The big topic among Texas lawyers this week is the Texas Day of Civility in Law, fashioned by joint proclamation by the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals, the two highest courts in our state. Civility is supposed to be at the core of our profession. But, what does it mean?

First, let’s examine what civility does not mean. Civility is not the absence of disagreement. In fact, the very notion of civility assumes that there will be disagreement and discussion. Our legal system roots in disagreement while providing a method for resolution.

Likewise, civility is not the absence of criticism. The process requires pointing out errors or shortcomings of the other person, such as errors in another’s brief or shortcomings of a legal argument.

Civility does not require that you like a person. Civility requires respect, but not fondness.

Civility is not equivalent to good manners alone. Good manners alone is not sufficient. For example, politely refusing to hire a female lawyer because the firm has a policy against hiring women lawyers is not civil behavior.

Civility comes from French and Latin etymologies, suggesting that one should exhibit good behavior for the good of a community. The principles of civility in law permeate the entire legal system, defining at the core what it means to be a lawyer. Such principles speak to the lawyer’s dual duty as an officer of legal system and the advocate of the client. Even in advocating for a client, a lawyer must show respect for the legal system. Zealous advocacy does not extend to offensive tactics, discourtesy, or disrespect.

A 2007 survey conducted by the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism revealed that 71% of the lawyers surveyed reported experience uncivil behavior, characterized as follows:

  • Rudeness – described at sarcasm, condescending comments, swearing, or inappropriate interruption.
  • Strategic incivility – strategically employing uncivil behavior in an attempt to gain the upper hand such as deliberate misrepresentation of the facts, not agreeing to reasonable requests for accommodation, indiscriminate or frivolous use of pleadings, and inflammatory writing in briefs or motions.

Civility in our profession provides positive outcomes for the legal system and the lawyers involved. Civil lawyers are more effective and achieve better outcomes. Civil lawyers build better reputations. Civility breeds job satisfaction among lawyers in a profession that tends the opposite.

Hat tip to Jayne R. Reardon Civility as the Core of Professionalism

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.