Judge Donna Pate Luncheon Recap

Posted on Fri May 17, 2024

Our May Speaker Series was lead by Judge Donna Pate, a lifelong resident of Madison County, Alabama. She received a B.A. in Political Science from David Lipscomb College in 1979, and a Juris Doctor degree from the University of Alabama School of Law in 1982. She served as law clerk for United States District Judge E.B. Haltom, Jr. prior to entering private practice in Huntsville, Alabama. She practiced in the areas of civil litigation and education law for twenty-nine years, first with Ford Caldwell Ford & Payne, then with its successor firm, Lanier Ford Shaver & Payne P.C. She was active on both the local and state bar levels, serving as president of the Madison County Bar Association and as a member of the Alabama Board of Bar Commissioners for nine years. She was inducted as a Fellow in the American College of Trial Lawyers in 2007. She was appointed Circuit Judge by Governor Robert Bentley in February, 2012, and was subsequently elected to her position in November, 2012.


What Happen to Civility and How Do We Fix It?


“Civility has become a crucial topic in the legal profession,” Judge Donna Pate begins, emphasizing how it dominates seminars, new lawyer training sessions, and professional discussions. “Seasoned professionals ponder its apparent decline and explore methods for its restoration.” At a recent seminar, esteemed figures like Judge Betty Miller highlighted the significance of civility through their exemplary conduct in litigation and adjudication, setting a high standard for all legal practitioners.

Defining Civility in Legal Practice

“Civility involves politeness, courtesy, reasonable and respectful behavior, and constructive engagement in disagreements,” Judge Pate explains. “It is essential for legal professionals to uphold these values, ensuring disputes are handled with decorum rather than hostility.” Civility, she notes, is a cost-free virtue, requiring no financial investment, licensing, or rigorous testing. As President John F. Kennedy noted, "Civility is a sign of strength, not weakness." This sentiment is echoed throughout history, from George Washington's "Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior" to modern professional codes.

Historical Context of Civility

“The principles of civility are deeply rooted in history,” Judge Pate continues. George Washington, inspired by French etiquette guidelines from the late 16th century, emphasized the importance of respectful conduct. These historical guidelines, while often focused on manners, encapsulate the essence of civility in professional and personal interactions. “Washington's first rule, which stresses respect for others in social settings, remains relevant today,” she says, urging us to listen attentively, respect others' space, and avoid gloating over others' misfortunes.

The Role of Upbringing and Education

“Civility often begins with foundational teachings from parents, grandparents, and early educators,” Judge Pate recalls. Simple acts like saying "please" and "thank you" and showing respect through gestures like holding doors open shape our interactions. Growing up in the South, these values were reinforced with additional courtesies like "ma'am" and "sir." Further education, from elementary school to law school, continues to build on these principles, emphasizing fairness, respect, and personal responsibility. Robert Fulghum's book, "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," encapsulates these early lessons, reminding us of the importance of kindness, sharing, and mutual respect.

Professional Conduct and the Legal Framework

“Upon entering the legal profession, lawyers are bound by rules of professional conduct and responsibility, which mandate respect for the legal system and its participants,” Judge Pate explains. The preamble of these rules highlights the need for personal conscience and peer approval as guiding principles. True zeal in legal advocacy involves thorough preparation and firm representation, not rudeness or antagonism. “A California court in 2019 emphasized that civility and vigorous representation are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary aspects of legal professionalism,” she adds.

Civility in Judicial Conduct

“Civility extends beyond lawyers to judges and court staff,” Judge Pate asserts. Judicial canons mandate patience, dignity, and courtesy in all official dealings. Reflecting on her experiences, she recalls judges who embodied these virtues and those who perhaps overlooked them. However, the prevailing expectation remains clear: civility is a nonnegotiable aspect of judicial conduct. Judges like Buddy Lovell, Danny Banks, Judge Jimmy Woodruff, Tim Jolly, and Randall Cole demonstrate that one can be both a formidable legal professional and a model of civility. “Their conduct serves as a reminder that the practice of law, approached with respect and integrity, upholds the dignity of the profession and fosters a more just and effective legal system,” she emphasizes.

