Making nicer lawyers

Wednesday, November 21, 2001

CHICAGO -- Everyone knows the stereotype of a lawyer: ruthless, rude and greedy.

The Illinois Supreme Court believes there's more than a bit of truth in that description and is determined to do something about it. In the latest effort to make America's attorneys behave, the Supreme Court on Tuesday appointed a special committee on lawyer civility.

The 14-member committee, comprised of two appointees from each supreme court justice, may draft a nonbinding code of conduct or even some binding discipline for courtroom antics or deposition intimidation, court spokesman Joseph Tybor said. It will also aim to educate the public and discourage clients from demanding the ruthlessness they see on television.

"People get what they want and what they expect," Tybor said. "If people think that the mean attorney is the winning attorney, the attorney will be mean or rude."

David Requa, who practiced civil law in central Illinois for 20 years and witnessed a decline in mutual respect and cooperation to settle cases, is happy to see the effort. Now he's a music teacher at Springfield High School. On Tuesday he was coaching his students through soothing choruses of "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas."

"It saves me on antacids," Requa said of his job. "Working with young people feels a whole lot better."

In his legal career he witnessed attorneys bickering and lying to each other, agreeing to settlements only to back out in front of the judge, and even sending threatening or abusive letters to each other.

"When I started I could count on one hand the attorneys you couldn't trust," Requa said. "When I left, you could count on one hand the attorneys you could trust."

Florida origins

The genesis for the Illinois committee might be traced to an American Bar Association meeting in Florida last June that was attended by Chicago attorney Neil Quinn, a member of the state's Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission. At the meeting, Quinn heard reports from the Arizona Bar Association and the Palm Beach County, Fla., Bar Association about each group's program in which attorneys who were out of line but not quite worthy of official discipline got a mandatory talking-to from a respected elder in the legal community.

Then suburban Chicago attorneys in DuPage County called Quinn and told him, in so many words, they were getting a bit sick of each other. They invited him to speak about other states' programs, and then they approached Supreme Court Justice Robert Thomas about forming a statewide committee.

"Terrific!" Quinn said when informed of the new committee. "I thought maybe I left without having any effect."

Chicago attorney Lawrence Templer, one member of the committee, said client education is just as important as attorney discipline. People need to know that they're drawing out cases and wasting money by saying, "I don't care what you do, scorch the earth, just win," he said.

Requa said he is glad the committee will provide education to both lawyers and clients, but he doubts even strict rules could eliminate incivility.

"A lawyer's training is to find ways around the rules," he said.

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