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California Makes Lawyers Vow to Play Nice

465201175Back before “Make a Will” month began (btw, have you made a will? If you’re still alive, there’s still time!) we noted one of the signs of the coming Legal Profession Apocalypse, namely that a California federal court judge, without any provocation or precipitating incident whatsoever, ordered opposing counsels in a trial to preemptively draw up a “civility code” under which they would conduct themselves. Well, it just so happens that judge was ahead of the curve. At the urging of the American Board of Trial Advocates and the State Bar of California, all incoming attorneys will have to pledge to act like normal human beings.

From time immemorial, attorneys being admitted to the California State Bar recited this simple oath: “I solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of California, and that I will faithfully discharge the duties of an attorney and counselor at law to the best of my knowledge and ability.”

As of May 23, however, under wording approved by the California Supreme Court, newbie attorneys will have to recite the following additional line: “As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy, and integrity.”

Is it just me, or is there some latent hostility towards lawyers by the authors of this new sentence? Like they’re dealing with a bunch of ADD-addled children deprived of their Adderall?

I am struck by the use of the word strive in this oath. Strive is something one attempts to do that requires tremendous effort and fortitude: I strive for perfection. I strive to beat my personal best athletic performance. If I’m a chef, I might strive to create my greatest meal. I don’t strive for mediocrity, to brush my teeth in the morning, or to make a ham sandwich. And yet, this oath has new attorneys striving to act with a modicum of decorum. In effect vowing, “I will try really, really hard to behave like my mother taught me when I was five years old, and not act like a total maniac.”

The oath could have appended the existing above pledge with a simple, “I will do so in a dignified, courteous matter,” and be done with it, but I suppose that didn’t give transgressors enough wiggle room. I also wonder about the motive for including “integrity” in the modified oath. Isn’t that inherently part of the job? That you’re going to uphold the law and be honest and truthful in your dealings? While they’re adding things that should be taken for granted, how about putting in “And I promise not to embezzle my firm’s money.”

There was also some controversy over the bit about conducting oneself courteously “at all times.” Some lawyers favored easing into it gradually, instead inserting “3/4 of the time,” while others pushed for “more often than not.” But more mature heads prevailed, and pointed out that you weren’t promising to behave well all the time, you were just striving to.

For as you’ve no doubt surmised, the clause is toothless. You’re striving. Attempting. Pledging. Marshaling your will to control your impulses. But you can’t guarantee anything. You might go off at any moment. And if at first you don’t succeed, “strive, strive again.” It’s like going to church confession. A couple of “Sorry You Honors”, and you’re absolved.

If you’re already a practicing California attorney, you’ll be pleased to know that the pledge is not retroactive, and you are grandfathered in to act like a belligerent dunderhead. I believe the way the California Supreme Court put it is you can pay “lip service” to behaving like a mensch. Also, prospective attorneys from other states won’t have to worry about behaving respectfully for a while yet, as these other state bars will closely monitor the effects of lawyers behaving nicely in California, to see how it impacts the wheels of justice, the bottom line, and lawyer morale.

Soon-to-be attorneys still have about two weeks left to get in under the wire, before the new oath takes effect. It’s something to strive for.

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