Sunday, February 14, 2016

Critical Lessons from a Bar Seminar

The bar was gracious to invite me recently to present a lunch and learn program. I was not given a topic, and therefore chose to speak about ethics and professionalism. I was honored that two distinguished attorneys joined me for the session. On the claimants side was Brian Carter, a practitioner in Pensacola with a practice generally localized to the panhandle. And, on the defense side was Philip Augustine of Orlando, who runs a generally statewide practice.

We met before-hand and discussed various topics, and then entered the telephonic meeting discussion with minimal formality. We tried to make it a conversation about the friction points in litigation, where lawyers seem to disagree the most.

We discuss the mediation process, specifically whether telephonic mediation should be allowed or is effective. We discussed the issue of claims for advances and for "one-time change" and treating physician. We talked about the motion practice process, consistency of judicial procedures and rulings, and the interaction between counsel regarding motion practice and the occasional motion hearing.

With only an hour and a half to spend, we covered in amazingly diverse spectrum of issues and potential issues. Our theme remained how attorneys interact with one another in these litigation situations. My point in writing about this experience is to share some of what I believe to be the "take-aways" from the discussion.

First, there's value in conversations regarding professionalism and effective practice. I find that interpersonal experiences are in valuable. I consistently come away reminded a of better understanding of other people's perspectives. I say reminded because it is not so much about learning something new, but about being periodically reminded about our differences.  

I am troubled that we persistently seem to be preaching to the choir at professionalism and ethics CLE programs. As that perception occurs to me, I am reminded of a quote from Henry Coxe, a Jacksonville attorney of some prominence. I never practiced against Henry, but I had the opportunity to work with him professionally on a variety of bar projects. I am thankful that I can reflect on my career and count him as one of my mentors. 

He was selected to deliver the keynote speech at the inaugural meeting of the Robert Williams Inns of Court in Jacksonville. I've always been a strong believer in the Inns, and its mission focused on professionalism and mentoring. That evening, Henry opened saying the Inns are merely a "choir" with various members periodically standing up and preaching to the rest of the "choir." 

At a celebratory initial meeting of an Inn, this statement, or indictment, brought the audience to a pause. It seemed out-of-place. You have to know Henry, the punchline was soon to come. After letting that "preaching to the choir" comment fester in the air for just a moment, as he looked around the room locking eyes with various audience members, then he delivered the punchline: that despite this, if we are about consistently and persistently bringing new members into the "choir," then it is worth every moment that we have invested. A strong point.

There is value in interpersonal interaction. Through the Inns (we have workers' compensation Inns in Jacksonville and Orlando, and more are coming), through Florida Workers' Advocates, through Defense Research Institute, through the local bar, The Florida Bar Workers' Compensation Section and beyond, interact with other lawyers and professionals. Events like the bar ski CLE this week may well build such relationships through interaction. Opportunities like the Bar Forum in April, the WCI in August, and the OJCC CLE program at the First DCA this week are other potential venues for such relationship. These gatherings may be "choirs," but the interaction with other professional people affirms and sustains you.

The second key Take-away was that technology is still invading our professional lives much as it has our personal lives. Our communication today is rapid, ready and varied. Cell phones, text messages, social media and more assist us. We are leveraging our time and abilities, and accomplishing more and more. But a side-effect of this great advantage is that we seem to be losing our interpersonal skills.

Worse, we are deprive ourselves and our clients of the benefits that come from relationships and interaction. One of the points we discussed regards the appropriate process to undertake before filing a motion. The rule calls upon parties to confer with one another. I have written before regarding the appropriate interpretation of the word "confer." I reiterate that confer does not mean ultimatums, lines in the sand, threats, or belligerence. Confer is from the same Latin route as conversation. It means an interaction between people. 

Before Technology brought us so far, workers comp lawyer's used to habitually visit the worker's comp office on pretrial days, motion days, and, believe it or not we even had settlement days. We saw each another face-to-face regularly, and we had the opportunity to become familiar with each other over football arguments, political discussions, and commiseration regarding the trials and tribulations of the practice of law. 

We knew one another. Some may have disliked or appreciated or otherwise perceived certain others more or less. But, we knew one another. And when disagreements arose we could discuss them with each other. Not so much as adversaries, but as peers with commonalities, and with consideration for each other, despite our disagreements. 

Are the old days coming back? No. The "efficiencies" of technology come with this price. To regain the familiarity, the relationships, we will have to build them elsewhere. As we are not brought together in a room by the practice as much, we will have to strive for these human connections.

On a side-note, there was some disagreement here. Mr. Carter believes every attorney should attend every mediation in person. He believes it shows a respect for the process and those involved. He finds face-to-face interaction is conducive to communication and agreements. Mr. Augustine, with a statewide practice finds that telephonic appearance is efficient and effective. These perspectives are very different. This discussion illustrated perceptions on knowing each other through face-to-face communication, and it demonstrated how professionals have differences of opinion.  

Third, it's clear that there is not unanimity regarding opinions of what is appropriate, ethical, and professional. We all have our own definitions and standards. Just as children on a playground, we cannot be constantly running to the teacher. We all know the framework of the rules, but within reason we will all have to learn how to get along. 

It occurs to me that we all have some propensity for measuring others by their actions while we measure ourselves by our intentions. This does not make us bad people, but in fact probably is a testament to our normalcy. Perhaps if we stop ourselves before there is anger or animosity, and remind ourselves that the other person has different goals in litigation, and perhaps more importantly has her or his own perceptions about us and themselves. Maybe that starts a conversation or two. Maybe when we understand each other better, we work together better, despite our individual zealous advocacy for the client? 

And finally, the fourth take-away, is simply that communication is king. It is the most important building block in our professional lives. Communication does not mean that you are willing to have someone else hear what you are saying. It has to also be that you are willing to listen to what someone else believes is important. It is interactive and it is ongoing. With the inclination to technology and lack of face-to-face, we need to work harder at real communication.

Of course no one is insisting that we all agree. But if we are courteous in our communication, and strive to place ourselves in the other person's shoes, we will build powerful, lasting, professional relationships. These relationships will serve our professional needs, and perhaps decrease our stress. But, more importantly these relationships will facilitate our well being and our pursuit of the best interests of our clients.

The take-aways were likely already known to you. Communication is productive. Knowing fellow professionals facilitates working with them, and in today's practice that will not likely come from our few hearing opportunities. In-person appearance at mediations and hearings that do occur can be a positive opportunity to communicate and get to know your fellow professionals better. There is a value in understanding the perspectives of others and listening to what they have to say.

No earth-shattering new truths, but perhaps these reminders are worth our time and consideration. Hopefully you took the time to attend the webinar. If not, perhaps these recap thoughts are helpful anyway. 




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