President's Message Sept/Oct 2018

Watch, Listen and Learn
Carolyn R. Barone, Esq.

President, Rhode Island Bar Association

“Rebuttal was part of their preparation and not an incoherent after-thought. They had no use for bluster. They had no need to draw attention to themselves.  Rather, the audience, of which I was a part, was drawn to them.”   
It started with clouds.  I was 10 years old, on summer vacation, laying on warm, thick blades of fescue, eyes upward and watching white puffy clouds become animals and rocket ships and Disney characters until they morphed into unrecognizable shapes and then disappeared.  I would be content and lost in time until I would hear a maternal voice say, “Carolyn, stop day-dreaming and start setting the table for supper,” or a different command to take on some other chore that I knew in my heart of hearts was best suited for completion by my older brother or sister. With age came a change of perspective and cloud-watching became people-watching, something that is best done while sitting on a bench in Newport, waiting to board a plane at Greene Airport, or attending WaterFire.  When the spirit moves, I study peoples’ outfits, hairstyles, body hardware, body art, and watch hand-holders and other lovers. Catching bits and pieces of conversations spoken by the passers-by, I complete their dialogue by making up little stories about their lives and personalities. Unbeknown to them, they are either living lives of grandeur or desperation.

When I entered a courtroom for the first time with a case file and yellow pad in hand, I knew I was on fertile ground for people-watching.  Something, however, was amiss.  Very few people were smiling.  Some were bordering on tears.  Snippets of conversations were laced with expletives. It would have been cruel and inhumane for me to impose my imagination on them.  They were already in the midst of their own desperation and I saw no place for grandeur.  Turning away, I focused on my colleagues. I studied the gait of attorneys as they walked into the courtroom.  Did they enter with confidence, preoccupation or dread?  Were they dressed to address the court on their third-party complaint or did they appear to be coming from an all-night party? Were their case files in disarray?  If so, were their legal arguments far behind? 

As my time in the courtroom continued and I became aware of who the “players” (in the best sense of the word) were, I noticed a recurring theme.  The attorneys who had the reputation for being the “best” and who commanded the respect of their colleagues and judges, entered the courtroom with a quiet determination.   When they opened their briefcases and case files, there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. Whether they were neat-freaks or obsessive is of no moment.  It was all about being disciplined, organized and leaving nothing to chance.  They were not going to be distracted by frantically searching through papers and other objects loosely scattered and strewn about. These attorneys were focused on the task at hand and their skills were at the ready. Their arguments were cogently presented to the Court. Rebuttal was part of their preparation and not an incoherent after-thought. They had no use for bluster. They had no need to draw attention to themselves.  Rather, the audience, of which I was a part, was drawn to them.

Continuing to observe these attorneys, I realized that a great deal of their success was embedded in their sense of civility and collegiality. They taught me that demeaning opposing counsel, whether in private, in the courtroom or its hallways, is not only a sure-fire way to prevent a negotiated settlement and create a sure-path to litigation, but it is also an indicator of an attorney’s uncertainty in both the strength of his or her client’s case and in his or her legal skills. Ad hominem attacks on opposing counsel in audible tones while in the hallways of the courthouse are perhaps the most egregious form of disrespect one can cast upon a colleague.  These attacks create a blemish on our profession. They serve no purpose other than to garner stares and negative shakes of heads from all persons who are watching and listening.  The courthouse corridors are full of people-watchers.    

We continually strive to be the best lawyers we can be.  The self-imposed pressure to succeed on behalf of our clients is profound. It is impossible for us not to get caught up in our own zealousness and allow our passions and emotions take control.  I am certain it happened to the best lawyers I had the good fortune to observe.  I am also certain that some people reading this message have contrary stories to tell about their observations of lawyers who also have been held in high regard.  We are all human. 

So, I leave you with the following message.  Do not think for one moment that treating your colleagues with respect diminishes your abilities to be a zealous advocate. Civility and collegiality are the sine qua non of professionalism. I know this to be a fact.  I learned this from the best.   

[1] My message is not in the abstract.  Over the years, I have been fortunate to observe a bevy of outstanding litigators, including Tom Angelone; Gerry DeMaria; Alan Dworkin; the late Ed Gnys; Judge Howard Lipsey (Ret.); and the late John Walsh.  These lawyers come to mind because not only did I have the benefit of observing them from a distance, I also had the benefit of watching them up close and personal because they were my opposing counsel on a handful of cases. Observing how these attorneys represented their clients and conducted themselves throughout the lawyering process taught me more than any course in trial practice could have.