Attorney Speaks on Civility among Lawyers – Essay by Kurt K. Mohnsam
AN OBSERVATION ON CIVILITY
By Hon. Kurt K. Mohnsam, Esq
Lawyers have a reputation for being involved in some of the less admirable deeds that a person can commit. Sometimes, they develop a habit of cultivating, even enjoying, this reputation. I’ve had the opportunity to observe two lawyers at random, and to see just how they responded to me, when I had nothing to offer them, and when I was in need of help. I was surprised to find that, contrary to popular belief, civility among lawyers is not dead.
“Why not try collections,” one lawyer, a judge, asked, as I sat in his home office where I had been invited to lunch. “Chances are, many places will be glad to give you some of that business.” I have been trying to get back into the practice of law after a setback as a result of illness, then a divorce, and was literally grasping at anything and anyone who might be able to help me turn my life around.
People want to help. Judges, lawyers, business executives, most anyone who has gotten to a comfortable spot in his or her own life wants to help someone who has stumbled a bit along the road. People will say it’s because they want to feel good about themselves, and helping the less fortunate, in this case, me, makes people who have “made it” feel better about themselves. My experience indicates that this is actually a pretty sad, and incorrect, observation. I have, over the years, made a few friends in positions of what could be considered “power,” and they have been more than willing to sit down to lunch with me and go to some pretty great lengths to help me get back on my feet. They aren’t doing it to make themselves feel better about some ancient wrong, committed in a deal with the devil that got them where they are today. That makes for a good movie moment, but it’s not the real world. They see me as a person who is in need of a little help, and they, being human themselves, want to do something to potentially help me out of my present situation. I have never once promised to return the favor, to send business someone’s way once I got back on my feet, and I certainly was never charged a dime for any of the help I received. Lawyers, and those in the legal community, are in general, very good people. Not all of them, of course. I’ll be the first to admit that the fellow who jumped line to get himself a quick beer at a restaurant during a Kentucky Bar Convention in Louisville was a lawyer. When confronted, he replied with a smarmy “So what?” but I think, and I hope, that he was in a very distinct minority. Every profession has a certain number of jerks, and maybe the jerks in our profession tend to be more visible to outsiders than the jerks in other professions. Jump to the head of a long line waiting to get a drink during a bar convention, and everyone in the place will immediately presume that you are one of the lawyers in town for the convention. Some of us just have to prove that stereotypes are not all wrong, I suppose.
Still, it has been my overall experience that lawyers tend to want to help others, at least other lawyers, because we have all been through some common hard times. Yes, some of us came from money, and some of us had brains and sailed through law school, but along the way, we all had our difficult moments. Some of us saw a client lose everything he had built up over his lifetime in a disastrous divorce, or saw someone who was clearly innocent lose his freedom simply because the evidence looked bad, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Some of us saw the family of a murdered child sitting in the courtroom, as if something could ever be done to bring back the young person who had brought light into their lives, and was now forever silenced. Sometimes, we watch, helplessly, as one lawyer does something terrible to another lawyer, simply because he can. But then, that goes back to the fact that there are bad people in all situations. I sometimes feel that the practice of law can be described as a study in just how many ways human beings can hurt each other, and if anything good is to come of any of this, maybe it is that these shared observations make us better people. That is, if we permit ourselves to be touched by them. Even if we are powerless to correct the things that we see go wrong all around us in our daily lives, we can at least recognize the fact that these things go on, and in some small effort to balance things out in the world, we sometimes reach out to help someone who has also seen these things, and who may have fallen into some difficulty of his own.
