Stop behaving badly, boorish lawyers told

Multiple complaints of rude, abusive conduct spark campaign to restore some civility to courts

Published On Sun Nov 01 2009

Derry Millar, head of the Law Society of Upper Canada, is spearheading a campaign to combat a "toughest gun" mentality common among lawyers.

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It's one of the great lessons of law school: How the freedom to swing one's fist ends where another person's nose begins.

But Julia Ranieri might have missed that class.

It could explain how the 39-year-old Toronto lawyer ended up punching a client and pushing her into a sidewalk flower planter, where she remained until paramedics arrived.

The incident, which left Ranieri's client with a broken nose and the lawyer facing criminal charges, is an example of what the Law Society of Upper Canada calls a growing problem of incivility in Ontario's legal profession.

Between 2004 and 2007, complaints to the law society alleging rude, abusive, condescending and otherwise boorish behaviour nearly tripled. Incivility is now a component in 30 per cent of all professional misconduct complaints, or about 1,350 cases a year.

Two recent provincial reports also said trials are becoming longer and more expensive in part because some lawyers are refusing to check hostility and sarcasm at the courtroom door, instead bringing a "toughest gun in town" mentality to their work and picking fights on every issue.

While there are many theories on why so many are behaving badly, Derry Millar, elected head of the law society, believes it to some extent reflects a larger phenomenon.

"Our society isn't as polite as it was," Millar said in an interview. "People on their BlackBerrys and their phones have no idea of who is around them. They are not engaged. You phone somebody and you get an automated attendant. We've lost social interaction and people are overstressed, overworked and rushed.

"Just look at road rage, or children's sporting events where parents get into battles," he added. "They forget the kids. So, I think there is a decline in civility in society and the legal profession lawyers and paralegals are not immune from that."

But Millar hopes to reverse the trend. In a series of meetings across the province beginning Tuesday, he'll encourage members of the profession to channel their inner Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an 18th-century English writer and aristocrat, who once said, "Civility costs nothing and buys everything."

"I always say to people you get more flies with honey than you get with vinegar," added Millar, who hopes to "raise the level of consciousness" about incivility and promote higher standards of behaviour.

Law society officials and judges are expected to join lawyers and paralegals for the closed-door discussions. But Eugene Meehan, an Ottawa lawyer specializing in Supreme Court of Canada litigation, said talking about the problem "is definitely not enough."

"Lawyers telling other lawyers to be nice will not change anything," he said in an interview.

In a recent paper on the subject, Meehan suggested that instead of thinking of civility as a courtesy shown to opponents, lawyers with the charm of Godzilla must be persuaded that civility can be a powerful strategic weapon.

Say, for example, the other side in a case wants an adjournment. A wily but courteous lawyer would readily agree to the request on terms and conditions favourable to his or her client. Legal gladiators also need to be reminded that being pleasant can help sell legal arguments and mean the difference between winning and losing. As a former chief justice of Saskatchewan once put it, "People buy things from people they like."

Remaining on one's best behaviour, though, can be challenging in an adversarial justice system that pits lawyers against one another and fosters a "radical kind of individualism," Meehan notes.

"Lawyers generally tend not to either blend in or aspire to be merely average," he said. "But all of us have to remember that life is a journey ... and generally what goes around comes around. One day you're a rooster and the next day you're a feather duster."

Millar said the law society is also looking at strengthening mentoring programs. Some believe incivility is on the rise because many new lawyers start out on their own these days instead of working alongside experienced members of the bar, who could show them how to behave.

Others feel some lawyers turn in an overly aggressive and abrasive performance in a misguided effort to impress clients.

Ranieri, meanwhile, isn't doing much legal work these days. Last July, she was found guilty of professional misconduct and handed a 10-month suspension. The criminal charge, a private prosecution by her client, was later withdrawn.

According to an agreed statement of fact presented by counsel for the law society and Ranieri, the May 2007 dust-up occurred following a dispute over Ranieri's fees in connection with a condo deal and her client's attempt to fire her and grab the paperwork. But in an interview with the Star Friday, Ranieri maintained she had been attacked by her client and still fears for her safety as a result of the "terribly unfortunate" incident, "one that shocked me."

 

LAWYERS BEHAVING BADLY

 

 

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Commentary by the Ottawa Mens Centre.com

Around 50% of those with power will abuse it. The worst personalities become the worst abusers, as lawyers, the worst become judges, those worst judges go to the court of Appeal. They are policed by themselves, an open invitation to more abuse. Thank the worst of the worst in the judiciary. www.OttawaMensCentre.com