Workplace Conduct

Rules pertaining to office behavior, attitude, dress and treatment of fellow employees.

Traits of Professionalism

Why must we have any written Policy defining what it means to act in a professional manner? As litigators and litigation support personnel, we are engaged in an endeavor that is filled with contradictions, so it is easy to become distracted by one objective while losing sight of another. We are often referred to as warriors in the adversarial system of justice, which is in fact how we hold ourselves out to the public. Yet we are more than warriors; we are leaders, assisting society in the search for answers that must be found and applied in order to resolve disputes. We are officers of the court and embedded in the very fabric of the American legal system and way of life.

This role that we occupy presents us with a fantastic opportunity to be of service to our fellow human beings, because the search for answers in the context of a dispute can become an engine for development, improvement and enlightenment for the society as a whole. By virtue of the fact that we have been granted license to fight legal battles in court for our clients, we are the holders of a sacred trust that actually transcends the immediate goal of prevailing over one’s opponents.

In our adversarial system the search for justice is conducted in a contest between trained courtroom combatants: litigators and trial lawyers. The process is actually designed to be destructive. The point of that destruction is the erasure by each side of the falsehoods and misconceptions advanced by the opponent, in the hope that this mutual destruction of that which is inaccurate, incomplete and incorrect will erase all but the truth, which can then be readily discerned by the sideline spectators: the jury and the judge who make decisions resolving the dispute. The American system of justice, which evolved from the English or anglo-saxon system of justice traces its roots centuries back in time to the Magna Carta, and before that, to the Code of Hamurabi. Our system has been described as “the worst ever devised by man, except for all the others,” a sardonic way of acknowledging that our system, flawed and imperfect as it is, remains the best system that man has yet to develop for the delivery of justice in a free society. The people who operate this machine of justice, on a day-to-day basis, are us.

We are not in business to hurt people, or to be bullies. On the other hand, the role we occupy in our adversarial system of justice is one that requires us to play our specific part in the greater play. It is our sacred trust to be zealous advocates on behalf of our clients, while at the same time lighting the way for the rest of society. Dean Roger Tuttle, a law professor of great repute often said, “within the bounds of ethics and decency, litigation is total war.” We are here to fight, and win if at all possible, that war. But we must do so as professionals, officers of the court, and decent human beings. No justice was ever served by antagonism, hostility or viciousness; the best lawyers are ferocious, unrelenting and inspired advocates who never fail to behave as professionals. We all have bad days; we all make mistakes; we all lose our tempers and we all have days we would rather tear out our opponent’s throat and we let those feelings show. But this state of imperfection does not make us less professional; rather, it gives us a chance to improve.

Our mission, from day to day, does not change: we will act as professionals, we will enrich the American system of justice; we will count coup on our adversaries and make our clients glad they hired us. For your opponent, litigation against you should be a difficult or impossible uphill battle while remaining a professional rewarding experience. Through ability, commitment, dignity, professionalism (and perhaps a little luck), we will distinguish ourselves and the system in which we operate. If these goals and principles are important to you, and if you have the ability, drive and perserverence required, then law is the right profession for you.

Dress Code

We do not wish to stifle your personal expressiveness, but our office is not a computer lab or an auto shop. We require you to wear business attire on most days. Occasional “business casual” attire may be permissible, but this should not become routine. The term “business casual” as we use it, emphasizes the word “business,” and does not include the following:

  • Jeans or denim skirts
  • Sneakers, running shoes, athletic shoes, climbing or hiking shoes
  • T-shirts, shirts without collars (for men, though turtleneck shirts are acceptable)
  • Flip-flops, open-toed casual sandals or shoes that reveal poor podiatric hygiene (though dress sandals and open toed dress shoes for women are acceptable if one’s toenails are well manicured)
  • Bathing, workout wear or excessive leather wear (such as “biker” attire)
  • “Grunge” or “goth” styles of clothing
  • Flannel or denim shirts for men
  • Clothing with conspicuous graphics or advertising (embroidered logos discretely visible are acceptable)
  • Unusually revealing clothing for women or men
  • Spandex leggings without skirts, “spanks,” spandex tops, halter tops, tube tops, or excessively revealing clothing
  • Clothing that would embarrass your grandmother

We require all employees dress in a fashion that signals an understanding of the professional nature of our services. On any given day, we could be visited by an important client, opposing counsel, judges or even political leaders and members of the media. The impressions formed by our visitors are a key part of how our reputation as a firm is advanced in the legal community.

