Erika Harold is a litigation attorney at Meyer Capel, P.C. in Champaign, Illinois, where she handles complex commercial litigation matters and disputes involving wills, estates and trusts. She has served on the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism since 2017.
Why did you want to become a lawyer?
When I was in high school, I was the victim of racial and sexual harassment and ultimately had to transfer to a different school because of the hostile environment that had been created. After leaving the school, I explored various forms of legal recourse. However, lawyers explained to me that the case law surrounding Title IX and schools’ responsibility for protecting students from peer-to-peer sexual harassment was still being developed and the Supreme Court had yet to resolve the split among the circuits. Accordingly, firms were unwilling to represent me on a contingency basis, and I was financially unable to pursue litigation. But I began reading court decisions related to Title IX, attempting to comprehend the legal issues at stake and determine why these precedents were barriers to achieving justice.
As frustrated as I was with these legal decisions, through the process of studying them, I became fascinated by the legal arguments and strategies being advanced and began seriously considering a career in law. That feeling of being powerless to pursue legal recourse for myself motivated me to become a litigator, as I wanted a career that would enable me to advocate on clients’ behalf and protect their interests.
You’re a nationally recognized advocate for bullying prevention. How can the legal profession better address bullying and harassment?
By its nature, the practice of law is often adversarial, and imbalances of power exist both in courtrooms and law firms. Moreover, some clients view kindness as weakness and want lawyers to behave in an unduly aggressive or combative fashion. Accordingly, the challenge for the legal profession in addressing bullying and harassment is to find ways of realigning incentive structures so that civility and professionalism are rewarded. Not only does this align with our civic and ethical responsibilities as lawyers and citizens, but it also will allow for a more efficient, economical and constructive way of practicing law.
Law firms will have to be leaders in incorporating elements of civility and professionalism into their review and compensation metrics if real change is to be effectuated. Additionally, law firms must work to foster environments in which people who are being harassed within firms feel comfortable reporting it without fearing retaliation and loss of advancement opportunities. In this #MeToo era, it is imperative that the legal profession not only works to bring justice to clients but also works to bring justice to those impacted within the profession.
You’ve been a candidate for political office. How did you navigate incivility on the campaign trail?
Prior to running for office, I wrote a list of values and ideals by which I wanted to run my campaign. Those values included treating opponents as I wished to be treated, challenging policies as opposed to demonizing people and seeking to find common ground whenever possible. I was not naïve enough to think that I could impose those ideals upon others, but I was committed to trying to live up to them. I also communicated those values to members of my campaign staff because I wanted to create a campaign culture of civility and fair play.
One of the greatest catalysts for incivility in campaigns is social media. While social media is an indispensable part of modern campaigns, it also can be a vehicle for highly toxic and incendiary communication. I navigated that by engaging with people who engaged in good faith and simply muting those who directed racist, sexist or otherwise hateful language at me.
I also tried to keep in mind that famous passage from President Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
What’s one thing lawyers can do today to champion civility in the profession?
Plato once said: “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there.” Lawyers can look for opportunities to publicly recognize and champion other lawyers who practice law in a way that exhibits civility. The Commission’s Lawyer Spotlight highlights attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. I would encourage each person who reads this piece to nominate a lawyer to be featured in the Commission’s Lawyer Spotlight (email@example.com), and then email that person a note of appreciation for their civility and professionalism. What we honor as a legal profession is what will be cultivated in it.
How do you spend your time outside of the Commission?
I am a litigation/dispute resolution attorney at Meyer Capel, P.C. in Champaign. I represent clients in disputes involving commercial contracts, shareholder agreements, construction projects, and trust and estate administration. Also, I advise nonprofit clients in matters involving statutory and constitutional interpretation.
Outside of work, I serve on the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Equality, Prison Fellowship’s Board of Directors and Trinity International University’s Board of Regents. Motivational speaking is one of my passions, and I am a keynote speaker at conferences and events focused on civic engagement, leadership, faith, civility and empowering young people.
Having been born and raised in Champaign-Urbana, I also root for the Fighting Illini during football and basketball seasons and am predicting a bowl game and March Madness appearance for the Illini this season. I also love being an Auntie and take every opportunity I can to create memories with my niece and nephews, whether it is taking them to museums, going skywatching or planning movie nights.
How is the Commission’s work impacting the Illinois legal and judicial communities?
As a nationally recognized leader in the fields of civility and professionalism, the Commission has a unique platform from which to promote innovation and inclusion within Illinois’ legal community. One of the Commission’s signature events is its annual The Future Is Now conference, convening national thought leaders to discuss cutting-edge issues relating to professionalism, civility and innovation. This conference is attended by lawyers throughout Illinois and provides an exciting opportunity for Illinois’ legal community to re-imagine the delivery of legal services in Illinois and to commit to bridging the access to justice gap.
The Commission also has recommended modifications of the CLE requirements, including the addition of diversity and inclusion, and mental health and substance abuse course requirements. These additions were aimed at highlighting some of the unique challenges lawyers face and providing tools to help lawyers address them.
The Commission’s goal is to create an Illinois legal community that is stronger, healthier, more inclusive and better equipped to meet clients’ needs; I could not be more proud to be part of this mission!
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 Erika Harold here.