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Rules of the Sandbox: Do Maryland lawyers need professionalism training?

The proposed mandatory continuing legal education requirements for Maryland includes two hours per year “devoted to topics concerning professionalism.” As someone in the CLE business (I help to organize seminars for the Maryland Association for Justice), that requirement caught my eye.

Not much is said about professionalism in the rest of the proposal, except that professionalism hours would not carry over from year to year. For a detailed explanation of Maryland’s view on professionalism, we can go straight to a statement crafted by the Maryland Courts, “Ideals of Professionalism.”

The entire document is written as a series of aspirations: “A lawyer should aspire,” “A lawyer should understand,” A lawyer should,” and so on. Violations are not subject to discipline, and in this way the ideals are more of a knightly code of honor than any sort of rulebook.

The Ideals encompass good aspirations, and I doubt anyone could find fault in them. We should be loyal to clients, show respect for participants in the dispute resolution process, avoid discrimination, improve the law, be punctual, keep commitments, be honest, stay educated, mentor other lawyers, communicate with clients, act fairly and “know that zeal requires only that the client’s interests are paramount and therefore warrant use of negotiation and compromise, when appropriate, to achieve a beneficial outcome, understanding that yelling, intimidating, issuing ultimatums, and using an ‘all or nothing’ approach may constitute bullying, not zealous advocacy.”

I have to be honest, here. When I took the required professionalism course upon passing the bar, I thought it was a colossal waste of time. I respect everything that Judge Bell and the other judges and lawyers did to put together that course, but everything we talked about was so…elementary. And, I don’t mean elementary in just the sense of the word “basic,” but I mean “stuff I was taught in elementary school.” Share with others. Don’t yell. Say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ Sure, we covered some more technical professionalism issues, but they were really ethical issues with professionalism overtones.

Other states I’m barred in have CLE professionalism requirements, and they are always the exact same course. A judge and a lawyer team up to tell you how to play in the sandbox. I think the problem is that we all know how to play in the sandbox. Some people regularly play the way they should, and some people (we all have our short list of offenders) regularly violate the Rules of the Sandbox.

So the question is: has professionalism training ever reformed a Sandbox Rule violator? Particularly when there are no technical consequences (remember—there is no discipline for violating these aspirational ideals), it seems unlikely that a course would have any impact.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems to me that the best way to change behavior is through consequences. We confront the violators. We make their lives harder because we never trust anything they say, and we require everything in writing. Sometimes, unfortunately, we stop granting “favors” because they just use them to take advantage of us, and they never grant favors back. But, I’ve never seen a violator reform their ways. They just keep digging their heels in the mire.

So, I have no real solution to the problem of professionalism. The Ideals are good to keep in your back pocket. I take them with me to depositions, and I’m just waiting for the opportunity to pull them out when an overzealous attorney starts yelling. I hope I never need to use them.

5 comments

  1. I just love the image. I also recommend taking a copy of the Discovery Guidelines of the State Bar to depositions. Not that it has ever stopped anybody from acting like an ass, but it is useful for creating a record.

  2. “Other states I’m barred in have CLE professionalism requirements, and they are always the exact same course.”

    You probably meant “the same course.” Sameness does not occur in degrees, something either is the same as something else or it is not. Perhaps you could ask the Bar to permit you to substitute a class on grammar for the class on Professionalism.

  3. UMDF, sameness or alleged (or denied) degrees thereof are not grammatical issues, but definitional ones. Mr. Cord’s prose contains no grammatical errors and, I would submit, no meaningful syntactical or lexicographical errors.

    In common parlance, we often use “same” to describe items that are “substantially” the same, as contrasted to exactly the same. E.g. “I hit the same **** traffic every day on I-83” when in fact the traffic varies slightly I suspect that Mr. Cord’s statement may be less than strictly accurate (i.e. the courses were held in different facilities on different days by different presenters and probably contained different syllabi) but only a useless pedantic ass would fault him for his use of literary license in context.

  4. A little demonstration of idiosyncratic bickering to demonstrate the point. Nicely done, gentlemen.

  5. Very interesting discussion. Congratulations to Maryland for considering MCLE. Interestingly, once adopted, MCLE gets overwhelming support from attorneys! http://bit.ly/dqRWv4

    I have run the MCLE program in Tennessee since it began in 1987 and speak on positive psychology topics for lawyers. “Professionalism,” as Mr. Cord points out, can be just a set of admonishments to acceptable or exemplary behavior. Or, it can be a doorway to consider topics like commitment, energy, and engagement that make the desirable behaviors more likely. Tennessee has changed its regulations on what gets ethics/professionalism credit, approved coaching, and is looking into a mentoring program because of what we’ve learned about attorney well-being and its impact on performance. In general, see our wiki site at http://cletn.wetpaint.com. Several specific papers might apply to this discussion:

    Causes of Poor Lawyering, http://bit.ly/b5cyxO;
    Survey of Participants in Lawyer Well-Being Programs: http://bit.ly/aw45S8,
    and
    our Petition on Mentoring: http://bit.ly/a6sjbf.