Diversity & Health of Bench & Bar

ScalesThe Illinois Supreme Court has promulgated Rules demonstrating its commitment to an inclusive bench and bar and demonstrating leadership in providing the building blocks for a healthier, more rewarding legal profession.  The Supreme Court’s vision is encapsulated in Supreme Court Rule 799, the Rule creating the Commission on Professionalism and Rule 794 (d), the Rule defining the professional responsibility requirement of mandatory continuing legal education (CLE) in our State.  By taking advantage of the provisions of these Rules, as well as the Rule allowing CLE credit for certain non-traditional activities (Rule 795(d)(3)), bar associations and other professional organizations can offer quality professional responsibility CLE that can support diversity, civility, wellness, and the high aspirations of our profession.  This article will provide you with background and guidance for doing so.

The Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism was established following several years of study by a Supreme Court Committee initially formed to study incivility in our profession and to make recommendations to the Court to counter the misperception that zealous advocacy on behalf of a client required aggressive, Rambo-style litigation tactics.

The purpose of the Commission on Professionalism is:  “to promote among the lawyers and judges of Illinois principles of integrity, professionalism and civility; to foster a commitment to the elimination of bias and divisiveness within the legal and judicial systems; and to ensure that those systems provide equitable, effective, and efficient resolution of problems and disputes for the people of Illinois.”  S.Ct.R.799(a).   This broad purpose of the Commission can be accomplished, in part, through the vehicle of professional responsibility CLE.  Professional responsibility CLE must be approved by the Commission on Professionalism.  The Commission’s duties include “reviewing and approving the content of courses and activities offered to fulfill the professional responsibility requirement” and “assisting CLE providers with the development of courses and activities offered to fulfill the professional responsibility requirement.”  S.Ct.R.799(c)(4) and (6).   By relegating the substance and quality of professional responsibility CLE to an organization separate from the organization responsible for the administration and compliance aspects of CLE (handled by the MCLE Board), the Court emphasizes the importance of professional responsibility CLE to our profession, the individuals who make up our profession, and to the people of Illinois.  Illinois is unique among the many states that require mandatory CLE in mandating a substantive review of professional responsibility CLE by an organization different from the one responsible for administration and compliance issues.

The Court also set Illinois up as a leader by adopting a broad definition of professional responsibility CLE.  Rule 794requires that, “[a] minimum of four of the total hours required for any two-year period must be in the area of professionalism, diversity issues, mental illness and addiction issues, civility, or legal ethics.”  S.Ct. R. 794(d)(1).  Many states require ethics credits, some also require professionalism credits or diversity or elimination of bias credits, but few, if any, include the breadth of topics within the professional responsibility rubric as Illinois does.  By establishing a definition of professional responsibility CLE that expressly includes diversity, as well as civility and mental and physical wellness issues, the Court emphasized a commitment to greater inclusion  of the bench and bar and to supporting the mental and physical well-being of the individuals in the legal profession in the broadest sense.

In 2008, the Commission on Professionalism processed over 2,500 applications from CLE providers across 40 states by for professional responsibility credit.  The application submitted to the Commission asks providers to self-select the content of their courses with respect to each of the five areas of the professional responsibility rule.  The content distribution for all courses submitted by CLE providers was:  legal ethics 57.5%, professionalism, 31%, diversity 6%, mental illness and addiction issues 3.5%, and civility 2%.  The heavy emphasis on legal ethics is understandable because compliance with the ethical rules establishes the floor of acceptable conduct.  Because so many providers are out of state, and are developing courses for presentation in many states, they may not be aware of the possibilities to develop courses in the areas of diversity, civility, and wellness.  The Commission staff has spent considerable time working with CLE providers, including ISBA’s Jeanne Heaton, in collaborative efforts that have resulted in several best practices or model courses that address the substantive areas of professionalism, diversity, and civility.

In addition, the Commission’s collaboration with providers has resulted in a workshop designed to equip presenters with the skills of facilitation, rather than lecture, as a delivery method.  The lecture mode of delivery may be appropriate for straight transfers of information, but many topics of professional responsibility CLE are better explored in a more active learning environment that involves the participants, who themselves have considerable wisdom and knowledge to impart.   Much of this movement has been orchestrated by the Commission’s Education Director, Donna Crawford, a former educator and assistant superintendent for curriculum, who brings a wealth of knowledge to her post, particularly with respect to adult learning theory and delivery methods of coursework.

If you are a member of a bar association committee charged with developing a CLE program or committee meeting in the area of professional responsibility, please feel free to contact the Commission on Professionalism for assistance.  To help providers in developing professional responsibility CLE courses, the Commission has posted on its website under “Education Resources” a Course Development Checklist that we urge all providers to forward to their committee chairs or others charged with developing CLE.  As this checklist reflects, professional responsibility courses, just like substantive legal CLE, must meet the eligibility standards of Rule 795(a)(1) and (2), including having as its primary objective to increase participants’ competence as attorneys.  We can help you develop an interactive program in the area of professional responsibility CLE that can help effectuate the change that is at the core of our mission. We also can assist if a committee wishes to add a professional responsibility component to a substantive law CLE.

According to Commission’s surveys of CLE providers and lawyers conducted in December 2009, there is a need and desire for professional responsibility components that can complement a CLE in a substantive legal area.  If a participant attends a family law CLE, for example, he or she would like at least a portion of that CLE to be devoted to ethics or professional responsibility issues germane to practitioners in the area of family law.   Because CLE may be earned in increments of one half hour, it is not too challenging to develop a factual scenario or other program segment that allows learning of professional responsibility concepts in the context of a broader substantive CLE.

In addition to more traditional CLE programs, non-traditional CLE credit is available for attendance at bar association or professional association meetings “at which substantive law, matters of practice, professionalism, diversity issues, mental illness and addiction issues, civility, or legal ethics are discussed.” Rule 795(d)(3).   Once again, the MCLE eligibility standards apply, i.e., there must be significant intellectual, educational or practical content with a primary objective to increase each participant’s professional competence as an attorney.   See Rule 795(a)(1) and (2).  For example, a meeting devoted to a discussion of diversity, civility, or substance abuse issues must contain a nexus to the practice of law.   Individual attorneys can apply for credit by submitting Attorney Application C—non-traditional CLE, available on the website of the Commission on Professionalism.

Professional responsibility CLE can be a great way to elevate our profession to a higher level.  Let us know how we can help you developing quality professional responsibility CLE. In this way, we can together maximize the potential that the Court articulated in creating forward-thinking CLE Rules that may result in a more rewarding career.

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Jayne Reardon
As a prior trial lawyer, Jayne leads lawyers to embrace the transformative possibilities of future law practice. As a prior disciplinary counsel, Jayne is passionate about promoting the core values of the legal profession. She is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School and the University of Notre Dame. Jayne lives in Park Ridge, Illinois with her husband and those of her four children who are not otherwise living in college towns and beyond.
Jayne Reardon

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