An Aspirational Statement of Equality and Civility

By Adam G. Linett

The North Wind and the Sun got into a dispute about which one was stronger. To put the issue to a test, they decided that whoever sooner made a traveler take off his cloak would be the more powerful and win the argument.

The Wind blew with all its might, but the stronger he blew, the closer the traveler wrapped the cloak around him. Then, the Sun came out and, as it gently shone brighter and brighter, the traveler sat down and, overcome with heat, cast his cloak to the ground.

So goes one of Aesop’s fables, and the lesson taught some thousands of years ago is that persuasion is better than force, and that to be effective in winning an argument, one must consider how to argue, rather than to just rely on blunt force.

Along these lines, the State Bar Council has proposed adding an aspirational statement to the Preamble of the Rules of Professional Conduct[1] regarding equality, courtesy, and respect to all persons we encounter in a professional capacity. The amendment reads as follows:

[6] The North Carolina Constitution requires that “right and justice shall be administered without favor, denial, or delay.” Public confidence in the justice system is strengthened when all participants are treated equally, fairly, honestly, and respectfully within the system. A lawyer, as a representative of and crucial contributor to the justice system, should foster public confidence in the administration of justice by treating all persons the lawyer encounters in a professional capacity equally, courteously, respectfully, and with dignity regardless of a person’s race, sex, national origin, religion, age, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status, or socioeconomic status.[2]

This amendment was previously published in the State Bar Journal for comment and then formally adopted by the State Bar Council at its meeting on July 16, 2021.[3] This particular amendment to the Rules for Professional Conduct, along with others, have been sent to the North Carolina Supreme Court where they are currently pending approval.

One of the purposes of the proposed amendment is to advance “public confidence” in the justice system, a goal that should be shared by all in our profession. The North Carolina Constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, requires justice to be administered equally, fairly, and honestly. And the members of the public, as well as the other professionals we interact with, often come to view the justice system through their experiences with us as lawyers and judges.

In today’s world, social media and the news often promote and amplify the voices of those who don’t agree with these principles. But those who are yelling the loudest, pounding their literal or metaphorical fists on the tables, or simply being rude, only make the rest of us cling tighter to our cloaks and ready to fight on. Really, who of us are simply going to drop our clients’ positions simply because opposing counsel is difficult to deal with?

So, what can we do as we think about how to promote public confidence in the system we work in each day? While it’s proper to be passionate about the law and zealous in the defense of our clients’ positions, and recognizing that we all fall short at times, we cannot fail to treat those we meet in our professional capacities with courtesy, respect, and dignity.

Especially as we continue to deal with COVID-19, it may be best to recognize that people are going through some very difficult situations that may have nothing to do with why they have come into our professional orbit. Perhaps this will allow us to extend a little bit of empathy and grace as well as the other aspirational qualities espoused by the amendment to the Preamble.

What greater compliment can you receive than to have one of your opponents refer a case to you or send a family member to you for legal services because they are confident not only in your abilities, but also in how they will be treated as individuals?

Finally – as a bonus – adhering to these principles of equality, courtesy, respect, and dignity will actually make us more effective in our profession, not less. So, the next time we are in a legal argument with someone, are we going to rage like a hurricane, or will we endeavor to let our light shine? Both are options, but at least according to Aesop, we know which one will win.

[1] 27 N.C.A.C., Chapter 2, Rules of Professional Conduct, Rule 0.1, Preamble.

[2] The North Carolina State Bar Journal, Summer 2021, at 51.

[3] The North Carolina State Bar Journal, Fall 2021, at 40.