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Professionalism and civility: You cannot have one without the other


By Ed Pappas

This article originally appeared in the June 2023 issue of the Michigan Bar Journal.

In 2022, the State Bar of Michigan Board of Commissioners formed a new special committee — the Professionalism and Civility Committee, whose members and chair are appointed by the president of the State Bar of Michigan.

The committee intends to contribute articles to the Michigan Bar Journal focusing on professionalism and civility, and the well- earned honor of writing the first column rightfully belongs to Edward H. Pappas. There is no one in Michigan more influential in promoting attorney professionalism and civility, instituting educational programs, contributing to the creation and adoption of the Professionalism Principles for Lawyers and Judges, and helping to develop the Professionalism and Civility Committee, whose mission he describes in this article.

For the title of this article, I adapted a saying from the University of Michigan Marching Band to describe the connection between professionalism and civility. These two concepts are often used synonymously, but professionalism is a much broader concept that, at a minimum, encompasses competence, integrity, honesty, and civility.

The importance of professionalism and civility to the legal profession, our justice system, and society as a whole cannot be over- stated. In fact, with incivility at a crisis level in our government and society, professionalism and civility are more important now than ever before.

Lawyers and judges play an important role in society and have a responsibility to safeguard our constitutions, protect human rights, advance the rule of law, and ensure access to justice for everyone. As former United States Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger stated in a 1971 speech:

“Lawyers who know how to think but have not learned how to behave are a menace and a liability, not an asset to the administration of our justice … I suggest the necessity for civility is relevant to lawyers because they are the living exemplars — and thus teachers — every day, in every case, and in every court; and their worse conduct will be emulated more readily than their best.”1

Lawyers and judges have the opportunity to teach the leaders and citizens of our great nation that you cannot have the dialogue necessary to resolve important issues without civility and respect.

The State Bar of Michigan has actively promoted professionalism and civility in the practice of law. My first Bar Journal column as State Bar president in October 2008 dealt with professionalism.2 In 2009, during my presidency, the State Bar created a Professionalism in Action program that was incorporated into the orientation programs at all five Michigan law schools to emphasize to students the importance of professionalism and civility in the practice of law.

In October 2018, the State Bar sponsored a summit entitled, “Promoting Professionalism in the 21st Century.”3 Among the recommendations that emerged from that summit was adopting civility guidelines that would apply to all Michigan lawyers and judges.

As a result of the summit, the State Bar formed a Professionalism Workgroup which I had the privilege of chairing. Among other things, the workgroup drafted proposed professionalism principles4 which were approved by the State Bar Representative Assembly and submitted to the Michigan Supreme Court. On Dec. 16, 2020, the Supreme Court adopted 12 principles of professionalism which, combined with their comments, provide guidance to lawyers and judges on how to conduct themselves professionally. In adopting these principles, the Supreme Court stated, in pertinent part:

In fulfilling our professional responsibilities, we, as attorneys, officers of the court, and custodians of our legal system, must remain ever mindful of our obligations of civility in pursuit of justice, the rule of law, and the fair and peaceable resolution of disputes and controversies. In this regard, we adhere to the following principles adopted by the State Bar of Michigan and authorized by the Michigan Supreme Court.

  • We show civility in our interactions with people involved in the justice system by treating them with courtesy and respect.
  • We are cooperative with people involved in the justice system within the bounds of our obligations to clients.
  • We do not engage in or tolerate conduct that may be viewed as rude, threatening, or obstructive toward people involved in the justice system.
  • We do not disparage or attack people involved in the justice system or employ gratuitously hostile or demeaning words in our written and oral legal communications and pleadings.
  • We do not act upon or exhibit invidious bias toward people involved in the justice system and we seek reasonably to accommodate the needs of others, including lawyers, litigants, judges, jurors, court staff, and members of the public who may require such accommodation.
  • We treat people involved in the justice system fairly and respectfully notwithstanding their differing perspectives, viewpoints, or politics.
  • We act with honesty and integrity in our relations with people involved in the justice system and fully honor promises and commitments.
  • We act in good faith to advance only those positions in our legal arguments that are reasonable and just under the circumstances.
  • We accord professional courtesy, wherever reasonably possible, to other members of our profession.
  • We act conscientiously and responsibly in taking care of the financial interests of our clients and others involved in the justice system.
  • We recognize ours as a profession with its own practices and traditions, many of which have taken root over the passing of many years, and seek to accord respect and regard to these practices and traditions.
  • We seek to exemplify the best of our profession in our interactions with people who are not involved in the justice system.5

These principles are all encompassing, but the essence of the principles is acting with integrity and honesty and treating people with civility and respect.

After the principles were adopted, the Professionalism Workgroup continued to develop strategies to promote professionalism and civility and keep these concepts at the forefront of the practice of law. Based on the workgroup’s recommendation, the State Bar last year formed the Special Committee on Professionalism and Civility with the mission of being “a resource to lawyers, judges, and those involved in the administration of justice to help promote the highest standards of personal conduct of lawyers and judges in the practice of law as articulated in”6 the principles of professionalism.

The principles of professionalism and the commentary on those principles offer nuts-and-bolts guidance to lawyers and judges on professionalism and civility but as I wrote in my first President’s Page 15 years ago, every Michigan lawyer need only adhere to the Lawyer’s Oath7 he or she took when admitted to practice law:

I will maintain the respect due to courts of justice and judicial officers[.]

* * *

I will employ for purposes of maintaining the causes confided to me such means only as are consistent with truth and honor[.]

* * *

I will abstain from all offensive personality[.]

* * *

I will in all other respects conduct myself personally and professionally in conformity with the high standards of conduct imposed upon members of the Bar as a condition to practice law in this State.

It is a privilege to be a lawyer and a judge and with that privilege comes the responsibility to act professionally, act with integrity and civility, and act with truth and honor. I encourage all lawyers and judges to maintain the highest levels of professionalism and civility in the “pursuit of justice, the rule of law, and the fair and peaceable resolution of disputes and controversies.”8

Edward H. Pappas, a leading business litigator, mediator, arbitrator, and former State Bar of Michigan president, has led efforts focusing on professionalism and civility. He is a past recipient of the Roberts P. Hudson Award, the State Bar’s highest honor. 

1. Excerpts From the Chief Justice’s Speech on the Need for Civility,New York Times (May 19, 1971) p 28 []. All websites cited in this article were accessed May 16, 2023.

2. Pappas, Professionalism Under Siege, 87 Mich B J 14, 14-15 (October 2008), available at [].

3Promoting Professionalism in the 21st Century, SBM (October 18, 2018), available at [].

4. Administrative Order No 2020-23 (2020), available at [].


6Professionalism and Civility Committee, SBM [].

7Lawyer’s Oath, SBM [https://].

8. Administrative Order No 2020-23.