Social Media

As mentioned above, we do not wish to suppress the right to free speech or stifle one’s desire to express oneself, but social media is a dangerous channel of communication, for what you may think is worthy of communicating to one group on a given day will inevitably be viewed by some different audience on another, and this may cause you to lose the confidence of your colleagues and your clients, not to mention judges and court personnel. We therefore require that any employee’s public broadcasts be constrained to the professional image we require of all of our employees. Severe examples of inappropriate social media presence includes photography of yourself or others in sexually suggestive, partial or completely nude or degrading images. Showing off your body, your tattoos, your “wild and crazy” side or your irrepressibly non-conformist “lone-wolf style” may cost us business or you your job.

We care little about what you do in the privacy of your own dwelling, on your own time. We care a great deal about how much of that you parade before the world in social media, for what can be found on the Internet about you reflects on all of us in the Firm. An “innocent” post on Twitter can “go viral” and be seen by hundreds of millions of viewers. A compromising remark or photo can ruin a client’s case or your image in the eyes of the legal community. We live by what we preach in this regard: we typically take down the entire Firm website when we are in trial and replace it with one that is less self-congratulatory, and which emphasizes the principles of fairness and the importance of the jury system, for we do not wish to accidentally offend a juror with content that is intended as marketing material targeted to specific clientele.  As a further example of how serious this principle is taken in the Firm, we have withdrawn offers of employment and terminated employees who thought it unnecessary to adhere to these standards.

We have a vested interest in avoiding public embarrassment, and we place that interest above your right to free speech, as do you by accepting the benefits of employment in the Firm in exchange for your compliance with professional standards as adjudicated by the company that pays your salary. You do have a constitutional right to free speech, but you don’t have a constitutional right to work anywhere you wish. Trade-offs are a part of life. Just as you have a right to sleep until noon every day and project an image that a client might find offensive or annoying, you also have a right to trade a certain disciplined conformity in exchange for fantastic professional career potential. The choice is yours, but you must make it and live by it.

We do not find expressions related to controversial political issues to be inherently objectionable. The Firm has employed professionals who were active in politics on both sides of the aisle, adherents to a wide variety of religious beliefs, publicly active volunteer workers and even celebrities who have written extensively on controversial subjects. People of deep conscience who have well thought-out political and social views tend to draw respect even from those who disagree with them. The key to the distinction between social activism that is professional as opposed to unprofessional expressions spewed into the World Consciousness through the magic of social media is  intrinsically subjective, and revolves around perceived professionalism.

Expressions of hate and prejudice against gender, religious views or race are prohibited, as is sexually suggestive material. Exhibitionism for the sake of a more active dating life, shock value for the sake of attention, weirdness for the sake of apparent individuality, criticism of the lifestyles of others for the sake of venting your views — all of these are a bad idea for a professional litigator or litigation support professional.

On this basis, the Firm reserves the right to require any employee to curtail his or her social media or Internet presence to the degree that would be viewed as acceptable by a typically conservative professional. It may sound old-fashioned, but it is how we all operate in this Firm.

Disputes Between Employees

We believe that employees are generally able to resolve their own disputes, and hope that this is true in most instances. When a dispute becomes serious or harms a person’s ability to work effectively, we the involved employees to the bring the matter to the attention of the firm so that we may assist in preventing it from damaging the quality of our professional services or the employment relationship between the firm and its personnel. Our method of resolving disputes varies with circumstances; in some cases we simply try to facilitate a return to good relations by: (1) encouraging better communication and improved levels of personal responsibility, and seeking to clear up misunderstandings; and/or (2) by allowing employees to air any grievance or concern they have in a manner designed to separate facts and data from emotion and reaction.

