Progress, Our Most Important Product?

I was channel surfing through C-Span recently when I caught a snippet of a commencement address in which the speaker admonished the young graduates to reject the plaint of their elders who reveled in the past and decried the decline in societal values. Things, said the speaker, were never better. He opined that those who reveled in the past had selective memories they viewed through spectacles of frosted glass.

I'm not so sure. Things are, granted, better in a lot of ways. At least material things. Look, you can go to Walgreens and buy a miniature TV for $19, a disposable camera for half that and, for $4.99, a tube of fluoride toothpaste that in one fell swoop will whiten your choppers and either put your dentist out of business or turn him into a gum disease specialist. So maybe in a lot of ways material things are more abundant, easier to obtain and appear to make life easier. But even the most progressive of us have to admit that values have changed. And so have the ways we interact with each other. This, unfortunately, is especially true among lawyers.

What started me down this path was a recent experience which left me with smoke coming out of my ears. I was co-counseling a case with a terrific young lawyer, a fellow much smarter than I and someone from whom I learned a ton about an area in which I had no previous experience. We were behind on points, way behind. The outcome was as inevitable as it was obvious. We all recognized this. Nevertheless opposing counsel made a special point of offering information--I refuse to dignify it even semantically by calling it evidence-- he didn't need with the sole purpose of embarrassing my co-counsel. To make matters worse, it was in a forum that guaranteed the embarrassment would be publicized and known beyond the four walls within which the proceedings occurred.

That was not the way I was taught to practice law by those older and wiser than I. I was taught first protect your client and, if possible, protect your adversary. After all, as a judge recently reminded me, "One day you're the hammer; the next day you're the nail."

When, I asked myself, did that rule change? Was there a particular event that escaped my notice? Some memo I never got? A meeting I didn't attend? Perhaps an unopened e-mail? Was it hidden somewhere in the far back pages of the Connecticut Law Journal between the new regulations for the Dental Commission and the State Tree Protection Examining Board? When did the object of the game change from winning your case to screwing your opponent?

There's a weekly snippet in Sports Illustrated, "Signs of the Apocalypse," which highlights some off-base statement or event that makes you realize things have really gotten out of whack. Maybe it was one of those. Did it all begin when they did away with the Latin Mass? When the word "latte" entered our everyday vocabulary? When people stopped pushing lawnmowers and started riding them? Maybe when you could change channels without getting up from the couch? Or when South Beach became a dietary regimen instead of a geographic location? Perhaps when navels were transformed from places where you tickled your three year-old into display cases for implements that would get a reaction out of every metal detector from here to Vladisvostok? Was it when we stopped calling them "ice-boxes" and employed the more refined, polysyllabic "refrigerator". Or when we had a president capable of pronouncing the latter without stumbling. [Sorry. Couldn't resist.]

The list goes on. Pre-season, not exhibition games. Tissues, not Kleenexes. The designated hitter. SUV's, not Jeeps. "Areas of Refuge" instead of Fire Escapes. Neon-lit gyms that smell like perfume counters instead of used sweatsocks.

Personal Floatation Devices instead of lifesavers. Faxes? Voicemail? Blackberrys? Come on. Personal Trainers instead of jumping jacks, push-ups and sit-ups. MTV. Howard Stern. "Fear Factor" for God's sake. And, of course, for us, "Litigators", not lawyers. Changes, but not necessarily progress.

The beat goes on. Louder, more frenetic, less predictable, and much less comfortable. I'm stuck, I'm afraid, in a land of windshield wipers with only two speeds, car windows that you roll up by hand, barbers not hairstylists and a strong belief that, indeed, what this country does need is a good five-cent cigar.

All that and lawyers who play by the rules. The old rules.