The first in a series of essays on respect and civility.
Tall pines rustle with a fragrant breeze, and about 80 boys in the Camp Timanous grey t-shirt and shorts sit quietly on wooden benches in short rows. It’s Sunday morning on Panther Pond, and my husband, Mike, has volunteered to lead the chapel talk.
“In a few hours, new campers will join us for the second half of the summer,” he says. “Imagine that you’re in the cabin, and you see a new boy. His parents have left, and he’s reading on his bed. Your friends are calling for you to go play ball, and you’re just about to run out to join them, but the new kid catches your eye. You know you should invite him…what do you do?”
The chapel service closes with “Amazing Grace” sung by a group of counselors, and the boys file out quietly and head back to their cabins. Some of them might embrace the idea of empathy later when new campers arrive, and some might not. But my husband’s desire to promote empathy in these young boys caused me to think about my work with the Bar.
Each year at about this time, the emails and calls from new lawyers start pouring in. These young folks have spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money on law school, and there are just a couple more hurdles they need to leap before they can practice their craft: licensure and swearing-in. It’s my job, as Bar Administrator, to lead them through this process with a minimum of fuss, and to help them feel welcome. I even get to help orchestrate the group-swearing in, and the 12-hour continuing legal education seminar that answers many of their questions. Based on feedback from new attorneys, it seems our district does a great job helping them through the first few weeks of their new career.
But the first time they enter the Buncombe County Courthouse, or they are standing at the Register of Deeds counter, these new attorneys must feel just like the new camper reading his book on his bunk alone. That’s where you come in. Are you empathetic?
Sure, I realize that there are aspects of practicing law that are extremely competitive. We’ve all seen that play out in the courtroom and in well-written briefs. But I’ve also come to respect the collegiality and good will of some of the members of this Bar during my six years of employment. Actually, I’ve learned a lot about grace under pressure and kindness from you lawyers. Coming from a career in the field of education, I had not been exposed to the kind of competition that is common in the legal field. At first I couldn’t believe how civil you were to each other, how respectfully you addressed each other on the street, the way that you would find a kind word to say about someone even though you clearly were on opposite sides of the political spectrum. It’s impressive to watch that play out, and I’ve come to realize that your respectful behavior towards each other creates an atmosphere that helps both you and your clients. It can actually facilitate the administration of justice.
So how will you bring new attorneys into that nuanced atmosphere of respect and civility? It’s common knowledge that we only get one chance at a first impression. I’m betting that you’ll make it a good one.