Uncommon Courtesy

Bill Smith is determined to bring back good manners

Published in 2016 Northern California Super Lawyers magazine

By Dan Fost on July 8, 2016


Nice guys don’t have to finish last—not if you ask Bill Smith, a partner with Abramson Smith Waldsmith and a longtime advocate for more civility in the legal profession. 

“In movies, you have to hire the meanest, nastiest junkyard dog,” says Smith, 67, whose commitment to common courtesy was recognized with a Don E. Bailey Civility & Professionalism Award from the San Francisco chapter of the American Board of Trial Advocates (ABOTA) in 2014.  “If you’re civil, you will be more successful, you’ll be healthier, and your reputation will be better.” 

Smith sees the worst behavior in civil court. Criminal lawyers tend to maintain relationships because they see each other more often, but civil lawyers “sit behind computer terminals and write nasty letters,” he says. “We’ve gotten so impersonal that we treat people poorly.”

The San Francisco personal injury attorney is determined to do something about it. “He’s trying to encourage the state—the whole nation—to adopt rules on civility,” says Edward J. Nevin, a Petaluma attorney who won the Don Bailey award in 2013. “There’s nothing like him for the whirlwind of activity.”

Smith co-chairs the Civility and Professionalism Committee for ABOTA nationally. In 2008, the committee spearheaded Civility Matters, a program in which attorneys and judges impress upon law students and Bar members the importance of getting along. “We call it inoculation in orientation,” he says. “We discuss what civility means, what incivility is, and how to battle incivility.” 

The highlight of the program is a series of video clips showing lawyers behaving badly. “I received one the other day showing two lawyers ragging on each other in a deposition,” Smith says. “One said, ‘You want to step outside?’ 

“We get a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ that lawyers act that way. We impress upon them that, if they do this activity, they’ll have a very, very unpleasant professional life.” 

There’s progress, he notes, pointing to ABOTA’s successful push to have civility added to the California lawyer’s oath in 2014. Sixteen states now include civility in their oaths, and ABOTA is working to make that 50. Also, the state Bar Association adopted the California Attorney Guidelines of Civility and Professionalism in 2007—but Smith would like to give the guidelines some teeth by making them part of the state’s Rules of Court, adding sanctions for poor behavior. 

He may get his chance next year, when he becomes president of Cal-ABOTA. “I’m going to make serious moves to try to achieve that rule more directly,” he says. “We’ve got all eight chapters of Cal-ABOTA behind us.” 

Smith knows it’s not just lawyers, and points to the 2016 presidential campaigns—in particular, Donald Trump’s confrontational style. “He’s selling it as winning,” he says. “What we tell students is: You may be able to win and bully somebody in your first case or two, but that’s only going to last a short time. In the long run, it doesn’t work.”

He also knows maintaining one’s composure isn’t always easy. “Every day that you go to the office, somebody is going to challenge you,” he says. 

Why does all this matter to Smith? Maybe, he says, because he was raised in the Midwest—“where you’re taught that you get along better with people if you’re civil and nice. It’s the way I’m wired. … You know you’d better be civil, because if you aren’t, your mama’s going to get called before you even get home.”

Smith tells of a contentious case he handled about eight years ago. On the eve of trial, a defense attorney who was new to the case asked for yet another delay because he had planned a graduation trip with his daughter. “He said, ‘Could you find it in your heart to continue the case for a month?’ This was going to cost me money. The client was not happy. I had to think: What was the right thing to do?”

Smith allowed the continuance. He and the lawyer became lasting friends—and the case wound up settling, with a happy client. 

“That taught me that you can’t get caught up in looking for every advantage for your client,” Smith says. “You have to think, ‘What is the right thing to do?’ It’s all about the golden rule.”



Words from Past Winners of the Don E. Bailey award

2014 co-winner John A. McGuinn, McGuinn Hillsman & Palefsky; San Francisco: “The overarching word is professionalism. Under it is civility, integrity, being honest to yourself and following your obligations to your client and to your oath as a professional. When you are dealing with a difficult opponent, how do you distinguish yourself? You distinguish yourself by example, not by getting in the dirt with him.”

2013 co-winner Edward J. Nevin, Law Offices of Edward J. Nevin; Petaluma: “Society seems to have lost its senses of propriety, collegiality and respect. To try to stop that downward trend is a wonderful challenge and a very important thing to do.” 

2010 co-winner Ronald H. Rouda, Rouda Feder Tietjen & McGuinn; San Francisco: “Civility weaves through every aspect of the practice of law, particularly in cases involving catastrophic injury and death, where entire lives are disrupted forever. One can get too close to the case and lose perspective.”

2011 winner Michael J. Ney, former partner at McNamara, Ney, Beatty, Slattery, Borges & Ambacher; Walnut Creek: “There’s this perception that people have to be difficult to get their point across. It’s just the opposite. Why would you unnecessarily make somebody else’s life miserable? People think, because lawyers argue with each other, they need to become snarky and unpleasant.”

2010 co-winner Ralph A. Lombardi, Lombardi, Loper & Conant; Oakland: “I have always found that treating people decently and reasonably is much more effective at getting things done. This really does go back to the old saying, ‘Everything you need to know, you learned in kindergarten.’ Be nice. Don’t throw sand. It makes it a lot easier to sleep at night.”

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