BY JUDGE BRIAN TOLLEFSON (RET.)
This will be a very short article. That is because our society has become very short on civility.11 Boylan, J. “Rudeness Is on the Rise. You Got a Problem With That?” The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2021, Section A, Page 22. I realize that the concept of civility is very broad and that the term “civility” has different meanings in different contexts. But no matter how civility is defined, at this point I’m sure the reader would agree there has been a measurable reduction in civility throughout many segments of our society in general.22 Andrews, A. “Civility: Does It Matter?” NCSL Vol. 24, No. 23 / June 2016, www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/civility-does-it-matter.aspx. From my own experience, I have seen and heard conduct that causes me to grieve the loss of civility and to wonder whether it has been abandoned. The apparent loss of civility has generated a multitude of books, articles, videos, etc., about civility and its importance, in particular within the legal system.
Civility helps ensure public confidence in our legal system.33 Reardon, J, “Civility as the Core of Professionalism,” Business Law Today, September 2014, www.americanbar.org/groups/business_law/publications/blt/2014/09/02_reardon/. When civility declines, fair-mindedness may be compromised. The late Hon. Mary Fairhurst, former Chief Justice of the Washington Supreme Court,44 Fairhurst, M. Civility in the Legal Profession (2015) https://amjudges.org/conferences/2015Annual/Materials/Civility-Legal-Profession.pdf. and our current Chief Justice Steven González55 González, S. “True Civility Requires More Than Being Polite,” Washington State Bar News (September 2012), 25-28. both have written about civility.
Chief Justice González distinguishes between “true civility” and “false civility,” explaining that the former depends on “context, cultural factors and … other things,” while the latter might include using polite words in a patronizing or insincere tone. Former Chief Justice Fairhurst pointed out that incivility impairs cognitive function, reduces volunteerism, impacts psychological well-being, and costs money.66 See note 4.
Business titan Jeff Bezos has recognized the need for more civility. In July 2021, he announced a new philanthropic initiative called the “Courage and Civility Award” to recognize “leaders who aim high, pursue solutions with courage and always do so with civility.”77 You can watch the whole Bezos speech and award ceremony here: www.c-span.org/video/?c4970415/user-clip-jeff-bezos-courage-civility-award.
When announcing the award, Bezos said: “We live in a world where sometimes instead of disagreeing with someone’s ideas, we question their character or their motives [emphasis added]. Guess what,” Bezos said, “[a]fter you do that it’s [darn] hard to work with that person.” Bezos pointed out that what you should be doing is “questioning ideas, not the person.” He went on to say, “it’s easy to be courageous and mean. Try being courageous and civil. Try being courageous and a unifier.” His final point was that people can “argue hard and act hard for what they truly believe,” but they can do that “always with civility.”88 Id.
To highlight, attorneys should not attack the character of other attorneys. Restating what Jeff Bezos said, if you attack the attorney instead of attacking the argument, it makes the case much harder to resolve because people whose character is attacked tend to react. So how can civility be improved in the legal profession?
The English Inns of Court in London have a long tradition of promoting civility and professionalism.99 See, e.g., Honorable Society of the Middle Temple, Statement of Values: www.middletemple.org.uk/about-us/middle-temple-statement-values. Years ago, when my wife and I visited London, our VRBO host just happened to be a barrister with The Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. He gave us an inside tour of the Middle Temple including its famous Middle Temple Hall where members gather and meet. From him, we learned that to promote civility, new members of the Middle Temple are required to attend a minimum number of dinners that combine collegiality and educational elements. As our barrister guide explained, after you have had a meal with a potential opponent it’s more likely that you will be civil during any law-related encounters later.
This tradition of civility of the English Inns of Court through collegiality, by having group meals and shared education, has been promoted in this country by the American Inns of Court. I am an emeritus member of the Hon. Robert J. Bryan American Inn of Court in Tacoma. To highlight the importance of civility, the Hon. Robert J. Bryan American Inn of Court gives out a Civility Award annually. The award is given to “a practitioner who embodies civility, ethics, and professionalism.” So, in honor of the Inns of Court tradition of civility in England and this country, I am pondering the idea of creating a WSBA President’s Civility Award.
The aspects of civility that I think are important include the following:1010 Portions of the Middle Temple “Statement of Values” (See www.middletemple.org.uk/about-us/middle-temple-statement-values) and the speech given by Jeff Bezos helped me frame these factors.
- A person’s ability to be considerate and treat each person with dignity and respect, always avoiding ad hominem attacks.
- A person’s ability to be mindful of other peoples’ legitimate opinions and beliefs, even if they may differ from one’s own.
- A person’s ability to recognize how another person’s words and actions may be wrongly misinterpreted.
- A person’s ability to be thoughtful and reasonable when making a response.
- A person’s ability to believe in fair treatment and equality irrespective of an individual’s attributes.
- A person’s realization that civility is vital to maintaining public confidence in the rule of law and society’s well-being in general.
The WSBA has thousands of attorneys who embody these traits and will continue to set the “bar” that best exemplifies our legal profession’s ability to be civil. Let’s do more together to enhance, promote, and model civility.
1. Boylan, J. “Rudeness Is on the Rise. You Got a Problem With That?” The New York Times, Dec. 6, 2021, Section A, Page 22.
2. Andrews, A. “Civility: Does It Matter?” NCSL Vol. 24, No. 23 / June 2016, www.ncsl.org/research/about-state-legislatures/civility-does-it-matter.aspx.
3. Reardon, J, “Civility as the Core of Professionalism,” Business Law Today, September 2014, www.americanbar.org/groups/business_law/publications/blt/2014/09/02_reardon/.
4. Fairhurst, M. Civility in the Legal Profession (2015) https://amjudges.org/conferences/2015Annual/Materials/Civility-Legal-Profession.pdf.
5. González, S. “True Civility Requires More Than Being Polite,” Washington State Bar News (September 2012), 25-28.
6. See note 4.
7. You can watch the whole Bezos speech and award ceremony here: www.c-span.org/video/?c4970415/user-clip-jeff-bezos-courage-civility-award.
9. See, e.g., Honorable Society of the Middle Temple, Statement of Values: www.middletemple.org.uk/about-us/middle-temple-statement-values.
10. Portions of the Middle Temple “Statement of Values” (See www.middletemple.org.uk/about-us/middle-temple-statement-values) and the speech given by Jeff Bezos helped me frame these factors.