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The Bar Bulletin
Jax Daily Record Thursday, Jan. 2, 202005:10 AM EST

Commentary: Professionalism is matter of pride

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Some thoughts on why we’re so collegial in Northeast Florida.
Jim Nolan

By Jim Nolan, JBA Professionalism Committee Chair

Those of us fortunate enough to live and practice in Northeast Florida often comment anecdotally that there seems to be a higher sense of professionalism in our corner of the state than in areas further to the south.

Perhaps that perception is not scientifically accurate, but it is certainly widespread and commonly expressed.

My law firm has offices throughout the state. I know that my partners in Orlando, Tampa, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale and Miami certainly sense a level of professionalism in their practices.

And yet even with that awareness, I remain very proud of the Bar in Northeast Florida for its outstanding level of professionalism.

What fosters our heightened sense of professionalism here, and how do we ensure that it continues to thrive?

Certainly one factor that contributes to professionalism is our mutual knowledge and respect for our fellow lawyers. The French use the term “connaissance” to mean a knowledge and familiarity of someone derived from experience. Our relative connaissance of each other certainly leads to improved professionalism in our everyday practice.

This sense can be enhanced through increased interaction with other lawyers. Participation in Bar activities as well as community and civic volunteering can increase our awareness, familiarity and respect for other lawyers. 

Perhaps the relatively small size of our Bar contributes to our sense of professionalism, although I am reluctant to suggest that Bar population is relevant to professionalism.

There is something to be said for practicing with lawyers that we know. The thinking is that we are less likely to treat an opponent rudely when we know we must face that lawyer in the future.

I believe most lawyers have a stronger motivation to treat others as they would like to be treated. They are not driven by the purely self-serving motivation of being kind out of a concern for future interactions.

Some people believe there is a cultural explanation for the increased sense of professionalism in our area. After all, they explain, we have better manners, or we aren’t as rude as lawyers in South Florida.

Maybe “reputation” is more important here than elsewhere – that would certainly impact a sense of professionalism.

The willingness of our judiciary to interact with and get to know the members of the Bar certainly builds familiarity among lawyers and judges, and more importantly, fosters a profession wherein one’s reputation is valuable. Bend the truth with a judge once and you will learn the importance of a good reputation.

People know you from what you do, but also from what they have heard you’ve done (which may not always be quite as accurate).

We all know that a juicy tale of a lawyer’s unprofessional behavior tends to travel quickly. Every interaction with a judge or attorney affects a lawyer’s reputation and provides a new opportunity to build a strong reputation for being trustworthy, dependable, honest, and kind.  

To achieve a broader sense of professionalism in your practice, engage in various Bar activities. Meet other lawyers who practice in the same area of law and get to know them. This will provide personal awareness and knowledge of lawyers with whom you likely will practice, and it also will provide a resource of other competent lawyers in your practice area from whom you can seek advice and gain insight and experience.

Volunteer in religious or community activities. As you meet lawyers with diverse practice areas, you may find that professionalism crosses practice area lines.

Finally, be cordial with opposing counsel. As a young lawyer, I litigated a fairly complex probate and guardianship matter against a much older and seasoned attorney. At the end of the litigation, having obtained a very favorable outcome for my client, and feeling quite proud of myself for out-dueling the more experienced attorney, the wise lawyer came over to me in private and graciously offered, “I just want to say that it was a pleasure litigating this matter with you.”

With that, he turned and walked away. All sense of competitiveness, animosity and the burning desire to win vanished, and it was replaced with a sense of kinship within this important profession.

I have litigated against that attorney several times over the years, and although I didn’t win them all, it was always an honor to work with him.

Send a short note or offer opposing counsel a handshake after your next matter concludes and say, “It was a pleasure working with you.”

Hopefully, with these steps, some chair of the Jacksonville Bar Association Professionalism Committee many years in the future will be asking “Why does it seem that we have such an elevated level of professionalism here in Northeast Florida?”

Jim Nolan is a shareholder with GrayRobinson and focuses on corporate transactions, estate and tax planning, trust, probate and guardianship administration.

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