Originally created 04/01/04

Pledge avows lawyer civility



AIKEN - The South Carolina Supreme Court has a message for lawyers practicing in the state: Be nice to each other.

Starting this month, attorneys-at-law across South Carolina will begin pledging a new, revised oath that addresses a decline in civility among members of the bar.

Every lawyer licensed in the state must take a one-hour seminar and the oath by the end of the year.

From acrimonious deposition sessions to stubbornly slow exchanges of evidence, some lawyers are forgetting that you draw more flies with honey than with vinegar.

"That's certainly the court's perception, and the court should know," said Spartanburg attorney Ken Anthony, the president of the South Carolina Bar Association.

"There have been instances of disrespect between lawyers, and disrespect shown to witnesses and laypersons. I don't think the problem is widespread to start with - this is more pre-emptive than corrective."

Legal professionals say the problems of politeness seem to have cropped up more in civil litigation and tend to be most pronounced in bigger cities. The sniping and snide remarks often occur outside the judge's presence, prompting a passage in the new oath that requires lawyers to show civility to opposing parties "not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications."

Circuit Judge James Barber, who presides often over civil and criminal cases in Aiken County, said lawyers don't tend to show their ugly side in front of him.

"Generally, people are on their best behavior when they're in front of a judge," Judge Barber said.

He added that lawyers in Aiken, in contrast to other circuits, "work together as well as any I've ever seen. The bar in Aiken is one of the nicest in South Carolina."

Ronnie Maxwell, an Aiken lawyer and past president of the South Carolina Trial Lawyers Association, says Aiken retains a small-town culture that engenders respect among opposing counsel.

Of the new oath, he said, "Anything we do toward making the profession more civilized, whether we needed it or not, isn't a bad thing to do."

Rachel Beckford, an ex-officio member of the commission that drafted the new oath, called it "an effort to improve the public's perception of lawyers, and have them act like the professionals they are."

Reach Stephen Gurr at (803) 648-1395, ext. 110, or stephen.gurr@augustachronicle.com.