Lawyer civility project takes shape

by Kathleen O. Beitiks
Staff Writer

Although the numbers are not overwhelming, bar leaders in Santa Clara County are pleased with what they learned during a six-month pilot project dealing with lawyer civility.

What they learned is that it is best to handle civility issues on a local level, relying on the State Bar for supportive measures. And they learned bigger counties and cities seem to have more problems with civility, primarily because the sheer numbers of legal practitioners lessen the impact of peer pressure.

They also learned that many of the state’s judges feel constrained by the Commission on Judicial Performance, worried that if it is determined they inappropriately held an attorney in contempt, they risk being subjected to discipline themselves.

The pilot

The pilot project came into existence in April, at the urging of several bar leaders and Ann Ravel, chief assistant county counsel for Santa Clara County and a member of the State Bar Board of Governors.

During the entire six-month period of the civility project, only one referral came to the committee, leading local bar leaders to wonder if Santa Clara County was blessed with an aggregate of civil and professional attorneys or if the delivery mechanism had some flaws.

"Although there has not been a great deal of experience with actual peer counseling," said Ravel, "the project has been a good opportunity to think through problems and it has left everybody excited about continuing."

At a breakfast gathering of representatives from county and specialty bars throughout California during last month’s State Bar annual meeting in San Diego, it was evident that the concept of pursuing civility projects is alive and well.

Formalizing programs

Bar leaders expressed interest in formalizing local civility programs and talked about ways their individual organizations were tackling real and perceived problems of civility.

In fact, the San Diego County bar is in the early stages of setting up a committee similar to the Santa Clara County project. Ravel said she hopes other counties will follow suit, developing "a peer counseling program or whatever program works for their particular communities."

In Riverside County, a civility code was adopted in June and the group is pondering the idea of starting its own ethics school.

The Alameda County bar created an ethics and civility committee and is looking at ways to set up a panel similar to Santa Clara’s, perhaps using additional input from the American Inns of Court and involving a law school and law students.

The Orange County Bar has adopted a "10 commandments code," and has an ethics committee that issues opinions, as well as a gender bias committee and "Bridging the Gap" civility program for new lawyers.

"As we see problems in civility, we talk," said Franz Miller, president of the Orange County bar. Orange County is big, said Miller, but it still has a small-town mentality and peer pressure can be effective. "But we may be losing that," he added.

Indeed, small communities may have an easier job of keeping civility standards high, according to bar leaders from rural San Joaquin County in central California.

Richard Gibson Jr., president of the San Joaquin County Bar Association, said his organization doesn’t have a formal committee to deal with attorney civility complaints, "but we are small and know each other."

Spreading reputation

The president-elect of the San Joaquin bar, Daniel J. Schroeder, agreed that if an attorney does something stupid, "he develops a reputation and it spreads." Peer pressure works in terms of keeping behavior in line, he said.

In response to the Santa Clara project, David Bell, director of the State Bar’s professional competence, planning and development office, told meeting participants that the bar is working to increase its outreach and will assist local efforts to enhance professionalism.

Among other things, Bell is looking into the idea of developing programs which will include advice from a local psychologist or a psychiatrist on the most effective ways to deal with difficult people — "something that would be better for our own blood pressure and professionalism," said Bell.

Growing concern

The Santa Clara pilot project was formulated in response to concerns in the legal community about an increase in the lack of civility among lawyers.

The project involved the State Bar’s Office of Trial Counsel forwarding individual complaints of inappropriate attorney conduct in Santa Clara County to the professionalism and client relations committee of the county bar association.

The referrals were to deal with behavior which raised questions of professionalism, but did not involve actual rule violations.

A team of respected local attorneys was set up to counsel errant lawyers, providing advice and suggestions for proper civil behavior.