I recently attended a seminar regarding civility and the ethical implications of being civil in litigation. You see, attorneys in California are required to obtain twenty-five hours of continuing legal education every three years, and four of those hours must be in relation to legal ethics. Despite what the lawyer jokes may tell you, the state bar takes very seriously the rules of ethics. Recently, however, the court system has also begun enforcing rules of civility.

“And do as adversaries do in law, Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends.” The Taming Of The Shrew Act 1, Scene 2.

However, in the approximately 420 years since Shakespeare wrote those words, the way in which lawyers treat each other (and unfortunately the way we all treat each other) has fallen precipitously away from that ideal.

In 1971, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger observed that “lawyers who know how to think but have not learned how to behave are a menace and a liability… to the administration of justice.” Typically, lawyers are supposed to agree that when opposing counsel comes to you to request an extension of time to file or serve documents, as long as it doesn’t prejudice your client, you grant the request. We even have an ethical rule telling us to do just that. However, attorneys aren’t often prosecuted for ethical rule violations (unless it involves taking advantage of or stealing from their clients). So, in an attempt to gain every advantage possible, many attorneys do not abide by the precept that an extension isn’t a big deal, as long as it doesn’t disadvantage your client.

Lawyers, unfortunately, are not the only people who are attempting to learn how to deal with incivility. A 2018 poll by Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate found that 93% of Americans believe that our society has a civility problem, and 69% classify it as a major problem. Wherever you look, from our politicians to our social media interactions, to see that the level of civility in our society is not high, and dropping.

Last year, I coached my daughter’s soccer team. Mind you, this is a league where everybody plays, nobody keeps score, and every girl on the field was five years old or younger. The goal, or so I thought, was to make sure the kids fell in love with the sport and wanted to sign up again the next season. However, sometimes when I looked at the practices on either side of our field, I saw bored four and five-year-old girls, standing in lines, listening to someone tell them about developing skills for college scholarships. During one game, one very talented girl scored five times in the first quarter, which began to demoralize the girls on our team. During the break, as I was fumbling in my bag to find my daughter’s water bottle, I heard her dad not talking about the five goals she scored, but about how our team wasn’t playing good defense and she should have scored ten already. When she got back on the field, she started pushing and shoving her way to the goal, and both she and her father became incredulous when her coach asked her to try to concentrate on her defense in the second half. Through the grapevine, I heard that the very talented five-year-old had taken her talents to a club team “that could nurture her vastly superior skills” better than us volunteer parent coaches.

My favorite pop culture example of this principle comes from two seemingly conflicting portions of a 1970 song written by Graham Nash and performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young (with Jerry Garcia on the pedal steel guitar for the music nerds). The song is “Teach Your Children”. In the beginning, Nash instructs:

Teach your children well,

Their father’s hell did slowly go by,

And feed them on your dreams

The one they picks,

the one you’ll know by.

Later, he gives a sly reversal:

Teach your parents well,

Their children’s hell will slowly go by,

And feed them on your dreams

The one they picks,

the one you’ll know by.

Both sections are followed by:

Don’t you ever ask them why,

if they told you, you will cry,

So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

The song’s meaning can and has been interpreted in myriad ways, but for my purposes in this column, I believe that they discuss perfectly the way in which civil society has declined – both in the way that our children are being taught that they can behave acceptably, and by the way that we let the previous generation forget their youth, and the harms that can come from the degradation of civility.


Originally published in Bay Window Magazine, September 2019.

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