The Promise of Civility

Written by Professor Paula Lustbader, Robert's Fund President

Published in the Summer 2011 edition of Seattle University School of Law's The Lawyer Magazine.

Recently my son, daughter, and "adopted" daughter bemoaned the current state of affairs of global and domestic political, environmental, educational, economical, medical, technological, and societal arenas. They felt overwhelmed by the immensity and complexity of these ubiquitous problems, none of which had simple solutions. Where could they even begin to make a difference? Worse, citing materialism, reality television, texting, multitasking, lack of critical thinking and reflection, they all expressed serious doubt whether their generation was even "up to the task" of trying to take on any issues. 

As I listened, I reflected on my own generation and the immensity of the problems we faced. I remembered the "duck and cover" drills to prepare us for nuclear annihilation.  I recalled the peace marches in the early 1970s: one ended in San Francisco Golden Gate Park, with Jefferson Airplane playing a free concert in the background. I watched two minority groups come to physical blows over which group was more oppressed. The irony wasn't lost on me.

Today, we witness such scenes on YouTube and network TV, as society's lack of civility has become epidemic - and many of these profanity-laced outbursts stem from minor disagreements over insignificant matters.

It's time lawyers take the lead on restoring and fostering civility in our culture. Civility calls upon us to engage in difficult conversations about race, gender, otherness, and values; civility calls upon us to effectively advocate without losing our humanity; and civility calls upon us to find the right mechanism to resolve the situation. We can behave civilly by actively listening, by understanding our own biases and assumptions, and by treating others as we would like to be treated. Finally, we behave civilly when we commit ourselves to a cause and challenge ourselves to make a contribution in our world.

I suggested my children commit themselves to fostering civility as well, by practicing consciousness, creativity, and community, which are the tenets of The Promise of Civility series co-sponsored by Seattle University School of Law and Robert's Fund.

Consciousness makes us more aware of how our actions impact others; how our own triggers that causes us to behave uncivilly; and how we should question whether we are living our lives in harmony with our values.  Creativity provides an outlet for self-discovery and reflection; provides an opportunity to see different perspectives; and provides flexibility that facilitates finding solutions to problems and resolutions to conflicts.  Community enables us to avoid isolation and connect with our humanity; encourages us to recognize that the benefits we enjoy should be balanced by service to others; and enhances our ability to make a difference by joining forces with our neighbors. 

When my father asked me to help establish a small family foundation to foster civility in a world we share with others to honor his late brother, I thought the task was daunting.  But after we flailed about looking at areas to target, Robert's Fund began to focus on one little corner where we could make a difference - the legal profession. The lack of civility in the legal profession has reached epidemic proportions.

Lawyers influence society. They shape our values and laws as judges and as politi­cians. Lawyers also serve vital roles in private industry. Even when they are not in leadership positions, they are often the ones who negotiate and set policy for these orga­nizations. Lawyers also work with individual clients to either prevent conflict in transactional practices, to resolve conflict in litigation, or to counsel clients in distress. Finally, they serve as leaders and role models in our respective communities in their capacity as lawyers or as members of a group.

The foundation joined forces with Seattle University School of Law to provide programs for law students and lawyers on The Civility Promise, a series of CLEs culminating in an in-depth seminar in Italy in October. A collaboration with the Washington State Bar Association resulted in "Raising the Bar: The Promise of Civility in Our Profession," a series of articles on civility in the Bar News. We have begun to increase awareness and shift behavior. We now receive regular emails from lawyers sharing their perspectives. A movement has begun.

So, I urge my lawyer colleagues: let us challenge ourselves to be on our best behavior. Let us think before we speak or jump. Let us ask what our mothers would think before we send that email or letter or take action. Let us inquire what is in the best service for our clients.  Let us practice with civility by treating people with respect, compassion, and integrity.  Civility benefits business by creating satisfied clients and reducing costs. Civility benefits the practitioner by reducing stress and promoting healthy relationships, and civility benefits the service of justice by increasing pro bono services and de-escalating conflict. 

And I urge my 20-somethings, my students, and my colleagues:  Go out and find the one thing that you feel passionate about, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem. Learn everything you can about that, and commit yourself to it. Find a few others who share your passion. Then go for it!  And in the meantime, remember to say "please" and "thank you," to say "I am sorry," and to hold the door open for the person coming behind you.

Click to view the original article on the Seattle University School of Law's website.