Peer Professionalism Assistance ~ By Craig Eley

It is pretty difficult to get in trouble in most states (including Colorado) for calling opposing counsel a name. When a situation turns really sour, the attorney discipline machinery will sometimes lurch into action. A couple of attorneys in Illinois recently pushed the envelope and it pushed back. One called opposing counsel a “pervert,” “whore” and “child molester.” The other was comparatively gentle, using “fool,” “idiot” and “slime-ball” on his adversaries. Both attorneys faced disciplinary actions.

What, then, do you do about attorneys who have the common sense not to defame you on the record but who are nevertheless inconsiderate, rude or unprofessional? For that which violates the Rules of Professional Conduct, there is Attorney Regulation Counsel. For everything else, there is the Peer Professionalism Assistance Group (PPA).

Members of the PPA are experienced attorneys who are interested in raising the level of professionalism in the legal profession. They volunteer to mentor and assist when an attorney notifies them of a problem that he or she is having with another attorney. Issues can range from inconsiderate scheduling and unreturned telephone calls to personal verbal attacks, profanity or unnecessary contentiousness in communications and litigation.

The PPA evolved from the Denver Bar Association’s Conciliation Panel, which began in the mid-1990s. Realizing that professionalism was not just a Denver goal, bar associations from other counties — Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, Elbert, Gilpin, Adams and Broomfield — joined the effort. When that happened, the name changed to the Metropolitan Conciliation Panel. The present name has been in effect since 2009 and reflects the group’s desire to achieve statewide participation.

Help from the PPA, which is free of charge, can be solicited by calling the Colorado Bar Association or by going to the PPA’s website at cobar.org/ppa. The first page of the website features the names and contact information of the attorneys who are on-call for the month. There is also a link to a complete listing of the PPA group members and their areas of practice. The requesting attorney may contact whomever he or she believes would be best equipped to address the problem and is not limited to choosing from those on-call.

Unless referred to the PPA by a court, participation by the opposing counsel is voluntary. When that attorney refuses to take part, the PPA member can still offer assistance by instructing the requesting attorney about possible methods of alleviating the difficulties. PPA Co-Chair Teresa Wilkins explained that the requesting attorney sometimes does not want opposing counsel to be contacted. Instead, the requester may prefer techniques for coping with opposing counsel and ways of encouraging opposing counsel to adopt more reasonable behavior. PPA members are happy to help attorneys who are seeking to handle their issues without intervention.

In many cases, the most appropriate approach is for the PPA member to contact opposing counsel. According to Wilkins, the opposing counsel may not be aware of how he or she is being perceived and may welcome advice from the PPA member about how to improve relations with other lawyers. Wilkins surmised that some attorneys may not have had the opportunity to develop in the practice alongside experienced, professional attorneys. In most instances, both attorneys can benefit from a little education.

The PPA does not report to an agency, and all of its actions are kept confidential. When a referral is made by a court, the judge is told when contact has been made with the respondent, but no other information is disclosed.

Sometimes the PPA member arranges for a meal or coffee with both attorneys present so that the issues can be explored face-to-face. Wilkins explained that in this era of impersonal electronic communication, it is easy to forget that there is a person with feelings at the other end of our correspondence. Meeting with opposing counsel to discuss difficulties and misunderstandings is often all that is needed to improve a business relationship.

We have all had to come to grips with the hard truth that even Atticus Finch wasn’t perfect. Attorneys, like everyone else, sometimes display uncharacteristic behaviors when confronted with family or medical problems. When the practice of law turns unpleasant, it might be time to call on the expertise of PPA members to turn the situation around — for the good of yourself, your client and your profession. D

Craig Eley is an ALJ who sometimes yearns to remand attorneys to law school rather than to the PPA. He can be reached at craig.eley@state.co.us.