Cynthia Fountaine is a professor of law at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Illinois, where she focuses on issues relating to the powers of government and access to justice, with particular emphasis on the federal courts’ role in enforcing individual rights. She was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism in 2014.
Why did you want to become a lawyer?
I wanted to be a lawyer since I was pretty young—in high school or maybe even before that. I wanted a career in which I could make a difference, and I grew up observing the power of law to make a difference in people’s lives. The law was very appealing to me for that reason. Then, almost immediately after I began law school, I knew I wanted to be a law professor. I’d come from a long line of teachers and so I had the teaching bug. I also loved writing and thought that an academic career would enable me to combine all the things I’m passionate about into one career.
What I didn’t expect was how deeply satisfying my work with students would be. I can’t think of any better career than helping young lawyers move toward accomplishing their goals and, in so doing, making a positive impact in their communities and the profession.
What advice would you give women entering the legal education profession?
First and foremost, find your passion and follow it. Second, find a network of mentors and colleagues who will help you find the pathways to achieving your goals. Also, take risks and try new things. Be open and ready to take advantage of opportunities that come your way. But, also, look for ways to create your own opportunities to be successful. Laugh a lot and don’t hesitate to let students see who you really are.
You’ve taught professionalism courses at SIU Law. What unique professionalism challenges face the next generation of attorneys?
I’ve taught Professionalism as well as Professional Responsibility (aka Legal Profession or Legal Ethics). I think the next generation of lawyers faces many new challenges one of which is being able to nimbly respond to changes in the way legal services are delivered. We have had a relatively static model of legal services delivery in the past, and that needs to change for several reasons.
One is that there is still a staggering amount of unmet legal need and lawyers need to figure out how to serve clients who have little or no access to legal services. Another is that technology is revolutionizing the way we live; we need to learn how to take advantage of what technology offers in terms of more efficient and better provision of legal services.
The profession will face other challenges, of course, in this increasingly globalized legal environment; but it’s going to be incumbent on the next generation of lawyers to develop and implement new business models that will improve access to justice for everyone.
How can lawyers encourage civility and professionalism in new attorneys?
There are so many things lawyers can do, but I think most fundamentally, lawyers can treat other lawyers—as well as clients and adversaries—with respect, kindness and empathy. I think that by modeling professional behavior and civility, new attorneys will come to understand the expectations as well as the ideals of professionalism.
I think it’s important to work with law students to instill the values of civility and professionalism from very early in their legal education. As you mentioned above, I’ve taught Professionalism—a unique course at SIU Law that enables students to begin to form their own professional identity in their first year of law school. One of the things I enjoy most about this course is the process the students go through in drafting their class’s Declaration of Professional Commitment.
As background for their drafting project, the students read and discuss various materials related to professionalism, civility and the lawyer’s role in ensuring access to justice. They always end up with a unique declaration that reflects their class’s personality and their own commitment to the professional values that we all hold dear.
In addition, I think that it’s important for lawyers to listen to and respect what new lawyers bring to the profession. It’s a two-way street, not a one-way street. Each generation of lawyers impacts the profession in meaningful ways, and we, the more experienced generation, need to be open to new ideas and new ways of doing things. We need to work with the new generation of lawyers to build an even better profession that serves our communities and our clients even more effectively.
How does CLE impact the Illinois legal and judicial communities?
CLE is so very important for many reasons, in addition to the obvious benefits of staying current on the law. As a self-regulating profession, we all have a responsibility to engage actively in improving the profession, and CLE provides lawyers with opportunities to do this. I’m especially proud of the role of the Commission [on Professionalism] in the new diversity CLE and wellness CLE requirements, and the online courses we’ve developed to enhance the delivery of CLE.
How do you spend your time outside of the Commission?
I spend most of my time as a law professor focusing on my students. It’s so inspiring to me to work with law students who have so much enthusiasm about the law. They are the future, and the future is bright. I also have a husband and two adult children who I enjoy spending time with.
Our commissioners are appointed by the Illinois Supreme Court. They consist of judges, lawyers and non-legal professionals who embody the ideals of professionalism. Meet other commissioners like Cynthia Fountaine here.