Expanding Our Definition of Professional Responsibility

Light Bulbs Concept Shining ETHICS, RESPECT, HONESTY and INTEGRITYAnyone who knows me knows that I have complicated feelings about my place of birth. At the moment, the U.K. can best be described as a “mixed bag.”

However, there are certain things I will always love about home, one of which is its governmental “nudge unit.” Officially called The Behavioural Insights Team, the organization, which is based on the work of economists Richard H. Thaler and‎ Cass R. Sunstein, aims to implement small changes in society to influence behavior.

In many regards, professional responsibility CLE uses the same principles: by creating a professional development infrastructure for lawyers, the profession advances incrementally alongside the society it serves.

The Commission on Professionalism’s professional responsibility CLE guidelines are part of this infrastructure and serve as a framework for the education of efficient, effective, and innovative lawyers who are pushing the profession forward.

What does professional responsibility mean?

Professional responsibility, as set forth in the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct, includes an attorney’s obligation to act professionally as a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.

Many of a lawyer’s professional responsibilities are described in the Rules of Professional Conduct, as well as substantive and procedural law. However, the Rules state that “a lawyer is also guided by personal conscience and the approbation of professional peers. A lawyer should strive to attain the highest level of skill, to improve the law and the legal profession and to exemplify the legal profession’s ideals of public service.”

Expanding professional responsibility CLE

It’s been four years and two reporting periods since the Illinois Supreme Court amended Supreme Court Rule 794 to require that attorneys take one hour of diversity and inclusion (D&I) CLE and one hour of mental health and substance abuse (MH&SA) CLE during each two-year reporting period.

After the change, given the challenges in attorney well-being and D&I – like burnout, implicit bias, and harassment – the Commission initially guided CLE developers to focus their course criteria on D&I and MH&SA issues within the practice of law as well as those that lawyers face in their professional lives, which can impact the way they practice law.

After reviewing the data from the past four years, in which the number of D&I and MH&SA courses increased by 50% and 40% respectively from the previous four years, and consulting with CLE providers and stakeholders, it was determined that the parameters for D&I and MH&SA CLE should be expanded to allow for broader course objectives to encourage greater impact.

This expanded content should help lawyers explore the meaning of professional responsibility and implement professional strategies within various wider contexts of their work.

Therefore, effective Nov. 1, 2021, we will be approving courses that “focus on how the content impacts the legal profession and those interacting with it; this can include but is not limited to lawyers, paralegals, clients, judges, and court employees.”

The updated guidelines are available on our website.

Why the expansion?

We recognize that issues like cultural competency, the mental health of clients, and civility across the legal profession can also help attorneys deliver more efficient and effective legal services, which will benefit the profession and the clients served.

Similarly, issues within firms that don’t seem to be directly associated with the practice of law can impact the effectiveness of lawyers.

For example, the high pressure and stress of the legal profession can lead to divisiveness and incivility and negatively impact the public’s impression of lawyers and their trust in the legal system.

Moreover, a firm’s culture can influence the well-being and effectiveness of its employees (and the clients they serve) and bleed into all aspects of the professional lives of attorneys, paralegals, and other support staff.

After all, a better team makes for a better lawyer.

What does this mean for professional responsibility CLE?

As before, professional responsibility CLE courses must connect all topics to the legal profession. However, the Commission encourages providers to explore topics that will help lawyers better understand the needs of the communities and networks around them.

Topics like “Understanding the Culture of Diverse Colleagues,” “Managing Clients with a History of Substance Abuse,” and “Establishing Firmwide Pipeline Programs” may not have qualified for CLE credit before but will be considered under the expanded guidelines.

Given that lawyers are the recipients of continuing legal education, this expansion doesn’t impact our guidance regarding securing highly qualified facilitators who have significant experience educating lawyers or within the legal profession.

When will the expansion be implemented?

The expansion will be applied to courses with a start date of November 1, 2021, or thereafter.  

If your course takes place on or after November 1 and was previously denied professional responsibility CLE credit, please reach out to me at to determine if the course will qualify under the new guidelines.

If your course on or after November 1 was approved for general CLE credit but you think it may also qualify for professional responsibility CLE, we encourage you to resubmit the course with the professional responsibility area selected.

Courses with a start date prior to November 1, 2021, will be accredited based on the previous guidelines.


If you have questions about the expanded guidelines, please reach out to me at or 312-363-6207.

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