Helpful Practice Tip: Civility Is Not Just a Good Idea – It Could Save Your Career

So sad.

That’s all I could think (after recovering from the shock of some of the specific allegations) after reading this article in The Village Voice about Kenny Heller, a New York City lawyer who was disbarred three years back for essentially being an obnoxious jerk (the Voice, in its inimitable style, relies on saltier language from a commenter to describe Mr. Heller – I’ll let you read it for yourself).

I practice in a bar that’s widely touted for its civility – the South Carolina bar, but more specifically the local bar of Horry County. I’ve found this to be widely true, after having been cautioned about it in my early days post-bar passage. “Do not expect to come in here all LA Law and Ally McBeal,” an early mentor said. “You will not be welcomed.” Of course, there are always exceptions, but for the most part, I’d be surprised to find an opposing counsel refusing to grant first-time extensions on answering complaints, or telling plaintiff’s counsel they can’t reschedule a hearing because of a death in the family (I’ve heard both stories in the past week from attorneys in other parts of the country).

So, I daresay my colleagues and I would be flabbergasted (what a great word) to meet someone like Mr. Heller in our midst. Mr. Heller – well, I can’t outdo the Voice, so I’ll just quote:

Sitting in the back of the Bronx courtroom the next day, Heller
looked like just another elderly trial buff, wearing high-waisted,
suspendered khaki pants and sneakers with Velcro straps. He seemed to
be only half-listening as his lawyer, Richard Reisch, advised him how
to stay out of jail. “Just be nice—’Yes, your honor. Thank you, your honor. Thank you, your honor.’ Let me do the talking,” Reisch told him. Then the judge, Howard Silver, walked by. “Kiss my tuchis!”
Heller spat at him. A few minutes later, Jacoby & Meyers lawyer
Michael Feldman, who took over the negligent-death lawsuit from Heller,
entered the courtroom. Heller’s angry greeting? “Schmuck!”

(emphasis mine)

That’s just the tip of the iceberg for Mr. Heller. For a full picture, read the Voice article. I find myself feeling nauseated even thinking about repeating some of it here.

Am I overstating, or overreacting? I honestly don’t think so. Bad behavior always – always – has an impact on those who observe it. We may wish fervently that it weren’t so, but we can’t escape that very simple fact of human nature. Example: As a parent, I lose my patience from time to time with my daughter, who is by nature a cheerful, happy kid with a killer sense of humor. Sometimes, that sense of humor kicks in at inappropriate times and she makes a joke out of something that’s not a joke. Refusing to make her bed by hiding in the closet seems like a joke to her – it seems like willful disobedience to me. When I lose my patience and yell, though, there is a measurable impact on my beautiful, bright child. I might wish desperately that she’d forget it, move beyond it, just erase it from her experience catalog but I know deep down that’s not going to happen. There was an effect, and I can’t undo it. (Note to Alex Baldwin: Hello.)

Which is why behavior like Mr. Heller’s, and the larger issue of civility in the practice of law, is still one that needs to be examined deeply. What possible good is going to come out of calling a judge a name like that? The only thing Mr. Heller gets out of it is an immediate release of tension – a short-lived effect I’d wager is quickly outdone by the inevitable negative long-term result (sanctions? contempt? The ultimate result of a reputation as a laughingstock or worse?)

The saddest part of this article comes in an assessment from a colleague in the NY bar, who observes that Mr. Heller, with his passion for his clients’ cases, his willingness to take on large companies and aggressive defendants, could have been a significant leader in that bar – a person with both power and respect. Heller caused his own downfall so there’s not much pity one can muster for him, but nevertheless, the loss of such potential can be mourned, and should be mourned.

Object lesson for us all.

Thanks to Chuck Newton and Bob Sutton for alerting the world to this sad, sad tale.

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