In other cases, we might set down rules or rulings regarding the propriety of the conduct leading to the dispute, or prevention of the situations that give rise to such problems in personal interaction. Finally, we may discipline or dismiss one or more of the employees involved in the dispute if we believe that the cause of the dispute is not readily susceptible of effective resolution, if it appears that the problem is likely to be persistent, or if the conduct of one or more staff members leading to the dispute reflects adversely upon one’s fitness to work in our offices.

Harassment and Discrimination

Harassment covers a wide range of behaviors of an offensive nature. It is commonly understood as behaviour intended to disturb or upset, and it is characteristically repetitive. In the legal sense, it is intentional behaviour which is found threatening or disturbing. Sexual harassment refers to persistent and unwanted sexual advances, typically in the workplace, where the consequences of refusing are potentially very disadvantageous to the victim.

In the traditional sense of the phrase, we are an equal opportunity employer. By this, we mean that we are truly committed to providing a workplace free of illegal discrimination or sexual harassment. We do not tolerate unlawful treatment based on race, color, religion, age, gender, gender sexual orientation or national origin, on the part of managers, supervisors, or co-workers. We do not discriminate on the basis of a physical disability unless the same affects a person’s capacity to effectively perform the functions of their employment. Given the nature of our practice, we reserve the right to deny employment to persons who suffer from mental or emotional disabilities as we have found that such condition on their own, or in combination with often encountered psychotropic drugs, medicines or alcohol, often subtly or overtly impair the judgment, memory, decision making or cognitive processes of professionals in a way that tends to adversely influence the quality of professional services offered by the firm.

Sexual harassment refers to behavior of a sexual nature which is unwelcome and personally offensive to its recipient. Sexual harassment is a form of employee misconduct which is demeaning to another person and undermines the integrity of the employment relationship. Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitute “sexual harassment” when:

  • Submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of employment;
  • Submission to or rejection of such conduct is used as a basis for employment decisions affecting an individual; or
  • Such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.
  • Unwanted physical contact, foul language, sexually oriented propositions, jokes, or remarks, obscene gestures or the display of sexually explicit pictures, cartoons or other materials may be considered offensive to another employee and should therefore not occur. If you have a complaint and/or knowledge of harassment or discrimination by anyone at work, including co-workers, management, visitors or guests, you have an immediate obligation to bring the issue to the attention of Brett Godfrey or James Johnson.

Acceptable and Unacceptable Conduct and Treatment

A candid disclosure is important in this context: We actively discriminate on the basis of ability, attitude, judgment, skill, productivity and many other traits that influence the quality and quantity of a person’s work output. For this reason, we do not expect that all employees will be treated equally, because not all employees contribute the same value to the firm. Furthermore, the primary function of the firm is litigation practice, and litigation is an inherently stressful profession. The firm’s operations are extremely demanding because our clients have much at stake in their legal matters. Our training programs, though sometimes informal, are designed and executed in such a way as to be occasionally stressful in order to teach our employees how to think clearly and function effectively under stress. While this is true of all posts in our firm, younger attorneys in particular have been known to reveal in the course of our training that they are not necessarily comfortable with the operational tempo or intensity of our practice. This sometimes results in the end of an employment relationship, either at our instance or theirs. Because litigation in our firm demands a certain degree of mental and emotional toughness, we make no pretense of protecting our employees from all stressful situations, nor do we guarantee that all employees will be comfortable with the demands of our practice or our training. These comments pertain to all lawyers and non-lawyers employed in the firm.

On the other hand, we believe it is important to draw some very clear lines regarding what is and what is not acceptable under the headings of harassment and discrimination. While some forms of job stress and training stress might be viewed by some as a kind of “harassment,” these are neither unlawful nor avoidable in a practice such as ours, and while we discriminate on the lawful bases listed above, we stridently believe that the legal rights conferred upon our employees—to be protected from unlawful harassment and discrimination—must be protected to the best of our ability as human beings.

The boundaries of acceptable humor.

