We all should act more like attorneys -- and no, this isn't a lawyer joke.
Public discourse, especially on controversial topics, seems to always fall to the lowest common denominator. Elevating our laws and our society requires an effort to actually change how we speak and how we act.
Attorneys are most certainly fallible and human -- just ask my wife. Members of the legal species may not always live up to the expectations they place on themselves, but the profession has high expectations for civility. In order to meet those expectations, practicing lawyers in Utah have to take at least one civility class every two years. Attorneys are expected to act civilized. (OK, maybe that last sentence reads a little bit like a joke.)
The Utah Supreme Court has issued Rules of Professional Conduct for members of the Bar. The rules even have their own preamble to explain what is expected of members of my profession. The duties and guiding principles are often contradictory. An attorney is expected to zealously protect a client's legitimate interest, all while maintaining a professional and civil attitude toward everyone involved.
Zealous advocacy and civility seem to be contradictions, but despite what you see in television news punditry, Facebook or comment boards on the Standard's website, it is possible to zealously advocate a position and remain civil. Civility is defined in Webster's as "formal politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech." Civility requires both civil speech and civil behavior.
One method of civil speech that lawyers have always fallen back on is to use legal jargon. Here is one of my favorites: "Without information or belief sufficient to form a basis as to the truth of the averments made, so hereby denies the same." This can mean two things: a) I don't believe anything that you are saying, but don't have proof either way, or (and more likely), b) You are probably right, but because I don't have definitive proof and wish what you were saying weren't true, I'll deny it for now.
Civil? Yes. Comprehensible to normal people? Probably not.
So does civility require incomprehensibility? I'd argue that civility in its highest form is most easily understood when it communicates the best about us as human beings. Civil disagreement and even civil disobedience work best when they appeal to our highest aspirations as individuals and a society. Mere civil speech is not enough. Action is also required.
Back in 1848, Henry David Thoreau wrote something that should probably be plastered on all political election coverage: "Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it. It is only expressing to men feebly your desire that it should prevail. A wise man will not leave the right to the mercy of chance, nor wish it to prevail through the power of the majority. There is but little virtue in the action of masses of men."
Thoreau's admonition for action also describes another of the lawyer's contradicting duties. Lawyers are given the duty to challenge the morality of official action, while maintaining and showing respect for the system and its participants.
Fortunately, this conflict is easily resolved. The foundations of our legal system are striving toward justice and fairness, without discrimination, so when the morality of official action conflicts with the system's own inherent requirements of fair play and justice, action is not only compelling, but required.
Our political discourse may be mired in the muddy and uncivil channels of talking points and partisanship, but the escape route is simple: just speak and act civilly, like an attorney is supposed to behave.
E. Kent Winward is an Ogden attorney. He can be reached at 801-392-8200 or email@example.com.