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CONSUMERS : Lawyers Try to Upgrade Public Image

Are lawyers really as rude, quarrelsome, obnoxious and difficult as their public image or an hour of the television show “L.A. Law” might suggest?

Are they forever taking cheap shots, wasting court time, pushing unworthy litigation, fighting over form rather than substance and just being plain unreasonable?

Certainly not all or even many of California’s 115,000 lawyers are. In fact, most are probably quite professional and courteous. But enough of a minority must be causing a problem of public perception because the State Bar of California is considering a new Code of Professional Courtesy.

The concept of a code was approved in principle by the Bar’s Board of Governors on Tuesday. Sample codes will now be circulated for public comment before a final code is written and submitted for adoption.

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This is different than a code of professional conduct, which if violated could mean disbarment. That code regulates conduct, such subjects as client solicitation, fee splitting, handling of clients’ funds, confidential communications and other obligations to the client.

Instead, this new code is more like a book of etiquette and good manners, making lawyers promise to “return phone calls,” “not be late for court or appointments,” “treat other lawyers with respect” and “never take cheap shots.”

Patricia Phillips, a Los Angeles attorney and a member of the Bar’s Board of Governors, has been working on a committee to improve the image of lawyers.

“We realize the only way to do something about the image of lawyers is to work from within, so that our work will speak for itself--so the image would improve because it should improve,” she said.

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The idea of a code, which is not unique to California, is meant to encourage lawyers to conduct themselves more professionally, at a grassroots level. “It is very hard to tell someone to be nice. That’s ridiculous,” she concedes. “But if we can circulate these (codes) and get lawyers to read them and understand them, they’ll start . . . acting in a professional manner.”

Some of the elements of the sample codes go beyond the need for polite pleasantries and reach serious issues that could help improve the public perception of the legal profession. For example, one sample code calls on lawyers to counsel their clients “about mediation, arbitration, and other alternative methods of resolving disputes” and to tell their clients not to pursue litigation “that does not have merit.”

It warns lawyers of the real danger of over-lawyering: “I will recognize that excessive zeal may be detrimental to my client’s interests as well as to the proper functioning of the justice system.”

And the proposed code reminds lawyers of their obligation to serve the public good: “I will keep in mind that the law is a learned profession and that among its desirable goals are public service, the improvement of the administration of justice and contributions of uncompensated time and civic influence on behalf of people who cannot afford adequate legal assistance.”

Profit From Irascibility

Certainly, there are lawyers who thrive on their role as “hired gun” and cause their losing cases to be delayed unreasonably, or burden opponents with unnecessary and costly paper work. They may find that making themselves irascible can mean added profit.

But there are just as many, if not more, who already know and practice what the code advises: “Civility and courtesy must not be equated with weakness.”

It’s not yet clear what the penalty might be for violating these golden rules nor who would enforce them. It may be so difficult to police the code--after all, it’s not good manners to be a tattletale--that some will question whether the State Bar should be in the business of formally adopting it.

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And some board members were uncomfortable with the idea of telling lawyers how they should behave, according to Phillips.

But as a reminder of the proper bounds of conduct and decorum, I’d advise some of the lawyers I know to take a few moments of that valuable billing time and read it once or twice.

“You don’t win for your client by acting in an unprofessional manner,” notes Phillips.


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