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Memo to Future California Lawyers: Time to Make a Pledge

Former California state bar president Patrick Kelly wasn’t happy with the way many lawyers were conducting their business. He claims, “I have all too often witnessed attorneys who claim to be zealously representing their clients but who in fact cross the civility line. Such activities include needless and ineffective histrionics during depositions, refusal to grant the other side an extension of time for no good reason, confirming in writing positions that were never taken and even trying to bully the judge in his or her own courtroom.” Lawyers aren’t always exactly the nicest people at work, in case you were wondering.

The answer? A civility pledge for new lawyers. The words, “As an officer of the court, I will strive to conduct myself at all times with dignity, courtesy, and integrity,” will be added to the oath new lawyers must swear when they’re admitted to the California state bar.

The new pledge is an attempt to address the conflict between lawyers’ duty to zealously represent their clients and the principle that it’s generally good not to be a total jerk. So now lawyers will have to “strive” for dignity, courtesy, and integrity. If you noticed right away that striving doesn’t necessarily mean achieving, you’re doing OK on that LSAT prep.

We’ll see what effect this has on the legal profession. The new pledge has good intentions, but I doubt asking lawyers to “strive” for something will induce much change. And as of now, as far as I can tell only new lawyers will recite the pledge. They’ll then enter a profession dominated by established lawyers who never had to make any such vow of civility. At the very least, I don’t think the pledge will hurt anything.

Other states have instituted similar pledges, so law school applicants should prepare for the possibility of one day pledging to be civil. If this destroys your dreams of verbally (or literally) eviscerating opposing counsel, maybe you’re looking at law school for the wrong reasons.

But these pledges are a reminder that it’s good to be courteous and dignified in the law school admissions process, too. It’s a bad idea to launch personal attacks. Even in the often-ignored LSAT writing sample, it’s a good idea to acknowledge the merits of the opposing argument. Addressing those merits civilly makes your argument stronger.

There’s even an application to LSAT questions, believe it or not. When you’re asked to find a flaw or assumption in an argument, you should be vehemently critical of everything you read. But sometimes arguments that are flawed in one way manage to avoid committing other flaws. Take the following argument:

Unless there’s a conspiracy, the wreckage of that Malaysian airliner hasn’t been found yet. Therefore, unless there’s a conspiracy, the plane probably never crashed.

There’s a big absence of evidence fallacy in that argument. It assumes that a lack of wreckage, or evidence, of a crash, means that there likely was never a crash. That fallacy is what I’d expect to see the correct answer discuss.

But I can also predict a wrong answer by giving the argument credit for what it doesn’t mess up. The conclusion is qualified with “unless there’s a conspiracy,” so the argument doesn’t make any assumptions about whether there’s a conspiracy. Expect a wrong answer that accuses the argument of taking for granted that there’s no conspiracy. Thinking critically but civilly will help you see that wrong answer coming; you’ll know it’s wrong as soon as you read it.