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Dear Lawyers: Order In The &*%# Court!

Jan 31, 2013
Originally published on September 27, 2013 1:33 pm

Remember the scene in the 1979 movie ... And Justice For All where Al Pacino, who is playing an attorney, loses it in court?

Well, according to The Wall Street Journal, some lawyers took that scene to heart and over the years civility has sharply diminished among legal professionals.

Reporter Jennifer Smith writes:

"Take, for instance, lawyer Marvin Gerstein of Illinois, who has been disciplined three times for his profane epistolary style, according to the Attorney Registration & Disciplinary Commission of the Illinois Supreme Court.

"Over the years, Mr. Gerstein has sent letters to legal adversaries calling them, variously, a 'fool,' 'idiot,' 'slimeball,' and other names unfit for publication. He has also suggested opponents have their heads inserted so far into an unpleasant place that they 'think it's a rose garden,' language that an expert witness for Mr. Gerstein said served a business purpose by vividly demonstrating the point."

So, what's the solution, you ask? Well, for some it involves creating a video and implementing civility training, but in New York, it's a show!

In December, the New York Inn of Court — a group that promotes excellence, professionalism and ethical behavior among lawyers and judges — put on "A Civility Seder."

The group's website described it as:

"An entertaining and informative examination of appropriate conduct in the profession. The Musical Team recognizes that December is not a typical time for a Seder; however, this timeless tale of a band of lawyers' exodus from the bondage of bad behavior into the Land of Civility is appropriate any time of the year. You don't have to be courteous to attend."

Will any of this work? We will have to wait and see, but per the Journal, at least one firm has resisted the urge to be nasty.

" 'I tell all the lawyers in my firm, you're not a fighter, you're a lover,' said Stephen Susman, a founding partner at litigation boutique Susman Godfrey LLP, which has a tradition of inviting opposing counsel to its holiday party. 'You will get more results with sugar than with vinegar.' "

Indeed.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish.

When it comes to courtroom antics, some of you may think of Al Pacino in "And Justice for All."

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "AND JUSTICE FOR ALL")

AL PACINO: (as Arthur Kirkland) If he's allowed to go free, then something really wrong is going.

JACK WARDEN: (as Judge Rayford) Mr. Kirkland, you are out of order.

PACINO: (as Arthur Kirkland) You're out of order. You're out of order. The whole trial is out of order. They're out of order.

CORNISH: While that makes for good drama, lawyers have been worried about a growing lack of basic civility in the courtroom. The American Inns of Court is an organization devoted to, among other things, promoting professionalism among lawyers. One branch in New York City recently held a courtroom behavior refresher course, put to song.

(APPLAUSE)

CORNISH: And called it "A Civility Seder."

JUDGE RICHARD SULLIVAN: (Singing) If lawyers were more civil, yazzel, daddle-daddle, daddle, daddle, daddle, daddle, dum. They would treat their brethren with respect, wouldn't always yell, object. Oy.

CORNISH: Joining me now is Bruce Turkle, a lawyer and the man behind "The Civility Seder." Bruce, welcome.

BRUCE TURKLE: Thank you.

CORNISH: So this song that you guys played in the course was called "If Lawyers Were More Civil." People might remember the tune from the musical "Fiddler On The Roof." What's the point you're trying to drive home here?

TURKLE: I think the point was, I actually had written that with Judge Sullivan in mind, who performed it, who's an amazing jurist as well as a real talent. This song, like many of the songs in that presentation, we're approaching civility in the courtroom and among attorneys from different angles.

And what he was trying to get across was from a view from the bench, that if lawyers behave more properly - if there was more decorum, if there wasn't so much infighting amongst themselves - that judges could get on with the business at hand and not have to bother themselves with things like a denial of a request for a short adjournment or a very basic discovery dispute that really takes the judges time and really should be resolved between the attorneys.

CORNISH: So help us understand, for those of us who aren't totally familiar with some of these legal terms, what kind of behavior is considered rude in court or otherwise?

TURKLE: I think in court, the types of things that judges typically, you know, do not like to see is instead of addressing the judge, attorneys start sort of hectoring with each other; that the subject matter of why you came to court that day was something that they thought could be resolved between the attorneys. It didn't warrant having to take the judge's time with. You know, it has to be within the limits of professionalism.

CORNISH: Here's the thing, does anyone want a polite lawyer? I mean, isn't the whole point of having one who's going to be a kind of bulldog on your behalf?

TURKLE: Well, I think that's, you know, those who write about this talk about the fact that many times, the contentiousness, the nature of the adversarial system isn't in response to what clients are looking for. But I think that what I am speaking of is acting in a civil and professional manner.

I'm not saying that they have to be polite and be opening the doors for people. But I think that they have to respond, they have to wait their turn, they shouldn't be speaking all over the other attorney. I think that they shouldn't be involved in, you know, sort of name calling or are editorializing about, you know, the arguments that are being raised. And that's different than merely being polite.

CORNISH: Bruce, so another song that you play your presentation...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Singing) There was no hector in the land of civility, land of...

CORNISH: And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the lyrics. Would you talk about in this song?

TURKLE: Sure. That was our finale. It's to a song from "Hair," "Aquarius." And the nature of "The Civility Seder, which it was a presentation we made at our end of court, is that it was the Exodus as you find in the Seder, the Passover Seder. But our exodus was from the land of Scorched Earth, where you had these no-holds-barred attorneys and they find, you know, righteousness. And so, by the end of our presentation, they are now able to exodus from the Land of Scorched Earth into the Land of Civility.

CORNISH: That sounds epic. Bruce Turkle, a lawyer and the man behind "The Civility Seder." Bruce, thanks so much for talking with us.

TURKLE: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.