16 Lessons in Professionalism From 16 Years

the Commissioners on a stageIt’s hard to believe that we celebrated the Commission on Professionalism’s 16th anniversary last month.

The Illinois Supreme Court established the Commission in 2005 to promote professionalism among the lawyers and judges of Illinois, and, in turn, to foster equitable, efficient, and effective resolution of problems for the people of the state.

The Court formed the Commission at the same time as it established the MCLE Board to administer mandatory CLE in Illinois.

I joined the Commission as deputy director in 2006 and was appointed executive director in 2009. Since then – thanks to the work of our dedicated Commissioners and talented staff – I’ve seen the Commission grow from a concept into a full-fledged organization with educational and outreach programming that advances professionalism across the Illinois bench and bar.

The profession, our communities, and our nation have done a lot of evolving over the past 16 years. The way we communicate, practice law, and conduct our work has changed drastically – and I don’t see that slowing down soon.

In honor of our anniversary, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons in professionalism I’ve learned over the past 16 years. Here is what I’ve found.

Lessons in professionalism

(1) It does indeed take a village. It takes a concerted effort from all parts of the profession—law schools, law firms, government, the judiciary – to make a difference in the way we interact with one another and those whom we serve.

(2) Civility remains the foundation for respectful dialogue in our government and our workplaces. To defend and grow the bottom line, leaders must pay attention to this. Data shows that when organizational leaders are civil and create processes that promulgate civility, employees respond positively.

(3) The difference between ethics and professionalism is the difference between rules and aspirations. Lawyers of a certain age will recall that the Code of Professional Responsibility had disciplinary rules (violating the rules could lead to prosecution by the ARDC) and ethical considerations (EC) that outlined the behaviors a lawyer should aspire to. When the code was re-written to become the Rules of Professional Conduct in 1983, the ethical considerations weren’t included.

(4) Professionalism is the new EC. Professionalism encompasses everything beyond the minimum requirements in the Rules of Professional Conduct. Professionalism encompasses concepts such as civility, respect, service, and leadership. At the Commission, we like to say that “professionalism is like a performing art, you can always improve with practice.”

(5) Law school is the foundation of professionalism. Law students must understand that they’re entering a distinguished profession when they begin law school. That’s why we partner with Illinois’ nine law schools each year on professionalism orientations that teach 1Ls how to create careers grounded in civility and integrity.

University of Chicago law students reciting the Pledge of Professionalism
University of Chicago law students reciting the Pledge of Professionalism.

(6) Cultivating a diverse attorney pipeline can help address the legal profession’s pernicious diversity challenge. Since 2013, we’ve been a part of Jumpstart, which helps students from traditionally underrepresented communities gain essential skills for succeeding in law school. Jumpstart was launched by retired federal Judge Ann Claire Williams. Between 2020 and 2021, the program saw a 371% increase in student participation.

(7) Break the silos. The legal profession is siloed, but great things happen when silos are dismantled. An example is our courthouse professionalism trainings. These trainings bring together members of the courthouse community (e.g., clerks, judges, sheriffs, lawyers) to explore ways to better serve those who use judicial services. Participant feedback tells us that many of these people are rarely in the same room together and unaware of the challenges that others are facing.

Courthouse Professionalism Training in the 10th Judicial Circuit in Peoria, Ill.
Courthouse Professionalism Training in the 10th Judicial Circuit in Peoria, Ill.

(8) PR CLE matters. Illinois has one of the broadest definitions of professional responsibility (PR) CLE, which increases lawyers’ awareness of topics of ethics, professionalism, civility, diversity and inclusion, and mental health and substance abuse. We approved 11,121 PR CLE courses in 2020. And, thanks to our free online CLEs, we awarded 9,155 hours of free CLE credit.

(9) It’s time to reset employee-employer relations. The pandemic has had a disproportionately negative impact on lawyers who are women or people of color. Now is the time to reset the employee-employer relationship to retain and grow the diverse talent that organizations have attempted to build up over many years.

(10) Resilience is essential… Resilience, or the ability to recover quickly from difficulties, is key to well-being. Research shows that lawyers, who are naturally skeptical and trained to mitigate risks, score very low on the resilience scale. Although uncertainty leads to stress in those with low resilience, the good news is that these uncertain times can provide the petri dish we need to change.

(11) …and you can build it. To foster resilience, as I’ve written previously, you can train yourself to 1) characterize bad events as temporary (e.g., “my boss didn’t like the way I presented that argument,” rather than, “my boss never likes my work”), 2) not let bad events affect unrelated areas of your life (e.g. “that memo wasn’t my best work,” rather than, “I never do anything right”), and 3) stop blaming yourself when bad events occur (e.g., “I didn’t have the resources to finish that project on time,” not “I messed that project up because I can’t do this job”). [Want to build resilience? Take our free online CLE: The Resilient Lawyer]

(12) Lead by listening. Lawyers can make a significant impact by exercising strong but sympathetic leadership skills. As I’ve written before, leadership requires listening, being curious, and embracing change.

(13) Social media is the new yellow pages. Although using social media can include ethical pitfalls, it also presents opportunities to learn, connect with others, and collaborate with those outside your professional network, which can increase the impact. We connect with more than 22,500 people through our LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram platforms.

(14) Mentoring matters. Through mentoring, seasoned lawyers can lay a strong foundation for the future of the legal profession by sharing practice guidance and lessons in professionalism with junior lawyers. The Commission’s one-year mentoring program, which provides 6 hours of CLE, is unique in that it focuses on the five prongs of the PR requirement in Illinois (professionalism, civility, legal ethics, diversity and inclusion, and mental health and substance abuse). Last year, over 600 lawyers from 81 Illinois cities participated in the program, and 99% said they’d recommend it to other lawyers.

(15) Technology has changed the way we work. Exploring innovation in legal technology, as well as its ethical implications, is an essential part of promoting professionalism. And that’s exactly what we do each spring during our The Future Is Now: Legal Services conference. In 2021, 685 attendees from 132 Illinois cities across 28 states and 5 countries joined in on the discussion at The Future Is Now.

(16) Flexibility is crucial. Promoting professionalism in a rapidly changing environment requires a lot of flexibility. The core values of our profession were established decades ago when much of society and the legal profession was closed to women and underrepresented minorities. To remain relevant in our increasingly diverse society, we must modernize and recommit to those core values. This includes a particular focus on what’s working and what isn’t in terms of advancing diversity, equity, and inclusion.

As a bonus, over the past 15 years, I’ve learned that most lawyers care deeply about their profession and enjoy engaging with like-minded individuals on a mission of promoting professionalism. It has been exceedingly rewarding to share this journey with all of you.

Do you have any favorite memories of the Commission from the past 16 years? Share in the comments!

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