The 2021 Illinois Lawyers Survey on Professionalism includes the encouraging finding that most lawyers (88.7%) find their colleagues civil/professional, but also the more discouraging finding that the majority of lawyers (54%) had experienced uncivil/unprofessional behavior in the preceding six months.
Clearly, we have some work to do in enhancing civility in the legal profession, but important efforts are already occurring in law schools thanks in large part to the American Bar Association and the values of our students. The ABA now requires all law schools to incorporate Professional Identity Formation into their curricula. This essentially focuses on the special obligations that lawyers owe their clients and society, and it encourages more intentional infusion of professionalism early on in law school.
When I recently discussed civility in the profession with first-year students in our required Preparing to Practice program, I found that they already understand the inherent value of civility in their role as a lawyer, particularly its benefits for clients and the effective and fair functioning of the legal system. Students understand that escalating incivility is not acceptable, even for strategic reasons. Some students even said they would leave a firm or organization in which incivility was modeled or encouraged. This attitude seems less tolerant of incivility than when I was a young lawyer, when it was something you just had to put up with.
This new generation of Gen Z lawyers is known for their integrity, tenacity and care. They also are purpose-driven, action-oriented and generally distrustful of authority. These are the characteristics that will push our profession toward more civility. Since the survey also found that young lawyers felt freer to express their opinions in the workplace, they may even influence more senior lawyers to reduce the regularity of incivility.