In 2010, being a glorious time before COVID-19, when the idea of Donald Trump as President of the United States was nothing more than a gag on The Simpsons, I wrote an article entitled Professional courtesy: Is there still a place for it in modern practice?.1
In the article, I mused on the changing culture of the profession and attempted to divine a set of principles of ‘modern practice’. Fourteen years on, with greyer hair and much more experience in both private practice and life, I look back on that article and am almost amused by the earnest enthusiasm of the younger person who wrote it.
Society has changed. The rise of social media, the ‘Me Too’ movement, Black Lives Matter protests, Australia voting ‘Yes’ to marriage equality and the visible effects of climate change are just but a few of the events that I can think of over the last 14 years that have impacted how we view not only the world, but each other.
Legal practice has changed. Through the use of technology we are working harder and faster. We are no longer constrained by the office and have the ability to work from anywhere, at any time of the day or night. Email has replaced letters, video conferencing has obviated the need to travel, trials can be conducted ‘electronically’ and almost every case ever published can be accessed on our mobile phones.
The rise of generative artificial intelligence presents a further exciting opportunity to transform the way we work. When we stop to take stock of the technological and social revolutions that have transpired, is it any wonder that younger lawyers in the office look at me almost incredulously when I regale them with stories of fax machines, manually filing updates to loose leaf services and having to physically go to the Supreme Court Library to do research.
So too has professional courtesy evolved. While the basics remain unchanged, new facets of modern life and practice require a few new guiding principles. Again, rather than relying on just my own experience, I canvassed a number of my fellow practitioners, both senior and junior, for their thoughts on what constitutes ‘professional courtesy’.2 After distilling their comments and adding a few of my own thoughts, I humbly present 15 principles of professional courtesy in 2024:
- Do unto others as you would have them to do unto you. This very simple and well-known saying is the cornerstone of professional courtesy. If you treat other practitioners, non-legal staff, clients and self-represented parties with discourtesy, you are not entitled to expect polite treatment in return, regardless of your seniority or perceived level of self-importance or brilliance.
- Know and understand your ethical obligations under the Australian Solicitors’ Conduct Rules. Aside from establishing the guidelines for professional conduct, they are an important touchstone for professional courtesy.
- Never forget the basics of common courtesy – “may I”, “please”, “thank you”, “excuse me” and “I apologise” still carry weight, regardless of how society has evolved.
- Do not discriminate against or dismiss another practitioner on the basis of race, gender, age, ethnic origin, sexuality, marital status, religious belief, where they work, where they went to university or any other superficial reason. It is essential as practitioners that we seek to identify and challenge any conscious or unconscious biases that prevents us treating all people respectfully.
- Never lie to or mislead another practitioner. Aside from being a breach of a practitioner’s ethical obligations, it erodes confidence of the profession from within.
- Always return telephone calls and correspondence from other practitioners promptly.
- When communicating with other practitioners always seek their permission before you: place them on speaker phone (including advising who else is in the room); take a recording of the conversation; or generate a transcript of the conversation.
- Do not publicly denigrate the character or capabilities of another practitioner or law firm.
- Do not seek to intimidate, threaten, offend or insult a fellow practitioner either in correspondence or in conference.
- If your actions have caused delay to another practitioner or you have promised that you will deliver something by a certain date and you are no longer able to make that deadline, let the other practitioner know and if it is appropriate to do so (to the extent permissible without breaching client confidentiality), apologise and explain the delay.
- Respect other practitioners’ working hours and personal time. All practitioners have the right and need for personal time and to ‘switch off’. It is essential for well-being. Further, flexible working hours are a hallmark of modern practice. It cannot be assumed that all practitioners work from 8am to 6pm Monday to Friday. As such, do not email, text, call at unreasonable after-hour times, on weekends or on public holidays, without prior agreement or unless it is a rare and exceptional emergency. Do not seek to take advantage of another practitioners’ flexible work arrangements, for example by emailing them on a day you know they do not work and demanding a response before they return to the office.
- Respect practitioners’ pronouns and titles. Gender neutral and neo-pronouns3 are here to stay. They are not a fad nor something to be dismissed as ‘grammatically incorrect’.4 A practitioner may also use a title such as ‘Mx’ instead of Mr or Ms. If someone tells you their pronouns are ‘they/them’, make the effort to use them. After all, pronouns replace a person’s name in sentences and you wouldn’t call someone the wrong name.
- Learn how to say other practitioners’ names. Australia is celebrated as a multi-cultural society. Practitioners come from all corners of the world and you will most likely encounter a practitioner with a name that you do not know how to pronounce. If this happens, ask how it should be pronounced. Do not make something up or avoid addressing the practitioner by name.
- Always strive to retain your professional perspective in relation to a matter. Not only does it enable you to continue to give your client realistic and commercial advice, but it assists in maintaining a professional diplomatic relationship with the opposing side in a matter.
- Defend the profession whenever you have the opportunity to do so. The lawyer jokes have not diminished with time. The community does not always hold lawyers in the highest of esteem. We are, however, part of a profession in which a great deal of nobility exists. There are countless examples of lawyers going above and beyond the call of duty in the service of a client. Many lawyers give up their time to take on pro bono matters, and to work with charities and community organisation. There is much in our profession to be proud of and that needs to be emphasised just as much, if not more than, the less desirable behaviour which sometimes occurs.
As I concluded my 2010 article, I say again that this is by no means an exhaustive list. A practitioner’s notion of what constitutes professional courtesy will vary depending on their experiences within the profession and how they interact with the world. Hopefully, however, these are a few basics that we can all strive to achieve regardless of how we view the world.
1 Macpherson, P. ‘Professional Courtesy: Is there still a place for it in modern practice?’, Proctor, February 2010, p. 37.
2 With thanks to Tony Cotter, Reid Mortensen, Joe Siracusa, Grace van Baarle; Leanne Weekes, Steven Hogg, Allie Flack, Kate Denning, Kiri Parr, Kate Denning; Tom Kearney and Renee Shike.
3 For example – a person might use pronouns such as ze / zir, xe / xyr (both pronounced zee / zeer) or fae/faer.
4 According to Merriam-Webster, ‘they’ has been in consistent use as a singular pronoun since the late 1300s.
QLS has more information on professional courtesy in communications.