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President's Message
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Strange days indeed:
Most peculiar Mama
.
--John Lennon/Yoko Ono

As fall arrives and school begins, I find myself in a bit of a quandary.  My son is entering his freshman year of high school.  Because he is blessed with greater intelligence than his father, he is enrolled in an Advanced Placement Government course.  I am admittedly excited about this because I might actually be able to offer him at least some level of guidance and knowledge on topics of civics and the law.  So, that’s the good part.

My angst arises from the fact that my children have arrived at an age where they will be, for the first time in their lives, truly aware of the operation of our government and the behavior of our elected leaders.  My son will be eligible to vote in the next presidential election.  Politics has always been a messy business, but I am genuinely concerned about the deplorable state of political discourse and the possible trickle-down effect on young people today.  Commentators sometime refer to what is happening as the “new normal.”  I submit that there is nothing normal about it and, if it is, it should not be.

Before you stop reading and toss aside this newsletter, let me be clear:  this is not a political piece.  I suspect that, regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, you have been exceedingly disappointed by what seems to be a steady stream of personal attacks and an alarming lack of courtesy.  We seem to be collectively losing our ability to respectfully debate issues about which reasonable people can disagree.

While the internet has transformed our lives, often for the better, it has also created an environment in which polite disagreement is increasingly abandoned.  In its place, outrage is the order of the day.  If you don’t believe me, venture into the comments section of nearly any article on the web.  The level of animosity is nothing short of shocking -- and it is, for the most part, anonymous.  Through technology, we have gained a remarkable and powerful ability to speak but I fear that, in the process, we are losing our ability and desire to listen

Face-to-face communication is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.  When I entered the practice of law, a significant percentage of attorneys were of the firm opinion that you should never respond to an email in less than 24 hours.  To do so sooner would risk a response that was not properly considered.  In the current day and age, a failure to respond in 24 hours will likely prompt inquiries about whether you are still among the living.  Emails have supplanted letters and text messages have replaced phone calls.

Media outlets purposefully seek out extreme opinions and revel in the inevitable arguments that result.  Few consumers of the news seem interested in being exposed to any ideas or arguments that are inconsistent with their own beliefs.  Rather than permitting their opinions to be challenged, many consume news simply to obtain confirmation that their beliefs are correct.  Those on the “other side” are simply wrong; their opinions unworthy of respect.

A recent example is the debate regarding Confederate memorials and how the Civil War and Reconstruction will be studied and remembered by future generations.  Like many other issues in the headlines, it has often been framed by the most extreme opinions.  I submit that eradicating symbols of oppression while, at the same time, preserving a fair and accurate recitation of our complicated history requires a more nuanced debate than we seem to be capable of participating in at the moment.

No reasonable person would suggest that we should not call out prejudice, insensitivity or discrimination when we see it.  But, by the same token, we should be careful not to characterize every incident of prejudice as racism.  Instead, I suggest that we make a sincere effort to distinguish between prejudice and racism.  While racism is, obviously, indefensible and a product of hate, prejudice is frequently the product of ignorance.  Where there is ignorance, there is the possibility of education and enlightenment.  But when the merely ignorant are reflexively labeled as racists, there is little incentive for them to listen, learn and, hopefully, change.

So what is my point?  I believe that we, as attorneys, play a critical role in fostering communication and framing civil and productive debate.  More often than not, we meet and interact with our clients during the most stressful and vulnerable times of their lives.  They instinctively look to us for how to view and interact with opposing attorneys and parties.  When we denigrate opposing counsel, clients view that as tacit approval for them to do likewise.  When clients observe discourteous behavior between attorneys, they form a belief that this is just the way our system of justice works.

Perhaps even more destructive is the notion that displays of courtesy and civility are for the weak.  Many years ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on part of the “D.C. Sniper” trial when it was tried in our circuit court.  At one point during the proceedings, the defendant, Mr. Muhammad, became argumentative with Judge James L. Ryan who presided over the proceedings.  I will never forget Judge Ryan’s rebuke:  “Please do not mistake my courtesy as weakness.”  None of us should view the courtesy of opposing counsel as weakness or convey that mis-perception to our clients.

In addition to embracing civility, we need to encourage our clients to listen.  I frequently tell clients that the opposing party’s perception is the client’s reality.  That perception may not be accurate or fair but it must be dealt with.  When we take the time to view a dispute from the perspective of the opposing party, we can be more creative in resolving those disagreements.  But first, we need to encourage our clients to actually listen.

We, as attorneys, are the stewards of our adversarial system of justice.  As such, we are in the unique position of being able to demonstrate the effectiveness of civility and true communication.  Plus, it makes the practice of law more enjoyable.  It is incredibly gratifying to reach the conclusion of a difficult trial and be able to exchange handshakes and a kind word with opposing counsel.  Clients should have the opportunity to see us interact in this way and to hear judges compliment the professionalism of the attorneys at the conclusion of a case.

Many years ago, I was invited to participate in the drafting of the BAMC’s Code of Civility.  If you are interested in reading it, you can find it in the first few pages of your Lawyer Directory.  But you shouldn’t have to.  The conduct that we display just has to conform to the wisdom we learned at the knees of our parents:  “If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say it at all” and the Golden Rule:  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  Words we should all live (and practice law) by.

Jim Mood