When I was a young lawyer starting my career, one of my first cases involved representing a woman in a contested divorce. After the judge made a favorable ruling on behalf of my client, the surprised opposing counsel and his client angrily departed the courtroom.
I noticed counsel had left a few documents and a newspaper behind. I picked them up in hopes of returning them to him. As I stood there, the attorney re-entered the courtroom and snatched the papers from my hands. “Let your client buy you a newspaper,” he sneered before storming out again.
That was more than 40 years ago, but I still remember how stunned I was by such behavior. I decided at that moment I would never treat opposing counsel — or anyone else — in that manner. I believe people can be adversaries inside and outside the courtroom without making it personal. Unfortunately, divisiveness and disagreements have led to incivility in too many places today.
Uncivil behavior can range from subtle dirty looks to outrageous public tirades. We have seen it in news reports of unruly passengers attacking flight attendants and angry parents shouting at each other during PTA meetings or Little League games. These activities are disruptive and damaging to workplaces, schools, families and in our everyday encounters.
Recent results from the American Bar Association’s 2023 national Survey of Civic Literacy show that the public has noted the increase in such bad conduct. The survey found that a staggering 85 percent of the public believes civil behavior is worse than it was 10 years ago.
And whom do they blame for the decline? Most point to social media (29 percent) and the media (24 percent). Yet, more than 34 percent said the task of improving civility starts with family and friends, those who are the closest to us. And here’s a heartening result: More than three in four (79 percent) said they favor government leaders working toward compromise on various hot-button issues, including immigration reform, infrastructure and gun rights.
The American Bar Association has taken steps to help raise the bar on common courtesy. In 2022, the ABA established the Cornerstones of Democracy: Civics, Civility and Collaboration Commission, which has created conversation guides for bar associations and civic, professional and government organizations to use in developing programs or adapting existing programs to model civil discourse on topical issues.
I recently moderated a discussion about civility, and while the panelists held a wide range of beliefs on issues, they agreed that the way to turn the tide on incivility is to start doing our part in our own communities. That includes taking the time to understand people different from us, actively listening and refraining from judging others and even assuming that those with whom we disagree have the best possible motives for their beliefs. But the best piece of advice came from a quote by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa: “Do your little bit of good where you are. It’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”
Learning how the American government works and developing an understanding of civics, civility and collaboration — the cornerstones of our great democracy — also will help us build a better society. The legal profession can lead the way in promoting these linchpins to restore confidence in our democratic institutions and the judicial system and to protect the rule of law.
But it doesn’t stop with legal professionals. No matter who or where you are or what you do, you can make a difference in banishing the current deficit in kindness and courtesy. In the end, civility matters.