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From the Bench: Professionalism in the legal profession

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From the Bench: Professionalism in the legal profession
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Editor's note: This is part of an occasional series, "From the Bench," written by area judges. It will focus on the court system and criminal justice issues.


By Judge Mary B. Mahler

You need a lawyer. The natural reaction is to hire the most ruthless attorney you can find. By this article, I hope to persuade you to hire the most professional attorney you can find because professionalism in the courtroom is more persuasive to jurors and judges than those who pound fists on tables.

I recently reflected upon a picture hanging in my chambers by Artist Jeff Leedy that was given to me when I graduated from law school. The picture depicts an elderly judge on the bench, a wide-eyed jury, a watchful Courtroom Clerk and two empty tables for the attorneys. Between the attorneys' tables and the judge's bench is a sea of water with two protruding great white shark fins. The caption reads, "Counsel Approaching the Bench." This picture exemplifies the common belief that good lawyers need to be cunning, calculating and feared.

I rarely see unprofessional behavior in the courtroom, but realize such behavior can, and will, happen. We are all prone to occasionally having a "bad day." Judges typically see unprofessional behavior during out-of-court communications such as letters or e-mail to opposing counsel. The letter or printed e-mail is provided to the judge to substantiate attorneys' failure to comply with the rules of discovery, which require the exchange of information before trial. Rude comments during depositions are captured by court reporters and reflect poorly upon the attorney.

Rarely, judges see personal attacks toward opposing counsel in written legal documents filed with the court prior to a hearing. When this happens, the natural inclination by the attorney is to respond similarly by telling the judge what a jerk the other attorney is. Personal attacks toward opposing counsel in written documents distract the judge's attention from what may otherwise be valid legal arguments. By engaging in this behavior, attorneys risk appearing petty and immature to the judge and their clients. Rarely, attorneys attempt to continue inappropriate behavior during court hearings. However, judges do not tolerate bad behavior in the courtroom from attorneys, their clients or anyone else.

How an attorney acts, works and presents in court leaves an impression upon the judge as to whether or not the attorney is professional in his/her work and can be trusted. Civility in the courtroom is often referred to as the Golden Rule; that being to treat others as you would want to be treated. It includes withholding urges to interrupt others, as can be common during casual conversations. Parties appearing in court often seem surprised when their attorney is actually discussing the case with opposing counsel, possibly even exchanging "small talk" about the past weekend events while waiting for their case to be called. This civility and courtesy toward opposing counsel shouldn't be viewed as a weakness. Rather, professionalism requires the attorneys discuss the case with a level of courtesy, recognizing that each side's position has strengths as well as weaknesses.

I can only guess why unprofessional behavior in the law occurs. Attorneys may fear candidly acknowledging a client's weakness. Perhaps the attorney has a personal investment in the outcome of the case. With the ever-increasing number of practicing attorneys in Minnesota, unhealthy competition to meet unrealistic client expectations may subconsciously affect an attorney's conduct.

So while there may be a preconceived notion that attorneys need to be ruthless and aggressive in the courtroom, such tactics rarely persuade a judge or jury to adopt their client's position. In reality, attorneys need to be civil, candid and courteous to earn and retain professional reputations in the legal community.

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Judge Mary B. Mahler is a 7th Judicial District Court Judge and presides over courts in the city of St. Cloud.

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