President's Message: When lawyers take the lead modeling civility, our increasingly uncivil society will follow suit
By David Steele
I am just back from the Jackrabbit Bar Conference in Laramie, Wyoming. Many of you may not know that Montana is one of the founding member states of the Jackrabbit Bar Conference, along with North Dakota. The Jackrabbit states include Montana, North and South Dakota, Wyoming, Nevada, Utah, Idaho and New Mexico. These states all share many of the same attributes and issues facing small bars and western state environments. One issue that representatives from every Jackrabbit state mentioned is civility. More specifically, we all discussed not whether civility in our profession is on the decline (perhaps), or whether civility among the general public is on the decline (most certainly). Instead, we focused on how attorneys can model civility within the public space in an effort to foster a more civil discourse among an increasingly diverse and divergent society.
Montana attorneys take civility seriously; it is one of the great traditions that has been passed down from generation to generation. But maintaining civility takes effort. I believe Montana attorneys are known for their civility because they are also known for their collegiality. Collegiality begets civility; it’s hard to be uncivil to someone with whom you break bread. Hey!…wait a minute!... Don’t most local bar organizations hold monthly luncheons?!??
Your participation in your local bar organization offers an invaluable opportunity to cultivate collegiality. Your local bar serves as a forum for interaction, dialogue, and relationship building among those with whom you probably work most often. Local bars provide members with a sense of community and collegiality that can mitigate the often-adversarial nature of our profession. They offer a platform for mentoring, peer-learning, and networking, allowing members to build relationships based on mutual respect and cooperation. Shared experiences and insights encourage empathy and understanding, bridging the gap between divergent viewpoints. All of these attributes are benefits in their own right. They can help foster civility in our profession. And those efforts can also be projected into our communities.
Our behavior in public reflects not only on us as individuals but also on the entire profession. The way we conduct ourselves in front of clients matters. Whether on the phone, in person, or in the courtroom, or while serving on boards or in the community, members of the public generally respect us — often solely by virtue of our profession. It’s true — we are the butt of a thousand jokes and the oft-maligned victims of mockery. But I’m sure you’ve heard people say “lawyers are [insert pejorative adjective here], but my lawyer, she’s great.” The fact is, we help solve people’s most difficult problems, maintain their confidences, and help them navigate what are often their most serious, sometimes life-altering problems. And here’s the thing — everyone knows it! For all the trash-talk, we are members of a very respected profession, one of the four “learned professions” going back millennia.
We can use that power to influence people for good. We can demonstrate how to be civil when we are at odds with our colleagues. We can demonstrate how to disagree without being disagreeable. We can show members of the public how to take a more measured approach to expressing a deeply held belief or position. We each have numerous opportunities to model these behaviors every day because of the work we do.
At the end of the day, and whether in a transactional environment or in litigation, our job is to communicate — civilly. How we speak to people about the opposing party or attorney, or the court, or the donor who refused to write a check, can influence what people think about our profession, and about our society. People will emulate us. In our increasingly uncivil society, we need only make a conscious commitment to take the lead. Lawyers help with all sorts of problems. We can be helpful here too.
Dave Steele is a sole practitioner at Geiszler Steele, PC. Dave assists both plaintiffs and defendants in a wide variety of legal matters. His practice includes advising clients about the cannabis industry, business and commercial transactions, real estate and real property transactions, contract issues, and other civil matters. Dave also serves as a Mediator, Arbitrator and Settlement Master.