Fabric of Our Profession

The early years of legal practice are, for most attorneys, very challenging ones. Recent law graduates often received limited practice experience while in law school, and preparation for the bar exam does little to advance understanding of all of the real-world aspects of what it is like to actually practice law. The knowledge and insight of more-experienced attorney mentors is invaluable to helping recent bar admittees “learn the ropes” of law practice. Thanks to the Illinois Supreme Court’s recent approval of a recommendation of the Commission on Professionalism, lawyers engaging in an approved mentoring program may receive professional responsibility CLE credit. New Supreme Court Rule 795(d)(12) was adopted by the Court in October 2010, and the Commission is in the process of developing implementation guidelines. A state-wide program now taking shape that will provide structure and assistance to experienced attorneys wishing to give much-needed mentoring support and guidance to their recently-admitted colleagues while at the same time earning CLE credit.

Under the Supreme Court Rules, the Commission on Professionalism is charged with the duty of approving the substance of professional responsibility courses or activities and with assisting providers in developing quality courses. Surveys of both providers and attorneys during the first few years of operation showed that new lawyers could profit from more hands-on instruction about professionalism topics; therefore, the Commission began researching mentoring as a way for more experienced lawyers to share practical knowledge and skills with new lawyers during the critical transition phase between law student and practitioner.

Beginning in 2008, a pilot professionalism project in the 17th Judicial Circuit, including Rockford, Illinois, paired each newly-admitted lawyer with a more experienced attorney for one year. The idea was to have experienced attorneys help new attorneys develop practical knowledge about the practice and to demonstrate appropriate professional behavior and attitude. The resulting feedback was positive. Mentees appreciated the networking and informal, fact-specific advice provided, and, surprisingly, mentors also reported significant benefits from the relationship, including learning new ways for technology to enhance their practice and ensuring that good young lawyers stay in the community. Mentoring thus is a process whereby education is weaved into the social fabric of the legal community.

Recognizing that good mentoring is extremely valuable for building and maintaining a professional identity and common purpose, as well as for the transference of practical knowledge and skills, the Commissioners recommended to the Court that the activity of lawyer to lawyer mentoring be a non-traditional activity for which professional responsibility CLE may be earned. The mentoring contemplated by the Commission serves two important goals: first, the development of a relationship between a new lawyer and a more experienced lawyer; and second, education about professional responsibility topics that require situational or practical exposition to be fully appreciated.

New Supreme Court Rule 795(d)(12) allows lawyers completing a comprehensive, year-long structured mentoring program, as either mentor or mentee, to earn professional responsibility credit (of up to six hours) during the two-year reporting period of completion, provided that the mentoring program is pre-approved by the Commission on Professionalism. The credit is available to mentees during the first three years of their practice.

Implementation of the Rule is being developed. The Commission has convened an advisory committee consisting of representatives from courts, law firms, government, and bar associations. Refining feedback from the pilot project and the experience of other jurisdictions, the committee and the Commission are working together to develop documents that will guide organizations in pairing and training interested mentors and mentees and that will guide mentoring pairs through activities over twelve months that will earn them six hours of professional responsibility CLE credit. A training and orientation program is being developed, along with a mentoring plan consisting of worksheets organized around the five substantive areas of professional responsibility CLE (legal ethics, professionalism, diversity, civility, and substance abuse and mental illness) from which the mentoring pair can select activities and discussions for the twelve months of the formal relationship.

One necessary step to implementation involves Supreme Court Rule change recommendations, being undertaken jointly by the Commission and the MCLE Board, to allow attorneys to take advantage of the new mentoring rule. It is anticipated that the Rule outlining a new attorney’s Basic Skills requirement will be modified to allow an approved mentoring program to satisfy the professional responsibility component of the new lawyer’s required CLE. In addition, we have proposed that Rule 794 be modified and to allow both mentees and mentors to carryover from one reporting period to the next six hours of professional responsibility credit.

The Commission envisions the lawyer to lawyer mentoring program to be a powerful way to pass on the highest aspirations of the legal profession to the next generation of attorneys.  Through mentoring relationships, we engender excitement of learning and renew pride and purpose in our work among our professional community.  Where better will new lawyers learn ethical and professional behavior, the skills of civility, integrity, inclusion and work/personal life balance than from an experienced mentor? Check the website of the Commission on Professionalism as further information about new lawyer mentoring is expected to be available in the second quarter of 2011.

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