite a lack of civility as the #1 problem in the profession for the first time ever. In publishing the report, Bar President Mike Tanner noted he had heard the same concern in nearly every campaign stop during his run for office.
It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way
If we as lawyers recognize that we as lawyers are the problem that we as lawyers hope to solve, it seems self-evident that a solution should be within reach.
What’s needed, perhaps, is a culture change. That’s what Well-Being Week in Law is all about: changing the culture of lawyering toward one that facilitates peace, happiness, satisfaction, and success.
Today’s Well-Being Week in Law theme is connection, so let’s consider a few ways we might change the way we connect with our fellow counselors to turn things around.
7 Ways That Florida Lawyers Can Be Better to Each Other
- I am the Traffic — I recently heard someone share the singular insight that washed away their road rage for good: “I am the traffic.” We all get frustrated with traffic, but the reality is that traffic is just a collection of cars, one of which is the one we’re sitting in. I think the same principle can translate to law. I am the profession. I am the Bar membership. I am the opposing counsel. We are all participants in our system of advocacy, and while some of us surely advocate more civilly by nature than others, true change must come from within. And if none of us ever asks, “Could I be the problem?” then no one will. So let’s all ask it of ourselves, and consider ways we can be better to each other.
- Patience Is Professionalism — Let’s try not to badger each other. Take email, for example. For any non-emergency matters where you aren’t up against a deadline or an urgent demand, consider following the 24-hour rule for email. Before following up on an email or deliverable for which you have not yet received a reply, allow at least a full business day to pass before “circling back,” “checking in,” or “touching base.” This signals to other lawyers that you respect their time and that you are operating on the assumption that we are all hard-working professionals.
- Understand That Civility and Instinct Aren’t Often the Same. The human brain is incredible and almost unfathomable — but also in many respects downright primeval. Did you know that when we are presented with information that challenges our assumptions or beliefs, the brain responds in the same way it does to a mortal threat? (Researchers even believe it’s the reason politics have gotten so nasty in the age of social media.) That’s a powerful insight to have, and you can hack it for the sake of civility. Recognize the impulse, then regulate it. Because however wrong your opposing counsel may be, they probably don’t deserve to be treated like a wooly mammoth barging into your cave.
- Begin by First Assuming Good Intentions. There are over 100,000 licensed lawyers in Florida. No two of them think quite alike. The fact that we are all different is one of those things in life we can’t control (nor should we want to, truth be told). So embrace it. Our brains tempt us to assume the worst when someone’s course of action or response differs from what we would have done in a situation. That temptation is especially strong for lawyers, because we think we know perfectly well what “the reasonable person” would do in that situation too. But let’s all try exercising the benefit of the doubt. I know that in my own life, in nearly every situation where I have assumed another person was acting out of spite or hostility, I ultimately found that wasn’t the case at all — and wishing very much that I had started out by assuming the best.
- Collaborate and Share the Load. Data in a report from the Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession shows that when law firms reorganize around a collaborative and multidisciplinary model, earnings rise for both the individual lawyers and the firm as a whole — and clients demonstrate greater satisfaction and loyalty too. Your firm may not be big enough for something as grand as a “multidisciplinary model,” but you can take your cue from that research and consider how the professionals in your practice might better collaborate and lighten one another’s loads.
- Recognize That Lawyers Who Work for You Are Employees. We all know that law firms sometimes struggle to operate as proper businesses, and along with that, there’s sometimes a tendency to think of employed lawyers as something other than employees. This can lead to more hostile and aggressive demands on the very resources who should be regarded as hard-to-find talent who deserve respect and appreciation. (For that matter, all human beings deserve that, no matter how valuable their employment may or may not be.) The Institute for Well-Being in Law holds that a culture change in the profession will require institutional change in law firms, including in the employment status quo. Employer-specific resources are available at the IWIL website.
- Remember That Civility Is a Rule Too. We all live and breathe the duty of zealous advocacy. That’s all well and good. It is a duty, and our clients are well served by it. But let’s remember that all admitted Florida lawyers pledge an oath of civility — and that matters too.
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