By Mimi E. Tsankov and Jessica L. Grimes
This is part of an article written for the University of Denver Law Review. Cite as Mimi E. Tsankov & Jessica L. Grimes, “A New Take on the Top Ten Rules for Court and Professional Life,” 89 Denv. U. L. Rev. 369 (2012). Click here to read the article in its entirety.
After the last brief is written, the final scrap of evidence considered, and the list of witnesses prepared, every litigator would be well-served to reflect on how his actions will impact him professionally and whether they will strengthen or lessen respect for our legal institutions. To be sure, the better nuanced his arguments and the more accurate his riposte, the greater the chance of a favorable outcome for his client. And while “favorable facts” and “favorable law” ultimately affect the success of a litigator’s case, what of the myriad exchanges which do not deal with the legal issues per se, but with more ambiguous concepts like respect and integrity? What function do an attorney’s choices in this area of form and procedure have on outcomes, if any, and what impact do they have on respect for the rule of law? How do the carefully choreographed interactions among the parties before and during the hearing influence our notion of a fair legal system of law whereby “justice” is served? What lingers beyond the particulars of the case at hand for the courtroom litigator who will be defined in part by his reputation as a guardian of the rule of law? Indeed, as the following discussion suggests, there is more than one way to successfully walk out of a courtroom.
This Article offers ten rules for court and professional life. Succinct, yet deceptive in their simplicity—the Article considers the hows and whys of their formulation. It explores these rules through both conventional and anecdotal research to examine the subtleties of courtroom relationships. While mastering these rules can take years, a concerted focus on some of the basic elements can assist a recently admitted attorney to command the focus of attention on the issues most advantageous to him and divert the focus away from unhelpful distractions. Moreover, adherence can build an enviable reputation for upholding the rule of law and thereby strengthen the American legal system.
Nine of these ten rules fall loosely into three general categories. The first group emphasizes the importance of respecting the rule of law, our legal institutions, and the specifics of how best to demonstrate that respect to all the parties involved in the legal process. This group of rules deals with the attorney’s role in our legal system and how his actions and the choices he makes influence whether the rule of law is upheld. They embody the philosophy that by upholding the rule of law, one shows respect for the court, one’s colleagues, and ultimately all of those that are subject to it. The rules focus on maintaining courtroom decorum, following ordinary court rules and procedures, and refraining from conduct that questions the authority of the judge. These rules challenge practitioners to self-reflect.
The second group of rules focuses on the importance of effective communication, both written and oral. These rules emphasize that honesty, candor, and precision are critical components of effective communication. They suggest that attorney statements should tend to earn the trust of those with whom one practices. They also indicate that compliance supports respect for the rule of law.
The third set of rules focuses on how practitioners can exhibit respect for the time and resources of all involved in the legal process. These edicts acknowledge the value of judicial economy and evince the practical realities that many involved in the court system are today being asked to do much more with much less.
The final maxim set forth in this Article explores how failure to abide by the previous nine rules can result in a loss of professional reputation. It emphasizes that loss of reputation can result in a diminution of a lawyer’s value in both professional stature and economic terms. It acknowledges that once lost, it is difficult, if not impossible, to regain one’s professional reputation.
And now a word about how this Article came to be. United States Magistrate Judge Kristen L. Mix sits on the bench of the District Court in Colorado. As those who appear before her know, she is respected for her competence, revered for her exacting standards, and admired for her cutting wit. She sets forth her expectations unabashedly and demands adherence to the high standards that she seeks to uphold. Judge Mix began her legal career in the mid-80s and has witnessed a time of great upheaval in the legal profession, including the recent financial crisis, which has drastically altered fundamental aspects of the legal profession. What led her to set out written expectations reflected a very real concern that the legal profession was undergoing a crisis, which manifests itself in very concrete ways every day in court.
This Article offers Judge Mix’s “Ten Rules” and explores each in the context of what it may reveal about a legal system in crisis. It raises threshold questions about whether the current crisis is really a new phenomenon, and if so, speculates as to how it might have come about. It examines professionalism challenges in a variety of court contexts—from federal district court and administrative hearings to state court matters and international court proceedings. The Article examines the rules in the context of bar self-policing enforcement actions and considers how some judges are able to institute measures that tend to increase civility and decrease intemperate remarks. The Article concludes that careful adherence to Judge Mix’s rules in all bar activities, including court appearances, will not only enhance an attorney’s effectiveness in representing his client and result in a greater and more effective impression on the triers of law and fact. It will also enhance respect for our legal system as a whole. By following the spirit of the Ten Rules, attorneys can develop and maintain a high level of professional integrity amongst both their colleagues and the general public. As Judge Mix says, “Keep your eye on the prize: achieving a just, efficient and appropriate result.” (Kristin L. Mix, U.S. Magistrate Judge, U.S. Dist. Court for the District of Colo., Presentation on Professionalism and Ethics at the Meeting of the Colorado Intellectual Property Inn of Court 1 (presentation on file with Denver University Law Review).)