Unprofessionalism in law

As trial consultants, we are generally hired on “big” cases which have enough complicating factors that the attorneys and their clients need our help to figure out. In other words, when the stakes are high, our help is needed. Because of this, perhaps, we have very rarely interacted with unprofessional attorneys. There have been some with rough edges and oversized egos. But, generally, they, or their clients, want our help, thus, they behave themselves around us. And I can honestly say most of the attorneys we have interacted with have done more than just “behave,” they are professionals. They are respectful and they appreciate our role which enables them to better do their jobs. I have observed what I consider unprofessional behavior in terms of not returning telephone calls and minor breaches of other general common courtesies. However, there is a perception that many attorneys are unprofessional and this had lead to the creation of professionalism programs, training, and complaint processes by Bar associations. For a short while, I was on a Florida Bar Grievance committee and the complaints handled by these committees are specific violations of rules or more extreme misbehavior than what might be considered purely “professionalism.” The Merriam-Webster (online version) definition of professionalism is “the skill, good judgment, and polite behavior that is expected from a person who is trained to do a job well.” It is interesting to consider that it is a 3 part equation: skill, good judgment, and polite behavior. I suggest that it is the “polite behavior” factor is what creates the impression of being professional. Without being polite, it can become difficult for others to know whether the person has adequate skills. And certainly, to me, the absence of polite behavior shows poor, not good, judgment. The saying that “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar” is an easy way to understand what it means to be professional. The late, great, Miami attorney Buddy Payne had many stories of how he found that being polite and kind reaped many benefits. Buddy was a true southern gentleman. He was as tough and demanding as it gets, but being polite was a part of who he was and the rewards were tremendous. Unfortunately, as written in other posts, I’ve met the embodiment of unprofessional – someone who is the diametric opposite of Buddy Payne (and a few others I could name here). I understand why this is a concern for the Florida Bar and other Bar associations. The problem is more severe than I knew! It only takes a few attorneys, like the one I am referring to, to destroy the positive efforts of the majority in the minds of many people. This hurts all attorneys every time they go before a jury panel or meet with clients – it is a shame that one has to prove oneself to be professional rather than able to have the “audience” assume that one is because he or she is an attorney.

I am a “peace and love” aficionado and, as a social psychologist, my people skills are slightly more elevated than those of the attorneys with whom I have chosen to spend my career. It has always amazed me that some attorneys, who are paying me for my help, do everything they can to alienate me, all the while failing to realize they are making it difficult for me to help them. People skills are not taught in law school, however, common sense dictates that people who need my help, often tremendously, should know to be nice to me. I know there are unprofessional people in all careers, including in psychology, but it seems to be that unprofessional conduct in the practice of law is becoming commonplace. Attorneys who practice law in large cities have told me, on an increasingly frequent basis, that their colleagues lie, cheat, and steal their way through their cases. It seems that the anonymity provided by large populations insulates some people from social niceties, because they believe they will rarely, if ever, encounter opposing counsel around town. Bar associations regularly have training programs on professionalism and ethics in the practice of law; however, as is usually the case, the attorneys who need this training the most are among those least likely to enroll. David mentioned the late R.W. “Buddy” Payne, Jr. who was, without a doubt, one of the most highly respected attorneys with whom I have ever worked. Buddy was as tough as it gets, all the while taking care to conduct himself with professionalism and courtesy around everyone he encountered (well, almost everyone!). I am proud to wear the beautiful ring Buddy brought me from one of his trips to Egypt; it is a daily reminder there are wonderful people in every profession, including law. I choose to spend my time, both work and personal, with people like Buddy Payne, not small minded people who are truly a blight on not only their profession, but the world in general. “Peace be with you.”

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