Professionalism Symposium speaker: Greatest problem is injustice, not incivility

Published: April 16th, 2012

Category: Events, News

Judge Mary Day Coker addresses crowd at Professionalism SymposiumAs she watches families come together and fall apart, Mary Day Coker keeps a scripture tucked away on her bench where only she can see it.

Coker, a Florida 8th Judicial Circuit Court judge, tells a room of attorneys and future lawyers what helps keep her grounded behind the bench.

It’s a scripture passage she never reads aloud. She reads it to herself, reminding her of what should be guiding her day after day as she makes decisions about so many families’ fates.

“Act justly and love mercifully,” the passage begins.

In a few words, that’s what hundreds of Florida lawyers and University of Florida law students came together to learn about at the 2012 Professionalism Symposium on April 6: understanding justice, civility and professional responsibility that can’t be learned in a textbook.

And after living in a world where players don’t always follow the rules, the Florida Supreme Court added a “civility clause” to the state Bar’s oath of admission in September 2011, according to The Florida Bar News, that now requires all lawyers to pledge “fairness, integrity, and civility, not only in court, but also in all written and oral communications.”

“We should all treat each other with professionalism and civility. It should be understood,” Robert Cole, former president of the Florida Board of Trial Advocates, told The Florida Bar News in 2011. “But I think it’s just reacting to the lack of civility that is going on in our society as a whole.”

But this new clause doesn’t sit well with Florida State University law professor Rob Atkinson, this year’s symposium keynote speaker. While civility is certainly a great quality, the new Florida Bar oath misses the mark on the most important legal trait, he told the ballroom-sized crowd.

“Incivility is by no means the greatest problem. That problem is injustice,” Atkinson said. “Only when we commit ourselves to justice can we understand civility.”

And in a 45-minute keynote address that focused on the concepts of justice, professionalism and civility, Atkinson tried to define the nebulous, intangible concept of justice and explain how to best gauge their professionalism.

“Bottom line: think what your momma taught you,” Atkinson told the crowd with a smile. “Would she be proud of that?”

The event, sponsored in part by the UF College of Law, David Mishael (JD 83) and Florida’s 8th Judicial Circuit Bar Association, this year’s Professionalism Symposium brought together Atkinson and a panel that also included UF Law professors Joe Little and Amy Mashburn and 8th Circuit Court chief judge Robert Roundtree Jr. Small groups broke off to discuss how professionalism, civility and justice all play a part in their careers.

Others seem to agree with Atkinson.

“The (Supreme) Court has, in effect, submerged justice to incivility,” Little said of the change to the Florida Bar’s oath of admission.

Atkinson brought the symposium’s panel to a close with a challenge to UF Law students.

“We can talk ’til we’re blue in the face about what you’re supposed to do,” he said. “Seeing it in action is a different story.”