New York Personal Injury Law Blog » Professionalism


February 28th, 2013

Courtesy Matters

I was sitting in court yesterday waiting for an adversary when something extraordinary happened. In fact, in 25+ years practicing law, it may have been a first.

I arrived at 9:30 sharp for a simple preliminary conference on a medical malpractice case — the initial conference in our part of the world where a discovery schedule is established. As is the practice, I proceeded to holler out the name of the case and the firm, hoping to find my adversary and start working on the forms, figuring out what we would could agree on and what might need judicial intervention.

Forty minutes go by and I am approached by a lawyer from the firm on the other side, Aaronson Rappaport, Feinstein & Deutsch. This is one of the small handful of top tier med mal defense firms in the city.  If you were a doctor that had been sued, you’d want them as your counsel.

And this lawyer that I had never met proceeds to tell me that no, he is not here on my case.  But he heard me call out both the firm name and the case name, knew something was amiss, and called his office. They had the matter on for 10:30 he told me, and the lawyer handling this one would be here shortly.

Let me repeat. It wasn’t his case. But on his own initiative, he made the call  anyway. Most lawyers, even if they were from the same firm and happened to be in the same room, wouldn’t bother unless the case was theirs, though it costs them nothing but a moment’s time to do this.

But Sam did. He went the extra yard.

I use this space often enough to rail about the unprofessional and ethical problems of other lawyers. Newspapers do the same, because it is outlier stories that are most interesting to the public.

But that also might leave the impression among the lay public that most lawyers/cases in the courthouse are like that. They aren’t. Matters of professional courtesy aren’t considered newsworthy.

It also happens to be good lawyering, for anyone that has stood in the well of the courtroom knows that what goes around, comes around. If you don’t extend the extra day here or there because the other lawyer wants to see his daughter in her first grade play, for example, don’t expect a return favor.

One of my favorite lessons from being trained was watching my Dad try a case. He and the other lawyer would smash heads in the courtroom. Then go out for coffee afterwards.

This also happens to be good for  your client. Because if/when the time comes to talk about a settlement, it is far better for the clients on both sides if the lawyers are on good personal terms so that they can have a candid discussion.

Courtesy matters. On multiple levels.

11 thoughts on “Courtesy Matters

  1. Eric:
    So true, and an excellent post for new lawyers. Had a similar experience yesterday. 1st yr associate shows up on a PT conference. I invited her to sit and chat with my client. I let her pick the times for future PT’s since it was a 2 hr drive for her and 40 min for me.

    Simple kindness costs nothing. Book after book about Abe Lincoln reveals that it was one of his unwavering principles, even amongst those who my not have deserved it. Pretty damn good lawyer and Pres too…

  2. Hi, Eric.
    This type of courtesy is pretty common in state criminal practice – at least in the Bronx and Brooklyn. Perhaps the legal community is smaller on this side. Interesting though, that civil practice is generally less “civil” than criminal practice. Jeff Bloom

    • I would say that courtesy is very much the norm, not the exception. But it doesn’t really get written about because it isn’t a “sexy” topic. Bad lawyers make good copy; good lawyers make bad copy.

      But this particular instance just seemed to ring a bell because it went above and beyond the expected courtesies by being proactive.

  3. I second Erik’s comment above. I would have jumped right up too, but I’m 65 years old and maybe atypical. There’s also a lot of regional difference: maybe more urban/rural than East/West.

  4. Dealt with the firm a few times, also P.C.’s and C.C.’s. One of the menchier firms. Although I have to add that I’ve gotten the same courtesy a few times over the years from others. Really, it’s maybe more the individual lawyer than the firm, but firms tend to be homogenous. So a given firm can tend to have courteous lawyers in a way another wouldn’t.
    But yes, there’s far too little courtesy. On the other hand, it’s the bonus of the bored, disengaged judiciary: They’ve seen it all and don’t care for empty dramatics.

  5. I was disheartened to read that the event you mentioned was a rarity. Perhaps it is the smaller jurisdiction or that we are in the “South,” but I am pleased to say that in my career (having started practicing in 1999) such courtesies are routine (Hampton Roads/Tidewater Virginia area). That being said, the behavior in the courts around this area are starting to get a little rougher and the local bar associations are addressing this as we can (with judicial input as what they see as a lack of civility and professionalism, often from newly-minted attorneys who hang a shingle right out of school with no mentor/guidance). Thanks for the story, Eric.

  6. Erik,

    On behalf of Sam, and my firm, thank you for the compliment. we have always found it easier to ‘agree to disagree’ than be disagreeable. Professional courtesy, in my opinion, is a part and parcel of a firm culture/identity (although there are exceptions, good and bad!!!)


  7. You improperly refer to opposing counsel as adversaries.

    In Local 144 Nursing Home Pension Fund v. Demisay, 113 S. Ct. 2252 (1993), Justice Scalia stopped oral argument in mid-track when an attorney referred to opposing counsel as “my adversary” and pointed out that the attorneys are not the adversaries, the clients are. He then told the attorney arguing the case that he may proceed.

    • Justice Scalia stopped oral argument in mid-track when an attorney referred to opposing counsel as “my adversary” and pointed out that the attorneys are not the adversaries, the clients are.

      I disagree with Scalia, as the interests that we represent are adversarial.