Practicing law in any litigation firm is stressful, but working in a firm that sets high standards and handles high-stakes cases is particularly difficult. Adults working in close proximity in a high-pressure environment often release pressure with humor that is sometimes not what some might deem appropriate. Such humor may be slightly vulgar or even tasteless. This is to be expected, but only to a degree, and within reason. There is such a thing as going too far, so the Firm asks its personnel to err on the side of consideration for others. We expect every employee to use good judgment and to be sensitive to the fact that such humor is not always taken in good nature.

Laughter has the capacity to heal, to relieve pressure, improve morale to relax tense situations, but laughter is not the same thing as humor. Humor is word for joking, which has the capacity to undermine, invalidate and injure feelings. If you were subjected to a degrading joke about your spouse, your children or your religion, would you feel uncomfortable? Would you laugh just to go along with the flow of things, or would you speak up? We hope that you would speak up in a reasonable, measured way, and allow us to make corrections to protect ensure the professionalism of our workplace, and we hope that you would not bear lingering resentment, or “hold a grudge” after we do so.

What is funny to one person may be grossly offensive or hurtful to another. Demeaning humor is not funny; it is simply destructive. Offensive humor can degrade individuals, organizations, ideals and values, and when misused it can destroy morale. Saying that one is “just joking” doesn’t soften the impact of a degrading joke or a hurtful prank. We appreciate a good sense of humor and we dread a bad one. The subject of humor, and what constitutes a good sense of humor, could fill volumes. For purposes of this written policy, we have chosen to live by some very simple rules. If an employee’s joking causes an employee to feel shame, hurt, embarrassment, offense or just makes one feel badly, we ask that they report the situation directly to Brett Godfrey (even if he was the source of the offensive humor) or to one’s immediate supervisor. If such a report fails to result in immediate improvement of the situation, we ask the offended employee to inform the firm in writing. We encourage any employee troubled by such a situation to be willing to work with with us in good faith until a satisfactory result is obtained, and not to be discouraged if it takes more than a single report to make things better. We do not want any of our personnel to feel threatened by poor judgment on the part of someone who is trying to be funny, but we also don’t want to have people walking on eggshells because there is a hidden standard regarding what is acceptable.

The key to handling unpleasant or tricky situations that arise from attempts at humor is to rely upon this policy, which states that no person in the firm is expected to undergo chronic or ongoing humiliation, or emotional harm under the guise or heading of humor. We are much more concerned with a pattern of abusive conduct than with a single, well-meaning misstep. While we value laughter, we value the feelings and morale of our employees even more. Making everyone feel a lightness of spirit at the expense of a single person is not an acceptable trade-off. Kindness and happiness do not always depend on things being funny; a smile can come from laughter or from relief at being treated considerately. Having one’s colleagues feel safe and at ease is more important than being the life of the party. Everyone makes mistakes, but a pattern of abusive humor is grounds for dismissal. Racial, ethnic, religious or overtly sexual slurs are not tolerable.

When humor is used in a destructive manner, it can become the basis of discipline or discharge from the Firm. The key is to use good judgment, though the judgment of the Firm will govern these situations. Advance warnings may or may not precede disciplinary action, depending upon the severity of the situation.

The occasional use of swear words (as distinguished from slang to describe sex organs, sexual orientation, racial or ethnic background, religious affiliation or gender) are not particularly concerning to the firm so long as these words are not used in conversations with clients, courts or opposing counsel. Any kind of slang that singles out a racial or religious group, or a particular gender or sexual preference, or which chronically belittles a fellow worker is generally off limits and may the basis of corrective action by the Firm, ranging from a gentle nudge to abrupt termination, depending upon the gravity of the situation. The safest approach is to tread lightly and show consideration for everyone in your presence.

Conclusion

When one considers the requirements stated above in their totality, it would be easy to simply consider all of them nothing more than common sense with adequate sensitivity to the feelings of others. The requirements have been reduced to writing to avoid any argument about what that includes or how those simple labels will actually be applied in the Firm. Treat your colleagues well, and they will treat you well. Offend not, walk on eggshells not, and rely upon good faith communication and courtesy to see you through the day. Behave at all times as a professional in your mode of dress, conduct and relations with others.