During my remarks when I was sworn in as President and in my July column in this magazine, I asked that as members of the South Carolina Bar, we focus on four topics in the coming year. Those areas of focus are (1) access to justice/pro bono; (2) wellness for both our mental and physical wellbeing; (3) diversity in our membership and profession; and (4) and the focus of this column, civility.
When each of us were sworn in as members of the South Carolina Bar we swore to the oath as lawyers in our Bar. The oath embodies so many things we agreed to uphold. And among those - not the least of these was the oath of civility. In the oath we agreed “To opposing parties and their counsel, I pledge fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications.” One of the greatest lessons we teach our lawyers when we are mentoring them is to remind them of this oath and the importance of civility. While most of us took this oath right after law school, civility is something not to be taken lightly and is more than just a wide-eyed vision of a new law school graduate; it is a core tenet that defines how we as lawyers must operate. Lawyers can go toe to toe in the courtroom or negotiating a business deal, but then share a laugh and good conversation over lunch. It’s part of who we are, and who we strive to be.
So as lawyers, how are we doing in practicing what we swore to do? We certainly know that in the larger world out there, it seems often our fellow humans are pitted against one another. Many times, there appears to be the need to take sides on any number of issues with loud voices amplifying the anger and angst. As lawyers, it is not only our aspiration but indeed a part of our oath to practice civility within the profession. Unfortunately, in the heat of the moment or when we do not first reflect on our words before uttering or writing them, we may direct commentary at a fellow member of the bar or others outside of our profession that are not civil. My dear mother had a policy for us as kids. She would say before you speak or write a word about someone ask yourself “Will this raise this person up or will this tear this person down?” For her, if the comment would raise someone up, we were encouraged to speak it. On the other hand, if it would tear the person down, we were strongly admonished not to make that comment whether spoken or in writing. While my sweet mom would not know the difference between Facegram or Instabook and while she still believes a tweet is the melodious sound of a bird, I think her rule is still holds true in our day-to-day communication with each other within our profession.
Judge Clifton Newman, along with his daughter Judge Jocelyn Newman, graces the cover of this issue of our magazine. When I was sworn in, I had the privilege of having Judge Newman administer the oath of office. Judge Newman also spoke to our House of Delegates about civility. He spoke directly to how important it is to find common ground and uplift each other, rather than tear each other down. His most pointed advice was this: do not feel like you must have the last word. While a few in the room may have chuckled when he said this, Judge Newman reminded us it is a true and wise sentiment. Yes, we are trained to be zealous advocates on behalf of our clients and indeed it is a part of our Rules of Professional Conduct to do just that. While we must act “with zeal in advocacy upon the client’s behalf” we should do so “with courtesy and respect.” I think we all agree with Judge Newman that the two are not mutually exclusive. It is easy to be our clients’ strongest advocate but to do so within the parameters of the civility oath we took as members of the South Carolina Bar.
Members of our Board of Governors are hard at work to move our dialogue of civility to the next level. The president of the Bar’s Senior Lawyers Division, David Cantrell, and Taylor Gilliam, President of the Young Lawyers Division are working together with their members to develop programs on civility for our Bar members. How proud we are to have those leaders and many other great leaders in our Bar working to strengthen our profession and find common ground, even on a national scale. Our Bar members and staff represented us well in August meetings being held during the American Bar Association Annual Meeting. What an incredible moment it was for us to be present to see our very own Board of Governors member Sheila Willis being sworn in as President of the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations; Sutania Fuller, former SC Bar Diversity Chair and current YLD/ABA Affiliates Director participated on a plenary panel about building a “NextGen” bar; SC Bar Past President Angus Macaulay presented on another panel exchanging fun ideas with other bar leaders for programming being done across the nation; former ABA President and now University of South Carolina School of Law Dean William Hubbard presented on a panel about restoring trust in democratic institutions; Past President Bev Carrol was sworn-in as a member of the ABA Board of Governors; Membership Director Charmy Medlin and Community and Special Projects Director Kimberly Snipes both presented on breakout panels for bar staff at the National Association of Bar Executives (NABE) conference; Communications Director Sarah Justice serves as Co-Chair of the NABE Professional Development Committee and she helped in planning the NABE conference. Our YLD members were recognized at the meetings further showing the South Carolina Bar’s commitment to the profession and civility. Conventions Committee Chair Leslie McIntosh was recognized as one of the ABA YLD’s On the Rise and the SC Bar YLD was awarded the Outstanding Affiliate Award, and several awards for projects they implemented in the categories of Service to the Public, Diversity and the SC Young Lawyer newsletter. These leaders showcased the great talent we have in SC and demonstrated that in SC we care about our members, we care about our profession, and we do all of that with a focus on civility.
We have a lot to celebrate in South Carolina, and I know there are countless stories of civility within our Bar that haven’t been told yet. If you have a great example to share, let us know so we can continue to encourage each other to put civility into practice. I am excited about the work being done to strengthen our commitment to civility in our profession. Just remember that we need to put the work in every day, with our decisions, our words and our actions. Let us remember the wise comments of Judge Newman when he encouraged us to find common ground. And let us remember our oath as we practice and demonstrate daily our commitment to civility in court and in our communications.
Reach Rusty at email@example.com.