Trial attorneys feel at home in the well of the court, advocating for their clients. Veteran judges know the view from the bench well, conducting the court’s business. Courthouse employees across the Land of Lincoln constitute a well-oiled machine inside the brick and mortar buildings, each fulfilling their role serving justice for our citizens in civil and criminal matters, day after day.
But have you ever stopped to consider the administration of justice from the perspective of the patron? Maybe they are visiting the courthouse for the first time. Perhaps attending court to deal with a traffic ticket or find information on how to get an order of protection. Or maybe they were subpoenaed to be a witness or are attending a hearing to support a family member who was a victim to a crime. They may not speak English as a first language. Whatever the reason for the visit, the process and language of the business conducted in our courthouses can be bewildering and intimidating.
Some patrons may not be a stranger to the courthouse, but may be entering with past negative experiences. And when they enter, many do encounter friendly help. Some, however, may feel like they receive begrudging assistance or even indifference to their needs. They end up leaving with a sense that the justice system failed them that day, simply based on their encounters with the level of professionalism demonstrated by those who work in the courthouse.
That’s why the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism developed its Courthouse Professionalism Training program. This training program brings together representatives from every segment of the courthouse – security, clerks, judges, court reporters, lawyers, administration, and so on – to step into the shoes of courthouse patrons to see their perceptions and understand their perspectives. The Commission challenges them to consider ways they can increase their professionalism and service to those who access our judicial system.
The Courthouse Professionalism Training
In 2015, after becoming an Accredited CLE Provider, the Commission presented the program twice. It traveled to the 14th Judicial Circuit in Rock Island and the 8th Judicial Circuit in Quincy to facilitate courthouse professionalism training to groups of law and law-related professionals including judges, attorneys, court reporters, bailiffs, correctional officers, deputies, circuit clerks, and other court personnel.
In 2016, the Commission continued the training in the 18th Judicial Circuit Court in Wheaton and the 19th Judicial Circuit in Waukegan. Further training requests continue to be received as the Commission plans further outreach of the program across the state into 2017.
The learning objectives of the program are for participants to recognize the challenges and perspectives of courthouse patrons and professionals, understand the connection between civility and professionalism and the public’s trust and confidence in our legal system, and apply strategies to improve courthouse patrons’ experience and strengthen professionalism. Attorney participants receive 2.0 hours professional responsibility CLE credit.
Every Courthouse Professionalism Training is Unique
In preparation for the course, Commission staff meets with a team of personnel, including clerks, court reporters, sheriff deputies, lawyers and judges, hand-picked by the Chief Judge. This team coordinates planning of the program to make sure the program resonates with each circuit’s unique legal community.
The team identifies professionalism issues – both positive and negative – that have arisen in the courthouses. These issues frame the course development, including the content of an ice-breaker skit that serves to draw participants into the program.
Training (Half) Day
The training opens with an overview of the work of the courts and the skit, a parody of professionalism. A lively, full-group discussion follows on how it made them feel to observe the skit while pretending to be a pro se litigant. In this way, participants are asked to put themselves in the shoes of courthouse patrons for a new perspective.
Following the skit, the Commission, through its commissioners and staff, presents information on bringing professionalism into the courthouse, the recent 2015 Supreme Court of Illinois and AOIC statewide court user survey results, and how to develop better listening skills in serving the public and working with their colleagues.
After the presentation, attendees break off into discussion groups, each containing representatives from various departments in the courts. There, the small group participants have a facilitated discussion to identify professionalism challenges as well as possible solutions to those challenges.
Finally, participants gather together for a large group debrief in which each of the small groups share the issues identified and ideas for improvements. They leave the session with the following prompt in mind: “What I learned today that I want to incorporate into my workday beginning tomorrow…”
Does the Courthouse Professionalism Training Work?
We use a pre and post program survey to evaluate the perceptions of professionalism before and three months after the training. The feedback has consistently shown increased awareness and use of skills to enhance professionalism.
After one of our sessions, a clerk was overheard saying to her judge, “Judge, I just want to say that I never thought about my job this way before. I am going to do better.” At another training, it was gratifying to hear a participant say at the end of the program that she already had a list of five things she is going to start to do differently in her workday to enhance professionalism. That’s what it is all about!
The Commission will continue to facilitate this program with judicial circuits throughout Illinois. Feel free to contact me if you want to learn more about the program or find out if your circuit will be doing a program in the near future.