True Civility Requires More Than Being Polite

Justice Steven González, True Civility Requires More Than Being Polite, Washington State Bar Ass’n (Sept. 2012)
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Justice González states that “[c]ivility is a way of connecting and interacting with people; of engaging and thinking about what our relationships are with one another, and of discerning what we care about. . . . It is about how we communicate and how we persuade and convince, because that’s often what we’re doing in our profession. If we’ve alienated people from the outset, it can be much harder to do that and to be effective.”

He underscores the idea that effectively practicing civility in the legal profession requires nuance. He makes an important distinction between what he calls “true civility” and “false civility,” arguing that true civility depends on “the context, cultural factors, and on so many other things that there cannot be one rigid definition of civility.” Apparent politeness alone, he contends, does not necessarily indicate respect. For example, using polite words with a patronizing or insincere tone is not civil. “It is the substance that brings dignity and true civility to our courts and to our system. As we consider who benefits from protocol, I’d like to also suggest that it’s usually those in power who benefit from formality and protocol, because that respects us and preserves our position.” But he also notes that there are times when people who are disenfranchised from the organization find solace in formality. Again, it depends on the context.

Elaborating on the nuance of true civility, Justice González notes that the formality of court procedure can be alienating to pro se litigants, who are often under great stress in an unfamiliar environment. “If you are the lawyer opposing a pro se party, it means speaking in plain language and . . . bringing controlling authority to the court’s attention, even if it does not support your case, and not taking advantage of the pro se party using legalese and a rigid adherence to procedure.” This true civility, Justice González argues, is not only fair to all parties involved and in the interests of justice, but also has professional benefits for the advocate: it enhances a lawyer’s reputation “as a true officer of the court.”

Justice González concludes with a practice point that shows how important civility is in every phase. Discussing preparing clients for the rigors of deposition, he points pervasive that “if they lose their civility and their composure that can wash away all the good preparation that you’ve done on the substance.” Thus, “[c]ivility permeates every single part of the practice of law.”