Decline in Professional Civility

“Despite these positive examples, there has been a noticeable decline in civility within the legal profession,” Judge Pate observes. Snarky and condescending emails have become more common, and straightforward communication is often replaced with suspicion and defensiveness. Lawyers now frequently fear being recorded or misquoted, leading to a breakdown in trust.

Factors Contributing to the Decline

Several factors have contributed to the erosion of civility:

1. Diminished Emphasis on Manners: “Good manners are no longer emphasized as they once were,” Judge Pate notes. The rise of text messaging and social media has reduced the need for face-to-face interactions, diminishing opportunities for developing communication skills and empathy.

2. Wider Societal Trends: “The decline in civility in the legal profession mirrors broader societal trends,” she continues. According to a 2019 study by Weber Shandwick, 93% of Americans believe civility is a problem, with 69% calling it a major issue. Factors such as the media, politicians, and social media contribute significantly to this perception.

3. Impact of Technology: “The advent of technology has transformed legal practice, making it more efficient but also more impersonal,” Judge Pate explains. The convenience of e-filing and remote work has reduced the need for in-person interactions, leading to a loss of camaraderie and human connection among legal professionals.

Reflecting on the past, she recalls a time when legal practice involved more personal interactions. Filing documents required visiting the courthouse, where lawyers would often meet and converse. Monthly docket calls and motion dockets provided opportunities to catch up, share experiences, and build relationships. “This frequent human contact fostered a sense of community and mutual respect,” she reminisces.

The Road to Restoring Civility

Given the permanence of social media, technology, politicians, and celebrities, restoring civility in the legal profession requires individual action. “Self-assessment is key,” Judge Pate asserts. As a prominent former football coach wisely said, "If you don't self-assess, you won't have success." Reflecting on her own career, she often believed she was the civil one, while others were not. However, self-awareness is crucial. “We all have moments where our behavior falls short. To restore civility, we must begin with introspection,” she advises. Here are six steps she suggests to help restore civility:

1. Patience: “Cultivate patience as a virtue, not merely for convenience,” Judge Pate urges. True patience requires selflessness and understanding. For example, her frustration waiting at Costco for an unprepared man at the pump reflected her own selfishness, highlighting the need for personal growth in this area.

2. Respect: “Understand that everyone has their perspective,” she emphasizes. Empathy and additional information can promote respect. Remember, having the right to say or do something doesn't always make it the right choice.

3. Effective Communication: “Prioritize direct and respectful communication, preferring phone calls over potentially misconstrued emails,” Judge Pate advises. Modern communication, dominated by texts and emails, lacks the personal touch of face-to-face interactions.

4. Trust and Integrity: “Build trust by upholding your word and avoiding taking cheap shots,” she explains. As demonstrated in her relationship with Derrick Simpson, mutual respect and integrity foster a positive professional environment.

5. Lead by Example: “Model civil behavior to influence others and contribute to a more respectful profession,” Judge Pate encourages. Educating, encouraging, and promoting civility are crucial, but leading by example is the most effective way to instill these values.

6. Unselfishness: “Reflect true civility by being considerate of others' needs, even when inconvenient,” she says. Unselfishness and civility go hand in hand, requiring us to put others before ourselves and foster an environment where mutual respect can thrive.

Conclusion: A Call to Action

“Restoring civility in the legal profession is a collective effort that begins with individual actions,” Judge Pate concludes. By focusing on patience, respect, effective communication, trust, integrity, and unselfishness, we can create a more civil and respectful environment. “Each of us holds the power to influence change by leading with these values in our daily interactions,” she affirms. Let us commit to self-assessment and strive for a return to the good old days of professional civility. Together, we can uphold the dignity of the legal profession and foster a more just and effective legal system.


Judge Donna Pate Luncheon Recap