Would the learned counsel please stop screaming?

An Ohio lawyer bops a secretary over the head with a cellphone. An attorney in a Massachusetts courtroom calls opposing counsel "bald-faced liars." In Michigan, two lawyers get into a fistfight - in front of a judge.

As these recent incidents reveal, "Rambo lawyers," the win-at-all-costs jurists who crashed courtrooms in the 1980s and '90s, are still disrupting legal arguments and brawling in chambers from Chicago to Miami.

But today, courtroom observers are seeing an encouraging trend back toward the law as Atticus Finch embodied it: America's lawyers and judges seem to be rekindling at least a measure of their profession's once-vaunted reputation for civility and sense. The reasons for a return to comity range from a decade-long crackdown by disciplinary boards, reprimands by judges, and a change by corporations in how and whom they choose to represent them.

"We all noticed a definite decline in civility among lawyers starting in the mid-1980s, but in the past two or three years we've noticed a pronounced change the other way - it's very encouraging," says Reece Williams, a Columbia, S.C., lawyer and president of the American Board of Trial Advocates.

Instead of prosecution manuals that feature Al Capone on the cover, one of the newest books on the legal bookshelf is "Beyond Winning," a treatise about the importance of civility in jurisprudence. Starting this year, the National Organization of Bar Counsel will hear "behavioral misconduct" grievances for the first time. What's more, the Seventh US Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered an official investigation into allegations of legal misbehavior.

And in a widely heard admonishment, Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist told University of Virginia law school grads in June that incivility remains one of the greatest threats to the ideals of American justice - and to the public's trust in the law.

Such pleas from benches and other lawyers are making a difference to attorneys in cities from coast to coast, courtroom watchers say. At the same time, a handful of Southern states are taking the boldest steps yet to instill manners in irascible lawyers.

North Carolina this fall plans to become the first state to officially identify and treat malcontent lawyers - offering anger-management mentors instead of yanking law degrees off walls. Georgia is also formally creating a professionalism task force, and several other states are considering similar action.

Certainly, some lawyers are resisting the crackdown on their demeanor as infringements upon their civil rights. But the efforts seem to be taking root.

In Illinois, even as the number of lawyers has continued to climb in the past 10 years, the number of misconduct grievances has tumbled, says James Grogan, chief counsel for the Attorney Registration and Discipline Committee, an arm of the state Supreme Court.

In the early 1990s, Mr. Grogan's division headed 7,635 investigations out of the 56,896 attorneys in the state. In 2000, the number of investigations had dropped to 5,616 while the total number of lawyers in the state had grown to 73,661. "We're seeing the result of information and education campaigns working across the country," Grogan says.

Though sexual harassment and fistfights top the list of legal misconduct, what concerns older lawyers are the little things that color the public's perception of the law: the courtroom blow-off and the non-existent call-back. "We're looking for the type of thing that is not an ethical violation, but that may lead to an ethical violation," says David Long, who sits on the North Carolina Supreme Court's new Professionalism Committee.

Attorney Mr. Williams's ancestors have practiced law in the Carolinas since before the Civil War. Until this generation, he says attorneys were trusted almost as much as preachers. Over the past two decades, however, the profession may have gained influence and numbers, but at the risk of losing its "professional soul," Williams says.

The number of snarling attorneys doesn't surprise Williams, given the current workplace. "There is a conundrum where young lawyers are sought out by big firms that pay top dollar, and put to work almost like squirrels on a wheel, billing 2,000 hours a year," he says. "The way the system works, a young lawyer is going to go out and kick every dog. You're just asking for some incivility to come out of that."

He says changes in corporate culture helped breed a meaner lawyer. Where Williams had always done business with a handshake, now the competition was lobbying behind his back to steal his clients.

Such tales have already damaged the profession in the eyes of much of the populace. "It's bad to have the public look askance of lawyers, which it clearly is," says one court official.

Maybe that's why Buck Buchanan has this thing about lawyers. "I avoid lawyers like the plague," says Mr. Buchanan, who was representing himself in a civil case last Friday. Hauling a dollyfull of documents into the Wake County Courthouse in Raleigh, he explains. "Why? Because the only thing they're after is money, and that's the only reason they're around."

Environmental attorney Robert Wyeth also still sees too much rude behavior among attorneys. He himself has heard it all, from indecent word jousts to courtroom screaming matches. "You know where you find the most rudeness?" he asks. "You guessed it: divorce court."

But John Esten believes lawyers are just reflecting a growing lack of manners in society as a whole. Miscreants and judges alike eat from his hot dog stand outside the Wake County Courthouse. And to be honest, he can't see much difference in how they treat their fellow man.

"Sure, I see some rude lawyers," he says. "But on the whole, lawyers aren't any ruder than anyone else who buys hot dogs."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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