When Steven Elrod assumed the role of president of the Chicago Bar Association (CBA) in June 2018, he set his agenda to focus on the three C’s: civics, collegiality and civility. Since then, he has instilled civility throughout the CBA’s longstanding CLEs and other educational programming. He has also spearheaded new partnerships with the American Board of Trial Advocates and the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism to advance civility and professionalism among lawyers in Illinois.
We caught up with Steven to discuss his civility initiative and what we can expect from the CBA this year.
What’s the importance of civility in the legal profession?
Respectful public discourse and civility are at the core of our democracy, and provide a fundamental cornerstone of the legal profession. Unfortunately, we are daily witnesses to a growing coarseness in our society in our social and political dialogue, and incivility is on the rise.
While this has become particularly problematic at the highest level of our federal government, it’s also a big issue within the legal profession. There’s a lack of respect and civility by and among lawyers. A perceived lack of civility has also been seen as a cause of the loss of the public’s faith in the legal profession.
The legal profession plays a very important role in society, and civility is a key component to the ethical and public service work that lawyers perform on behalf of their clients. As a result, I believe that members of the legal profession need to do everything we can to reverse the rise of incivility in our profession.
How have people responded to your civility initiative?
There has been a tremendously positive response to this initiative, not only from the members of the CBA, but across Chicago’s legal community. The seminars and programs we hosted this fall on this subject have been the highest attended seminars in recent years at the CBA. I really do believe that there’s an understanding and a recognition that a return to civility makes the practice of law less stressful, more productive and so much more enjoyable.
In your view, why is incivility on the rise?
The pressures and stresses of today’s legal practice are significant, and for some lawyers they can be overwhelming. Information overload, intense focus on profitability and the multiplicities of the practice make it increasingly difficult. I fully recognize that we’re a profession of advocates and that we have a responsibility to zealously represent our clients at all times. But I truly believe that we can be zealous advocates without being uncivil or undignified.
Could you share a bit about CBA’s initiatives aimed at combating incivility?
Last month the CBA’s Young Lawyers Section produced a podcast on the topic titled “The Civility in Uncivil Times.” The podcast featured guests from the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism [Jayne Reardon] and the Circuit Court of Cook County [Judge Clare McWilliams] to discuss methods to shift the legal profession’s culture to one of greater respect and civility.
In addition, the CBA and the American Board of Trial Advocates-Illinois Chapter presented a CLE program on civility in the law in November, which focused on promoting and elevating the standards of integrity, honor and courtesy in the legal profession. The program received tremendous feedback from attendees.
We look forward to partnering with the Commission on Professionalism on an in-depth civility program this spring, which is currently in the planning stages.
Are there examples of lawyers or other members of the community advancing civility that stand out?
For me, there are a number of examples of lawyers and others who stand out when it comes to advancing civility, starting with my father who was an attorney and elected official.
Another example is my mentor Chesterfield Smith, a founder of the firm where I practice, Holland & Knight. He was a true example of civility in the profession and his passion for community and civic service inspired me greatly.
I also believe that the late Dawn Clark Netsch, an Illinois political leader and law professor, was a great example for the cause of civility. I now teach her state and local government class at Northwestern Law School. Using her materials and approach to the law reminds me every day of her love of the law and how her shining example of civility made an impact on the legal profession.
What’s one thing we can do today to advance civility?
I think the best thing we can do is recognize the challenges that exist, continue to have an open dialogue about this subject, and work to raise awareness and promote continuing education about civility, particularly among younger lawyers. The senior members of our bar association can play a huge role in turning this around as leaders in our communities, our courtrooms and boardrooms. We can and should lead by example.
Steven M. Elrod is a Chicago attorney and chairman of Holland & Knight’s National Land Use and Government Team. He currently serves as president of the Chicago Bar Association.