Courthouse Professionalism: Not Just for Judges and Lawyers

For those of you who work in a courthouse or go to court on a regular basis: have you ever stopped to consider the administration of justice from the perspective of an average person visiting the courthouse for the first time?  Perhaps someone visits to file a name change petition or deal with a traffic ticket, perhaps they are subpoenaed to be a witness or attend a hearing with their attorney.  Whatever the reason for the visit, the process and language of the business conducted in our courthouses can be bewildering and intimidating to the uninitiated.

That’s why the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism developed a courthouse professionalism program. This cross-disciplinary training program brings together representatives from every type of person who works in the courthouse, challenging them to consider ways they can increase their professionalism and service to those who access our judicial system.

The Courthouse Cross-Disciplinary Training

In 2015, the Commission traveled to the 14th Judicial Circuit in Rock Island and the 8th Judicial Circuit in Quincy to facilitate cross-disciplinary training to groups of law and law-related professionals including judges, attorneys, court reporters, bailiffs, correctional officers, deputies, circuit clerks, and other court personnel. The program, Professionalism: Perspectives and Perceptions, was the Commission’s first offering as a newly accredited CLE provider.

Preparing for the Cross-Disciplinary Training

In preparation for the course, Commission staff meets with a team of court personnel, including clerks, court reporters, sheriffs, 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 circuit courthouses. These issues frame the course development.  For example, a positive example received was standing when a judge enters or leaves a courtroom and a negative example was staff being gruff or dismissive to pro se litigants who may appear in a courtroom asking to see a judge even though their case is not scheduled to be heard that day.

With these issues in mind, the Commission drafts a skit portraying a parody of unprofessional behavior at a generic court call. The roles are assigned to give members of the court community a different perspective than they normally have, e.g., the judge could be played by a clerk, a lawyer could be played by a sheriff, etc. The local legal community enjoys the comedy of the role assignments.

The Day-Of Experience

The day of the training opens with a short pre-program survey and an overview of the work of the courts. The skit follows, gaining a lot of laughs and serving as an ice breaker and jumping off point for dialogue during the training.

Following the skit, the Commission, through its commissioners and staff, presents information on how to develop better listening skills and the challenges of multi-generational communication. After the presentation, attendees are split into smaller predetermined groups, each containing representatives from various departments in the courts. There, the small group participants are guided through a facilitated discussion about identifying and addressing the professionalism issues in their respective courthouses or areas of work.

Participants then gather together for a large group debrief in which each of the small groups shares the issues they identified and their ideas for improvements. The final activity asks each participant to write down their response to the following: “What I learned today that I want to incorporate into my workday beginning Monday (or next workday)…”

Does the Cross-Disciplinary Training Work?

Three months after we did the training in the 8th Judicial Circuit, we asked participating lawyers the same questions they received at the start of the training. As you can see in the graph, feedback was positive.

Courthouse Professionalism Chart

It demonstrates the utility of programs like this to improve the professionalism of our courthouses and enhance the communication between courthouse participants. By involving all personnel who work in the court system, we can reach the ultimate goal of bettering the customer experience of court patrons. Moreover the program fulfills the purpose of the Commission:

To promote among both lawyers and judges in Illinois greater integrity, professionalism and civility; to foster commitment to the elimination of bias and divisiveness within the legal and judicial systems; and to ensure those systems provide equitable, efficient and effective service to the citizens of Illinois.

After one of our sessions, I overheard a clerk say 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.”  Wow.  That’s what it is all about.

The Commission will be facilitating this program with judicial circuits throughout Illinois over the next year. Feel free to contact us if you want to learn more about the program or find out if your circuit will be doing a program in the near future.

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