Dealing with misbehaving lawyers

Boorish behavior by other lawyers who ought to know better is an all-too-frequent fact of professional life these days for attorneys, two veterans of school law practice said Saturday.

The decline of civility takes a personal toll on lawyers who report disproportionately high levels of stress, depression, divorce and drug and alcohol abuse, they argued, and it drains time and energy from their clients’ interests.

Nonetheless, there are ways for honorable lawyers who face rude ones to cope, they said, and, in many cases, the bad actors can be sanctioned under state rules guiding proper and ethical conduct. Finally, if all else fails, they demonstrated, the prospect of public embarrassment can be a real incentive to use better manners.

In a presentation for the Council of School Attorneys titled “Character Counts,” Jay Worona, general counsel with the New York State School Boards Association, and Nancy Fredman Krent of Hodges, Loizzi, Eisenhammer, Rodick & Kohn in Arlington Heights, Ill., made their points with humor, empathy and real-life examples.

They spoke to a receptive crowd. When Krent asked for a show of hands from lawyers who have noticed a decline in civility among their legal colleagues in the last 15 years, several dozen indicated they had. Only two or three attorneys signaled that they had not.

Even so, listeners gasped as Krent and Worona shared a profanity-laced voicemail left by one lawyer in a real estate matter. The ill-mannered lawyer ultimately was promoted to partner in his firm – “which goes to show you that sometimes good things do happen to bad people,” Krent noted with a laugh – but the enduring Internet presence of the abusive rant ensures infinite potential for continued professional disgrace.

Krent and Worona also pointed to a written order from a federal judge who became so frustrated by the failure of litigants to agree on the time and place of a deposition that he threatened that the lawyers would be ordered to play a game of “rock, paper, scissors” on the courthouse steps to set the date.

In another case, a judge devised an innovative penalty for a trial lawyer whose obnoxious behavior “spread like a contagion throughout the courtroom.” The judge sharply reduced the attorney costs and fees paid to the abrasively wise-cracking attorney.

Krent and Worona advised lawyers to familiarize themselves with federal rules and model ethics statutes that govern such matters as how questions or objections may be posed and set out options for countering inappropriate conduct during depositions, where they said some of the most egregious violations of civility and courtesy occur.

Other tips included documenting incidents of uncivil behavior, communicating only in writing, staying calm, and considering seeking help from the court. They acknowledged some peril for a lawyer who complains so often that he or she will be viewed as a whiner, but they said lawyers are obliged to report professional misconduct.

Cathy Woodruff

Erin Walsh|April 21st, 2012|Categories: Council of School Attorneys, NSBA Annual Conference 2012|

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