There comes a point in every lawyer’s career when (s)he starts to wonder whether (s)he still qualifies as a “young” lawyer. When you get to that point in your own career, there is simple test. Ask yourself whether at any time within the last calendar year you have felt the urge to denounce and lament the decline of civility and decorum in the courtroom. If the answer is “yes,” then sorry/congratulations, you are no longer a young lawyer.
Only lawyers of a certain age have been practicing long enough to reminisce about the golden age of lawyering (i.e., when they were young lawyers). Each preceding generation of lawyers is shocked and appalled by how each succeeding generation of lawyers has brought the profession to an unprecedented and ruinous all-time low. It’s not unlike how the jitterbug generation was horror-struck by the hooligan rock ‘n roll generation that followed, who, in turn, thought their punk-rock progeny were punks.
As a judge of a certain age, I find myself more and more often waxing nostalgic about the glory days I spent trying cases in the old Jefferson County Hall of Justice. But were the good old days really as good as I remember them? It begs the question; how can anyone remember fondly anything that took place inside the old Jefferson County Hall of Justice? A building so horrible that it was once and best described as being like the men’s room in a bus station but without all the charm. Still and all, having started practicing law when lawyers from the greatest generation were still setting the bar for the bar, I can’t help but wonder about the latest generation. And the more I wonder, the more fully I appreciate why the crooner crowd who listened to Bing Crosby in the 1940s were upset by Elvis and his swiveling pelvis in the 1950s, and why those suffering from Beatlemania in the 1960s were understandably concerned about people struck down by Disco-fever in the 1970s. These may not have been signs that the end times were nigh, but they were signs that civilization as they knew it, was coming to an end. The fact that lawyers appear in court dressed in “business casual” attire, chew gum, and don’t stand up when they address the Court -now that’s a sign of the apocalypse.
I don’t hold the litigants accountable for the fashion crimes they commit in my presence. I did once have to ask a defendant charged with domestic violence who was wearing a “wife-beater” undershirt to please wear a shirt when he came back to court. When he looked puzzled, I explained to him that the reason they call it an undershirt is that it is supposed to be worn under an actual shirt. I do hold lawyers to a different (i.e., higher) standard. It would never have occurred to me to wear anything other than a suit and tie to court. Not a jacket and tie. A suit and tie. It would appear that either or both have become optional. It really bothers me when I see lawyers dressed casually for court. I’m not saying it should. I’m saying it does. To me, and people like me (of whom there are still many), it is disrespectful. Not willfully disrespectful, but disrespectful nonetheless because it evidences a failure to consider that dressing appropriately for the occasion is a sign of respect.
I, like my mother before me, am offended by the sight of people chewing gum in public. I’m not saying I should be. I’m saying I am. It’s not just that I find chewing gum to be extremely tacky, it’s because the extreme tackiness of the gum being chewed allows it to adhere so readily to the underside of counsel table where I find it (and scrape it off) on a regular basis. That’s right - counsel table. I know I could hang a sign on the front door that says, “ATTENTION COUNSEL: CHEWING GUM IN THE COURTROOM AND/OR STICKING ABC GUM UNDER COURTROOM FURNISHINGS IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED” but should I really have to? If so, then what else do I have to tell them not to do? Don’t spit tobacco juice, sunflower seeds or phlegm on the carpet? Don’t carve your initials into or write on the walls? Don’t set anything on fire? As much as my reaction to this behavior makes me look and feel like a crotchety old man yelling at the neighborhood kids to stay off my lawn, I can’t help but feel that I shouldn’t have to yell at them - because they should know that shouldn’t be on somebody else’s %#@* lawn!
Having been raised under the professional tutelage of the Honorable Mark Miller at both the Commonwealth’s and the United States Attorney’s offices, I am physically, mentally and emotionally unable to remain seated when a judge enters a courtroom or, when addressing the Court, cannot open my mouth unless I am standing on my feet. I, like my colleagues who were Millerized as baby lawyers, am chagrinned at seeing seated lawyers talking to sitting judges. I’m not saying I should be. I’m saying I am. I get that it is a formality, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. There comes a time in the life of every institution when the purpose underlying the rituals are in danger of being forgotten leaving behind nothing but ingrained but meaningless tradition. Lawyers stand up when addressing the Court for the same fundamental reason that judges wear robes while sitting down and listening to them. It is an outward sign that they are not representing themselves in their individual or private capacity. That what they are doing is neither casual nor personal, but professional. Moreover, and as a practical matter, if they are already standing when the end of the world does come (brought on by gum-smacking lawyers arguing their case while sporting corduroy pants and turtlenecks) they will have a leg up on everybody else in the mad dash to get out of the building before it comes crashing down around them.
Jurors take their role in the justice system and the awesome responsibility that goes with it very seriously. As such, they have little patience and even less regard for those who appear not to. The highest praise jurors give a judge, a lawyer, or any other professional in the courtroom is when they say just that; that is: “(s)he was very professional." That means they recognized and appreciated that whoever they’re talking about was not only well-prepared but also well-mannered and respectful throughout the proceedings. You had better believe that the jury is watching and that they know and notice the difference. How court is conducted by the judge, and how the lawyers conduct themselves in court matters because it matters to the jurors – the people who represent the community and whose trust in the system is integral to its very existence. So it does matter, and this time I am saying that it should.