November 2016 Bar Bulletin
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November 2016 Bar Bulletin

Why Civility Matters

This is the first of two articles about the importance to our community of attorneys modeling civilized behavior, professionalism and effective communication skills.

By Carol Bailey-Medwell


Given the crass and irresponsible nature of some of the political discourse this election year, it seems important that we all do something in our own spheres to model more dignified behavior and communication. As we all know, lawyers are regularly depicted as lacking the trust and respect of fellow citizens. Yet living in a country governed by the rule of law is one of the most precious qualities of a civilized nation.

Why this disconnect? What can each of us do to elevate our part of the conversation and increase respect for our contribution as lawyers to society?

This first article is aimed primarily at family law attorneys because we have a particularly significant impact on individuals. But all litigators might find some things to consider. The second article will focus on general communication skills applicable to attorneys practicing all areas of law.

Civility is particularly important in family law because of the impact family law attorneys have on the lives of not just their clients, but also all of the clients’ family members, friends and extended social networks.

I am asked regularly how I stay positive dealing with so much conflict. My answer is that wherever there are problems, the opportunity to help waits close by. We have a special opportunity to help our clients manage their emotions and look to the long-term outcomes they want in their lives. Short-term “pleasure” from acts of revenge is a faulty foundation for long-term happiness. Expressing negativity almost never results in improved relationships.

If we can remind our clients of this, it will not only serve them long term, but will also serve their children, other family members and their circle of friends. Being remembered as the one who reminded a client of this may go a long way, one step at a time, to enhancing our status in the community.

We can listen to our clients and empathize with their understandable hurt and anger without acting that out for them through the legal system. It is up to us to explore alternatives openly with our clients and advise them to protect their interests with the least court involvement possible.

Clients should know that there are processes outside of the court system for resolving issues, such as collaborative law, early mediation and joint consultation of neutral financial and/or parenting experts. Clients are often able to settle some or all of the issues on their own before any kind of court action is taken.

If there are wasting of assets, domestic violence or other issues that would make a cooperative approach unworkable, then those options may not be advisable. But clients should know about those processes so they can make more informed choices. Often, once the legal process starts, communication between the two clients deteriorates quickly.

Other than helping our clients manage their emotions and advising them of alternatives to immediate court filings, there are other ways we can help clients avoid unnecessary conflict. Some of those are discussed below.

Initiating the Legal Proceeding
by Service of Process

After the decision to file for divorce is thoughtfully made, attorneys should tell clients that there are alternatives to serving the spouse or partner through a process server. Surprising the spouse by having a stranger approach the individual is not a friendly way to initiate a family law process. It starts the case off in a hostile manner.

Unless there is an emergency or another legitimate reason for not talking to the spouse in advance, clients should be informed about alternatives to initiating the action through service of process. Your client can advise his or her spouse or partner that he or she will be filing the dissolution and ask the spouse beforehand to accept service of process. This establishes a more respectful approach to the dissolution process.

Involving Family Members
in the Legal Proceeding

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