Wednesday, August 26, 2009


The Iron Law of Civility Governs Bridge Traffic @ Harrods Creek
A History of Civility: From Plato to the KBA
Code of Professional Courtesy [abridged by the author August, 2009]

36 Bench & Bar September 2008
By Donald H. Vish
The tie that holds me by the law of courtesy seems to me much tighter and stronger than the
law of legal compulsion —
Michel de Montaigne.
Be Brief
An invitation to write or speak about civility provides the recipient with an opportunity to demonstrate its first law: be brief.

There is a more elaborate formulation of the rule: pensa molto, parla poco, e scrivi meno which I hasten to translate into English: think much, speak little, and write less. Otherwise, the useful Italian dictum violates George Washington’s 72nd Rule of Civility:
Speak not in an unknown tongue in company, but in your own language....

What is civility

So what does civil conduct have to do with speaking briefly, writing concisely and speaking in a language the audience understands? The common denominator is that each is based on thoughtful concern for the comfort and convenience of others. That is the cornerstone of civility. Civility transcends the realm of the merely useful and belongs to the higher realm of ethics and morality. Civility is more than a way of acting — it is a way of living. George Washington’s lifelong interest in civility began at the age of 14 when he wrote in his journal 110 Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. His First Rule of Civility could serve as the ONLY rule of civility, a complete and brief treatise on the subject:

Every action done in company ought to be done with some sign of respect to those that are present.

Civility is more than courteous, well-mannered behavior. Being civil means being constantly aware of others and weaving restraint, respect, and consideration into the very fabric of this awareness, according to P. M. Forni, the co-founder of the Johns Hopkins Civility Project and a noted author and speaker on the subject of civility. Civility is a form of goodness, he concludes in his best-selling book Choosing Civility: the Twenty Five Rules of Considerate Conduct. Those who practice civility, Dr. Forni believes, find both serenity and contentment. Benjamin Franklin was similarly inclined. Franklin believed practicing the art of civil virtue leads first to personal happiness and eventually to greatness.

Emulating Washington and Franklin, the Kentucky Bar Association codified eleven aspirational rules of professional courtesy in 1993 and petitioned the Kentucky Supreme Court to adopt and promulgate the Code of Professional Courtesy [CPC] by formal order. Effective September 1, 1993, Kentucky lawyers had two sets of civil rules: The Rules of Civil Procedure, governing civil actions, and the Rules of Professional Courtesy, governing civil behavior....The CPC is intended as a series of guidelines for lawyers in their dealings with clients, opposing parties, their lawyers, the courts and the general public. While not constituting a disciplinary code or a legal standard of care, Kentucky attorneys are expected to comply with the letter and spirit of the Code adopted by the Supreme Court. The eleven rules in their totality encompass Washington’s First Rule, be considerate of those present, and Plato’s dictum, be kind.
... incivility is contagious. One uncivil act begets another which treads on the heels of another and spreads like ripples on water. So are there antidotes to the Plague of Incivility? Well, if there are not enough Rules already, I would propose four:
  • Think much, speak little, and write less
  • Save your anger for the right occasion but always withhold it in two cases: 1) where you can’t change the outcome and 2) where you can
  • Look and overlook , bear and forbear
  • Always make haste slowly.


Donald Vish is an attorney with Middleton Reutlinger in Louisville.
The author would like to acknowledge and thank Kentucky Supreme Court Justice James E. Keller (retired) for his encouragement of and enthusiasm for the advancement of civility and the expert editorial and stylistic advice provided by lawyer James Dady. Errors and omissions, however, are those of the author alone.

No comments: