Walking New Attorneys Down the Path of Professionalism and Civility

Published January 2018
By Amy Borman

“Be aware that even before you have reached your ultimate professional destination, if you always strive for excellence, you can and should have a substantial impact on the world in which you live.”  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

Ethics.  Professionalism.  Civility.  Law students take an ethics course in law school.  They even have to pass an ethics exam in order to become a member of The Florida Bar.  But what about professionalism and civility?  Do attorneys – both new and experienced – really understand how professionalism differs from ethics?

Professionalism is not the same as ethics.  In 1999, the Conference of Chief Justices adopted a “National Action Plan on Lawyer Conduct and Professionalism” which defined professionalism as follows:

“Professionalism is a much broader concept than legal ethics…[P]rofessionalism includes not only civility among members of the bench and bar, but also competence, integrity, respect for the rule of law, participation in pro bono and community service, and conduct by members of the legal profession that exceeds minimum ethical requirements.  Ethics rules are what a lawyer must obey.  Principles of professionalism are what a lawyer should live by in conducting his or her affairs. ”

The Fifteenth Judicial Circuit, along with the Professionalism Committee of the Palm Beach County Bar Association, has created a professional path to guide our newest attorneys through the maze of the local legal community.

In a perfect world, a new attorney graduates from law school, passes the bar exam, and, fingers crossed, becomes gainfully employed with a firm or organization that has a training and mentoring program.  Reality, however, is that many new attorneys join small firms, serve as “coverage counsel” or per diem attorneys, or even hang up their own shingle, without the benefit of a training program or a mentor.  While these attorneys may understand unethical conduct, they may not be aware of conduct that is viewed as unprofessional or uncivil.  Justice Sandra Day O’Connor summed up the difficulty of identifying civility when she said “[u]nfortunately civility is hard to codify or legislate, but you know it when you see it.  It’s possible to disagree without being disagreeable.”

The New Attorney Breakfast, now in its sixth year, helps to fill the gap and explains to new attorneys how professionalism plays an important role in the legal practice and building one’s reputation with the bench and bar.  This year, the New Attorney Breakfast was held on November 2, 2017, in the cafeteria at the West Palm Beach Courthouse with more than 25 judges and magistrates, 35 local attorneys and 100 new attorneys participating.  It showcased more than 15 local bar associations, the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and the Guardian Ad Litem office.

The breakfast welcomed the new attorneys to Palm Beach County, introduced them to the local legal practice, set forth the expectations of the judiciary, and invited them to join a voluntary bar association where they can receive mentoring and guidance.  Welcoming remarks were made by Judge Jeffrey Colbath, former Chief Judge; Sia Baker Barnes, President of the Palm Beach County Bar Association; and Andrea Lewis, President of the Young Lawyer Section of the Palm Beach County Bar Association.  An hour-long panel discussion with Judges Oftedal, Blanc, Cunningham, Weiss, and Rowe and Attorneys Greg Coleman, David Prather, Olivia Liggio, John “Jack” Rice, Peter Hunt, and Denise Mutamba addressed questions about the changes in the legal practice, expectations of judges, building a reputation, and handling unprofessional attorneys.  A booklet with detailed information about the various court divisions, administrative orders, and practice tips were provided to all participants.

Also in attendance were the Legal Aid Society of Palm Beach County and Guardian ad Litem office to inform of local pro bono opportunities.  Attendees were offered the opportunity to meet with the various bar associations, take a behind the scenes tour of the courthouse, and attend an e-filing demonstration by the Clerk’s Office.

Over the years, local law firms and governmental agencies have come to understand the importance of the breakfast and encourage their new associates to attend.  It is a great way for recently admitted attorneys to speak with both young and seasoned attorneys in the community.  Most importantly, the New Attorney Breakfast shows the newest members of The Florida Bar that the local bench and local bar not only care about the state of the legal practice in Palm Beach County but that they care about the future careers of its newest attorneys.


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