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Panel Highlights Importance of Civility in Law

February 09, 2009

At a recent USF School of Law presentation, a panel of practicing attorneys and a judge urged students to be mindful of the importance of maintaining civility in their careers as legal professionals.

Robert T. Lynch '63 (left), Hon. Mary E. Wiss '81 (middle), and James Geagan '75 at the USF School of Law presentation "Civility Matters."

Moderated by Professor Joshua Davis, the Jan. 27 panel discussion on lawyer civility was sponsored by the Center for Law and Ethics and the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABTA). The ABTA has been bringing the program to Bay Area law schools in response to observations by judges and lawyers that there is a downtrend in the way lawyers interact with each other, judges, and witnesses.

The panelists, comprised of USF law alumni Robert T. Lynch '63, Hon. Mary E. Wiss '81, and James Geagan '75, discussed the ethical and strategic reasons to be civil and respectful when litigating. Civility is often essential in obtaining information from opposing council and clients, panelists said. Several examples were provided to the audience, including a video of an actual deposition in which the two parties used profanity and aggressive tactics, yet did not obtain the needed facts from one another regarding the pending case.

Robert T. Lynch '63

"Don't forget that cases are drama. These are real things that happen to real people. Emotions run high. People cry, people sob. It's very emotionally wrenching a lot of times, so it's understandable when people sometimes lose control," Wiss said. "But keep in mind, somehow you've got to bring it back, you've to get people down to earth, you've got to get back to the facts."

Davis, the director of the Center for Law and Ethics, said that more than 95 percent of cases settle before being filed, which increases the importance of effective mediation techniques. Despite television and film representations that suggest otherwise, Davis and the panelists said that lawyers can be civil while also being effective.

"You can be an excellent advocate and still be a gentleman (or) gentlewoman, someone who fosters professionalism," Geagan said. "In fact, I think...that being civil, by being someone who can have a disagreement but have it done in a way that does not become personal, will in many cases forward your client's interests."