Sometimes, especially in my present situation, I begin to feel helpless, and at just such a time, I reached out to a member of the legal community whom I had met at this year’s bar convention. This “reaching out” connected me to a retired judge before whom I had scarcely practiced, and who probably scarcely recognized my face. Nevertheless, this man was willing to help. “There aren’t going to be that many Court appearances in the collections business, since most people never even file and Answer.” He went on. “You have to learn the federal Rule as to notifying people that you’re collecting a debt, but other than that, it isn’t something that you can’t teach yourself—it’s not overly complicated.” He then got out a double-sided page of suggestions he had printed up for me in preparation for out meeting. “Here are some things I jotted down to get you started back into practice,” he continued, and we began to go down the list. Inevitably, the issue of health insurance came up. I have coverage for a while longer under my ex-wife’s plan, but once my COBRA continuation of benefits runs out, I had either better have a job that provides equally good coverage, or I had better find someone who will marry me and also has some excellent health insurance benefits. It sounds funny, and somewhat like I’m making too much of an issue out of it, but in actuality, I need health insurance, or I’m a dead man. “Just one of my medications, of which there are many, runs over $1,600 a month, and I have no choice but to take it. Much like my insulin.” “Whoa,” the judge paused, “now that’s a real issue. Maybe you’d be better off looking at working for the state in order to get the insurance coverage. That’s about the best thing you can do if you need the type of coverage you require. Even if it’s a job counting the number of blocks in a concrete wall, the job isn’t the important thing, it’s the health benefits.” I knew this fact all too well, but how to get that elusive, yet not-too-fulfilling job of counting those concrete blocks? That remains a tough question.
In addition to the judge who generously invited me into his home to help me in my quest for a way to continue my life without the need to file for disability, an old acquaintance of mine had recently spoken briefly at the Bar Convention in Covington. I didn’t have a chance to say hello to him at the time, so I simply shot him a quick email saying “good to see you” and “You’ll have to fill me in on what you’re doing at the ABA sometime.” To my surprise, this gentleman returned my email, and also invited me to have lunch with him. We had done this in the past, but never while he was quite so busy with all sorts of matters involving his position with the ABA, so as busy as he is, I never expected him to have the time to talk to me about life, health, medical insurance, and how to survive in my present situation. Nevertheless, we met for an hour over lunch, and he took time from his unbelievably hectic schedule to contact a few other lawyers and to pass my resume along to them. Quite honestly, I was stunned. My friend not only took the time to listen to my problems, but took an active role in trying to help me out in the best way that he could. I suppose the best way I can describe the quality that I had now observed first-hand in two very prominent Kentucky lawyers would be to call it “Civility.” I came to these men with nothing to offer either of them. They both lead extremely busy lives, and have little time for matters that are unimportant to them. In spite of everything that each of these men is involved with in his own life, however, each made an extra effort to be civil toward me, and each went well out of his way in reaching out to someone who was in need of help. I am asking to have this posted on LawReader not so much as a way of saying “Thank You” to the two men who took time out of their busy schedules to try to help me out, but rather, as a way of showing some of you who may read this narrative that there are still lawyers out there who are willing, if not seeking, to be civil, helpful, and generous to others in the profession. I will admit that there have been times when I have felt that civility was dead in the practice of law. Perhaps it required me to reach the lowest point in my career in order to clearly see that some of us still actively work at being decent human beings in spite of the fact that we are lawyers, or perhaps, because of the fact that we are lawyers. Hopefully, it is the latter. I am also hoping that the actions of these two lawyers will serve as a reminder to the rest of us that no matter how busy or successful we become, we still have a duty to ourselves and to the profession to put ourselves second to the needs of another, from time to time.
I suspect that, at least for the two lawyers who are the subject of this narrative, civility is simply a way of life. It is not something that either of them thinks about as so many “poker chips” or “points” that one must accumulate on the “good side” of civility, or a way to stay within the ethical rules regarding the same, but rather, they have become practiced at being decent people, after decades of being leaders in a profession that has unfortunately become known for those members who refuse to behave in a civil manner, either toward fellow members of the bar, or toward the public in general.
My problems are not resolved, but at least I feel that there are still some members of the bar out there who will make a genuine attempt to do the right thing, regardless of how busy or important they have become. I hope that we can all learn from the actions of these two lawyers, and if we all learn to keep civility a high priority in our own lives and practices, life will be better for all of us in the legal profession. Maybe we can even convince a few people on the outside that, among lawyers, there are a great many truly good people.
Kurt K. Mohnsam, Esq.