Pilot project aims for lawyer civility

    by Kathleen O. Beitiks
    Staff writer


It's one of the top complaints leaders of the State Bar hear from their colleagues today: attorneys are increasingly becoming uncivil toward one another.

In an effort to address the problem, the Board of Governors has put its stamp of approval on a six-month pilot project in Santa Clara County designed to treat incivility at the local level, utilizing a peer counseling approach.

Pet project

Professionalism and civility in the legal arena are of special interest to Ann Ravel, a member of the Board of Governors from San Jose who has taken on the pilot program as her pet project.

"I really love being a lawyer," says Ravel, "but it's disconcerting to see lawyers who hate each other, hate the profession and want to get out."

When she was elected to the board in 1995, Ravel, chief assistant county counsel for Santa Clara County, said she was surprised that the discipline system "had nothing to do with ethics."

Peer counseling

Ravel told the board in a special report that the local peer counseling approach is built upon the belief that it is "the cumulative effect of individual professionalism, individual integrity and civility, that determines whether professionalism is on the rise or decline in the legal profession as a whole."

Ravel went on to say that while the vast majority of attorneys continue to practice professionally, "a small but growing number of attorneys are engaging in sharp, uncivil practice."

The pilot project will steer complaints of incivility to a panel of locally respected attorneys familiar with community mores and bar association civility codes.

Forwarding complaints

According to the plan, the State Bar's Office of Trial Counsel will forward to the professionalism and client relations committee of the Santa Clara County Bar complaints of inappropriate local attorney conduct which raise questions of professionalism but do not involve actual rule violations.

For instance, there might be complaints of an attorney who consistently serves defective subpoenas, does not cooperate with discovery issues or does not have the courtesy to consult colleagues with scheduling plans.

Strictly confidential

In order to protect the confidentiality of the attorney, his or her name will be blacked out from documents. Committee members will then discuss the problem, suggest solutions and assign one member to contact the offending attorney, talk things through, counsel and provide some professional advice.

Sometimes, said Ravel, the committee may decide the behavior does not warrant any action.

Although Ravel said the details of the civility project are still in the process of developing, she hopes the pilot program will be in full swing by the beginning of April.