Some years ago I bought a reprint of a little book called Don’t: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties more or less prevalent in Conduct and Speech, first published around 1880. Don’t, the work of an anonymous American author, contains epigrams on social matters. Chapters include, for example, “At Table” (“Don’t eat with your knife”), “In Public” (“Don’t expectorate on the sidewalk”), and “In the Drawing- Room” (“Don’t respond to remarks made to you with mere monosyllables”).
As a judge, I have wished I could slip a “don’t” to signal that something should have been left undone or unsaid. So I started keeping a list of “don’ts.” Here are a few that apply equally to proceedings in court and everyday life at the office.
Don’t let your career come before those who matter most in your life. Not infrequently, I will get motions to move a deadline, a status hearing, or a trial date due to a vacation, an illness, a child’s school event, and similar affairs of life. When professional obligations conflict with personal matters, deciding which takes precedence requires analyzing benefits and disadvantages. The key to both success at work and at home, to job satisfaction, and to personal happiness is the ability to choose wisely between them.
Don’t compromise your integrity for a case, client or cause. Your career, standing in the legal community, and self-respect should never be sacrificed for the sake of tactics, perceived advantages, selfish motives, or even good intentions. Integrity gets tested, it happens, and cannot be avoided. How you act and react, on the other hand, are within your control. Throw integrity overboard, and you will sink to the bottom.
Don’t undermine your credibility. As one of a lawyer’s most precious attributes, credibility should be jealously guarded. Correct any lapses quickly or they might return to bite you. Like integrity, its close cousin, once it is lost, credibility is difficult to reestablish.
Don’t disrespect the legal system by disparaging the judge or bad mouthing an adversary. What is a client to believe when his or her lawyer makes snide remarks about other lawyers, including the lawyer in the black robe who decides the client’s fate? You come off as whiny, petulant, and immature. Worse yet, your insults undermine the very institution whose purpose is to ensure the fair and effective administration of justice, thereby threatening the image of justice in the eyes of your client and, by extension, your client’s family and circle of friends.
Don’t be late. Unless there is a true emergency, keeping a judge or anyone else waiting is inconsiderate because it wastes other people’s time. Plan ahead. As a lawyer, I kept my watch six minutes fast just to avoid being late. As a judge, I have a clock on my chamber’s wall that is a foot-and-a-half in diameter.
Don’t get emotionally involved in a case. For clients, a lawsuit can be overwhelming, stressful, and draining. Keeping a client’s emotions in check can become a feat. That’s why it is critical for lawyers to prevent a client’s emotions from clouding their own judgment or interfering with how the lawyer manages the case. Certainly, lawyers may get emotional. It is natural. But a lawyer’s emotions always should be directed at the issues, never at individuals.
Don’t be caught unprepared. Nine times out of 10, when someone is not prepared, it is evident, and the offender can suffer for it, or at the least, look foolish. Preparation is the hallmark of effective lawyers. The best lawyers meticulously prepare; and so do the best judges. Preparation has been called the great equalizer.
Don’t act like a guest on the Jerry Springer Show. Be civil, considerate, and courteous. Maintain a respectful tone, and keep your dignity. ‘Nuff said. ■
Judge Michael B. Hyman, a member of the Bench & Bar Section Council, is assigned to the General Chancery Division, Circuit Court of Cook County. This article originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of the CBA Record.