A model of courtroom decorum
Ryan Summerlin November 25, 2012
Editor’s note: Open Bar is a new column written by local attorneys Michael Brownlee and T.J. Voboril, of Thompson, Brownlee & Voboril LLC. If you waded into the turbulent waters of a big-box store on Black Friday or have recently perused the comments section of a popular website, you may readily agree that civility is approaching its nadir. Given this larger decline and the decidedly unfavorable manner in which the legal profession is portrayed in the media and general discourse, it may be reasonable to expect that lawyers treat one another as a female praying mantis treats her recent amour. The truth is that one would be hard-pressed to find a group that is more uniformly courteous, cordial and collegial. Shocking, I know. Attorneys routinely go out of their way to assist opposing attorneys in times of need, even when facing off in a contentious lawsuit. In the deadline-driven world of litigation, circumstances arise that prevent an attorney from completing a brief or making a disclosure by the required date. Whether it is due to an illness, a family vacation or simply an overwhelming workload, opposing attorneys customarily agree to extend deadlines to alleviate their rivals’ stress. Part of this generosity is karmic, as every lawyer has been in the same position or will find themselves in need down the road. Lawyers’ cooperative behavior also reflects the honorable nature of the profession: An attorney wants to compete against an opponent who is at her or his best. Besting a lawyer who had to rush to prepare is a hollow victory. The vast majority of attorneys enter the practice of law for the intellectual challenge, not to extract vengeance for slights suffered on the playground as children. Despite the caricature of attorneys as ambulance-chasing, money-counting leeches, they became lawyers to serve interests other than their own. There is no other profession in which pro bono work is such an ingrained part of the vocation. Driven by a code of honor both formal and informal, lawyers donate their time to aid the indigent and their communities, usually side by side with their fellow attorneys. This common dedication to service is further glue binding lawyers together.Clients are constantly amazed that litigators who are so startlingly adverse to one another in the courtroom are so friendly and solicitous as soon as the judge bangs his gavel. But the opposing lawyers may be friends, law school classmates, have cases against each other frequently or both be rabid fans of bluegrass. They may even be related. Much like seeing your third-grade teacher in the supermarket, it is often hard for people to think of their lawyers as people with lives outside of the practice. While the law may be, at times, an all-consuming endeavor, it is, at base, simply a job. Being a worthy adversary and a zealous advocate are key components of the litigator’s job, and the role sometimes requires adopting a contentious persona. However, the dispute at issue is not personal to the attorneys. The vitriol often comes from the clients, who plead with their attorneys to crush the spirit of their opponent. The constant bad vibes may seep through even the most genial of lawyers, much to their dismay. This is why any good lawyer will counsel his or her client to attempt to resolve the dispute without resorting to litigation. If the case proceeds forward, it is usually because the client, not the lawyer, is unable to let go of the antipathy toward the disputant. Of course, the outliers to attorneys’ chivalrous behavior garner much of the attention. Stories, apocryphal or not, abound about lawyers who write 20-page briefs chastising their opponent for their audacity in leaving out a comma or some other such nonsense. Undoubtedly, there is a small cadre of attorneys who view every interaction, no matter how pedestrian, as an opportunity to gain some perceived advantage. This species may be spotted in the wild by their piercing voices, unnecessarily firm handshakes, constant reference to the make and model of their car and overuse of the phrase “then, I’ll see you in court.” But these knuckleheads are the proverbial rule-proving exception and are widely lambasted by their fellow attorneys as the black sheep bringing disgrace to the house of law.Rather than providing fodder for countless barbs, the legal profession should be a blueprint to help us rebuild a more civil society. T.J. Voboril is a partner with Thompson, Brownlee & Voboril LLC, a local civil litigation firm. For more information, contact Brownlee at 970-455-4226 or firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.thompsonbrownlee.com.