The Obligation of Lawyers to Heal Civic Culture: Confronting the Ordeal of Incivility in the Practice of Law

By Russell G. Pearce and Eli Wald | 34 U. ARK. LITTLE ROCK L. REV. 1 (2011).

Commentators have described a rise in incivility, including a rise in harsh rhetoric and polarization and a decrease in a civic participation, in the past few decades.  This article argues that the current rise in incivility draws its strength from the increasing influence of personal and political self-interest.  Where relational perspectives lead civic actors to understand their own well-being as connected to those of neighbors, communities, and government, autonomous perspectives focus on maximizing the ambitions of individuals and groups even at the expense of civility.

Since the 1980s, the legal profession has faced a “crisis of professionalism” that includes reports of decreased civility and commitment to the public good.  The authors argue that the current incivility crisis tracks the shift in the legal profession from a “professional conception of the lawyer’s role grounded in relational self-interest, which recognizes an obligation to the public good, to a neutral partisan—or hired gun—conception grounded in autonomous self-interest and rejecting a particular obligation to the public good.   The authors contend that, as neutral partisans, lawyers have contributed to the civic malaise, in and outside the legal profession.  Lawyers, as civic teachers, have promoted the commitment to autonomous self-interest not only in the private dealings of clients but in culturally manufacturing autonomous self-interest as the dominant paradigm of public discourse and in the resulting erosion of relational self-interest as the countervailing influence.  The authors assert that lawyers should instead draw upon the relational tradition found in professionalism and the lawyer’s historic role to encourage public dialogue, help repair our civic culture, and suggest to clients relational means of pursuing their interests.  The authors argue that the dominance of autonomous self-interest helps explain professional discontent and that a move toward a more relational self-interest perspective would be desirable for both lawyers and their clients.

The authors conclude that, by counseling and modeling relational self-interest, lawyers can play a powerful leadership role challenging the dominance of autonomous self-interest and, over time, held heal our civil society.

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Posted in: Legal Commentary, The Profession

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