The article, "The Next Step on the Road to True Civility: Embracing Our Shared Humanity" by Texas Fellow Donald A. Blackwell originally appeared in the Winter 2018 edition of the Florida Bar Journal’s The Professional.
Maybe I'm just getting old or maybe it takes getting old to see the picture as clearly as it's becoming to me. Maybe you just have to experience all that life outside the practice of law throws at you – usually when you least expect it and, consequently, are least equipped to deal with it - to gain perspective. Maybe it takes 34 years of meals, cups of stale coffee, late nights, and occasional after hour drinks shared with colleagues and "adversaries" in small town dives across the country to "get it". Or maybe it takes the shocking and tragic suicides of two shining lights in our profession in the span of the last several weeks - men who, by all outward appearances, had the world on a string both personally and professionally - to bring the issue into stark focus. I'm not entirely sure why I feel compelled to write this piece; I only know that I do, and that its writing and its message are long overdue.
For at least the past 10 years, bar associations, committees, federal and state court judges, commentators, and legal educators have issued a clarion call for greater "civility" in our profession, especially among trial lawyers. In the process, lots of ink has been spilled and countless hours have been devoted to articulating rules and guidelines aimed at minimizing, if not eliminating behaviors that, at best, could be characterized as boorish and, at worse, disgraceful. The resulting creeds, codes, and administrative orders run the gamut from broad admonitions to "abstain from all rude, disruptive, disrespectful, and abusive behavior" and, instead, "to act with dignity, decency and courtesy" (Creed of Professionalism of The Florida Bar) to more specific directives relating to the handling of day-to-day scheduling issues and interactions with opposing counsel, clients, and the courts (Eleventh Judicial Circuit Standards of Professionalism and Civility). Suffice it to say, these initiatives are highly commendable and, one would like to think, have had some impact on the way we as lawyers behave.
However, I believe we owe ourselves and each other more. I believe we're better than the bare minimum when it comes to how we conduct ourselves and our level of concern for each other's well-being. Simply put, I believe it's time we aspire to move beyond mere civility and fully embrace our shared humanity. I believe it's time we not only realize, but act in a manner consistent with the inescapable reality that we are human beings, mothers, fathers, spouses, partners, siblings, friends, etc. first and lawyers a distant second. I believe it's time we stop shying away from the truth: That, while we "put on" a brave face in the morning, at the end of the day we are all equally fragile and flawed. We bleed just like the next person. We struggle, get depressed, and feel anxious. We suffer from addictions.1 We have hard days. We often are over-stressed. And, sometimes, we need help. We need patience, empathy and understanding. We need each other. Breathing that in and making it the touchstone for how we conduct ourselves is where real change resides.
I don't want it to take anyone else 34 years to get it and I certainly don't want to wake up to the news that we've lost another one of "us" who might have acted differently if only they'd been fully "noticed", not for what they accomplished in the law, but for who they were and what they were grappling with as a human being. We not only can do better, we must do better and we can start today. If you know a colleague who's struggling take a moment to let them know you're in their corner - that you're there for them. If you are the one struggling, reach out and don't stop reaching out until you get the support you need. The time has come for all of us to stop using the "zealous representation of our clients" as a justification for attitudes and conduct that only serve to add to an already impersonal and insensitive world where our professional lives are concerned. The time has come for a new standard of civility – compassionate professionalism. In short, the time has come to put down the flame throwers and put up our heart antennae. There, I said it!
1 In fact, recent surveys indicate that an astonishing 33% of attorneys have been diagnosed with some form of mental disorder and that, among members of our profession, the suicide rate is twice that of the general population, as is the rate of alcoholism. Attorneys are 3.6 times more likely than non-lawyers to suffer from severe depression. See Report: "Lawyers' Well-Being Falls Short," The Florida Bar News, Vol. 44, No. 17 (Sept. 1, 2017)(sources cited therein).
Texas Fellow Donald A. Blackwell is Of Counsel in the Dallas office of Bowman and Brooke LLP. For more than 30 years, he has built a strong and comprehensive practice defending major national companies in product liability and commercial litigation in Florida, Texas, and beyond. Mr. Blackwell has represented many of the world's largest motor vehicle manufacturers, often in wrongful death cases and cases involving catastrophic injuries. Beyond his practice, he also has served as an adjunct professor of legal research and writing at Southern Methodist University's Dedman School of Law and at St. Thomas University School of Law and, more recently, as an adjunct professor of Torts in the Intensive Paralegal Certificate Program at the University of Miami. He also has authored a number of feature articles in The Florida Bar Journal and spoken at several national legal conferences.
Mr. Blackwell also dedicates a significant amount of his energies toward supporting and advocating for individuals and families affected by eating disorders. He has authored multiple works on the subject and is frequently called upon to speak at local, regional, and national conferences and webinars. He also pioneered the creation of "The Dad Initiative," a nationwide campaign designed to educate, encourage and empower fathers whose daughters are afflicted with eating disorders. He is a Fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America.