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Bar President's Message

Richard D'Addario, Esq., President, Rhode Island Bar Association

The Winter of Our Disconnect

Richard P. D'Addario, Esq.
President, Rhode Island Bar Association

"We should use the knowledge gained from our experiences during this period of turmoil to adopt the valuable and practical advancements that we were forced to make."
As we head into the summer of 2021 and hopefully put the pandemic behind us, it is my pleasure to deliver my last message as President of our Bar Association this past year. I want to take this opportunity to touch on a few items of a personal nature as well as comment on the ongoing issue of civility in the practice of law. 
It certainly has been an unusual and challenging year for all of us on several levels, not the least of which was living in fear of this evasive and interruptive pandemic known as COVID-19. This has been a very real awakening for all of us, and it has made it very clear how fragile our existence is on this planet. For me, it has also resulted in an increasing awareness of how much we rely on technology and all the new tools now at our disposure in our lives. It remains to be seen what the long-term effects will be to our adjustment to life with no direct contact with our family, friends, co-workers, and clients. While technology has allowed us to function on a productive basis, we have truly lived through what felt like the “winter of our disconnect” these past few months. 
In April, I sat on my Probate Court in Tiverton, and five of the cases before me were COVID-19 deaths. Fortunately, my family and I have managed to survive the pandemic up until now and perhaps now that we are fully vaccinated we can start living our lives as we did in the past – free of fear, free of a mask, free of the inability to connect. This is our hope as we move forward. 
I always like to look for the good in everything, even the bad, and for me, there certainly were some positives that came out of the changes that we had to make to keep our practices and lives going. For someone like me, who started practicing law fifty years ago with a legal pad, typewriter, and a telephone as my only tools, the transition to an online, remote practice with all the benefits of technology at my service was beyond comprehension. In the past year, I struggled, but managed, to join Zoom meetings, WebEx court appearances, and access my office computer from my home. I was able to attend numerous Bar Association committee meetings sitting in the comfort of my home office or at my desk at One Courthouse Square. As I did this, I thought how this wouldn’t have been possible even ten years ago, and the realization of how far we have evolved in adding technology to our practice was startling. 
To put all this in some kind of perspective: what we accomplished in the past year or so would not have been possible a mere ten years ago, and we are fortunate to have the tools to function, despite the total disruption of our lives and businesses. 
So where do we go and what do we do with the lessons learned from this past year? There is no question that the practice of law, like all business, has been inalterably changed by the events and developments resulting from the pandemic. As we come out of the pandemic and return to normal, we should embrace change and adopt some of the efficient methods of dispute resolution, such as online conferences, depositions, and hearings. We should use the knowledge gained from our experiences during this period of turmoil to adopt the valuable and practical advancements that we were forced to make. If we do so, we will look back and draw some positive from the negative. 
There have been many topics of interest and concern to me as a member of the Bar here since 1971, and one of them is civility among our members. We are a unique “union” in the sense that we are all trained as lawyers and we all share the same goals, but at the same time we are, at many times, “opponents.” Other professions and occupations, such as doctors, accountants, financial planners, police officers, and firefighters, do not share this reality. Is it a conflict of interest to be civil with your opponent? Can you accomplish your goal of adequately representing your clients while at the same time being courteous in behavior and speech? 
The answer has to be “of course we can, and we should.” In this day and age of increasing polarization in so many ways, in an age of verbally abusive talk shows, hostile social media posts, and an ever-spreading social and economic disparity in our society, this is a serious issue that we must all address. Our Rules of Professional Conduct state it well: “A lawyer should strive to attain the highest level of skill, to improve the law and the legal profession and to exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service.”
It was encouraging to see that 70% of the respondents to our COVID-19 survey felt that civility has increased during the pandemic. Maybe we all felt that we were on camera to a larger audience when we took part in a Zoom conference, hearing, or meeting, so our behavior was altered unconsciously by this method of communication. In addition, there is always the feeling that whatever we say may be recorded, played back at a later date, and our word was solidified by this concept. Maybe the pandemic put into perspective what is important in our lives, gave us a feeling that we were all in this challenge together, and made us more civil to each other. Hopefully this attitude and conduct will continue well after we are back to normal.
Indeed, civility is simple: we should conduct ourselves with respect for our fellow members of the Bar, the Judiciary, our office staff, and our clients. We should always be true to our word, courteous, civil, and professional in all respects. This can be done even while advocating zealously for our clients. As former President Barack Obama said: “Civility requires learning how to disagree without being disagreeable.”