When I joined the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism as Deputy Director in 2006, I thought I’d be here for a year or maybe two, until I got my footing and moved on to something else.
See, prior to the Commission on Professionalism, I had left the grueling demands of trial practice to work part-time while my four children were in preschool. However, after they were all in school, I craved a new challenge. When I heard the Illinois Supreme Court had created a brand-new Commission devoted to promoting civility and professionalism, I was intrigued.
Now, 16 short years later, I’m preparing to retire from my role as the Commission on Professionalism’s Executive Director. In doing so, I reflect with gratitude on this position and the intellectual challenge it has provided—but it has given me so much more. The Commission has been a source of emotional fulfillment, joy, and purpose. How did I get so lucky? I’ve identified five notable reasons.
1. The charge is aspirational.
The Illinois Supreme Court enacted Rule 799 establishing the Commission on Professionalism with a broad purpose: to promote among lawyers and judges principles of integrity, professionalism, and civility; to foster commitment to the elimination of bias and divisiveness; and to ensure the legal and judicial systems are equitable, effective, and efficient.
The Rule makes clear that the Commission has no disciplinary authority. Discipline is the province of the ARDC and is imposed on lawyers who violate the Rules of Professional Conduct. The Rules set forth what lawyers must do or be disciplined; professionalism concepts, however, are not ensconced in the Rules.
Professionalism is a set of recognized principles that animate the way lawyers should behave and practice. Embracing professionalism is more than considering what we should not do or fear discipline; it’s challenging each other to do better from a desire to serve.
As I was writing this post, I returned to the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct. There we are reminded that lawyers have obligations not only to their clients but also to the legal system and the public.
Lawyers have a special responsibility for the quality of justice they deliver and are charged with improving access to the legal system and the quality of services rendered. This is heady stuff. It puts our work into a larger context similar to this story:
In medieval Europe, a woman approached three stoneworkers building a wall. She asked the first one what he was doing. The man shrugged his shoulders and described what his work meant to him: “I’m earning a living.”
She asked the second man what he was doing, and he described his role in the process as “I’m placing stones one on top of another.”
When she asked the same question of the third man, his face lit up as he explained how his work affects others: “I’m helping to build a cathedral where people will be uplifted for generations to come.”
The message of the parable is clear: lawyers do more than earn a living. We do more than handle individual client matters. Lawyers are building the legal structure that will protect human liberty and rights for generations to come.
We are laying the foundation for our successors and our country. Working to improve the law, legal services, access to the legal system, and the administration of justice is beyond important.
2. The support has been constant.
The support the Illinois Supreme Court and our Commissioners have provided the Commission has been unwavering. And the Justices of the Supreme Court, who had the unheralded vision to create this Commission on Professionalism, have been encouraging of all of our efforts.
One of the Justices recently recalled that, in the initial stages of developing the Commission, the Court had an amorphous vision of “increased professionalism” and trusted the Commissioners and staff to make it concrete. Needless to say, it was an exciting charge.
In the early days, Commissioners and staff held retreats, philosophical discussions about the importance of professionalism, and brainstorming sessions about possible initiatives.
Once we were operational, we went back to the Court for approval of efforts we thought could make a difference, such as mentoring, requiring CLE in the areas of diversity and inclusion and well-being, and expanding our reach through social media platforms.
At every turn, the Commission’s recommendations and initiatives have had steadfast support and encouragement, which has enabled us to effectively execute the vision. I will be forever grateful for this.
3. The work is dynamic.
The legal profession is in transition. Thanks to technology, our work is no longer necessarily “ours” and new ways of communicating and collaborating offer both opportunities and challenges.
I have enjoyed studying the depth and breadth of the changes affecting lawyers and the practice of law and sharing my perspectives with attorneys, who may not have noticed the changes happening around them or had time to consider the ramifications.
Take the internet. The internet provides access to information and resources beyond what is readily available in a local law library or geographic region. This expands the reach of lawyers and those without legal training alike.
Members of the public who have access to the internet can now view legal information previously available only to lawyers (such as tenant or consumer protection rights) or those who understood the opaque keynote system. And new players who do not necessarily have a juris doctor are providing that legal information—and more—via the internet.
The value lawyers bring to clients transcends merely providing legal information. The volume and breadth of available information means our value as a counselor who is able to impart wisdom and judgment responsive to a client’s needs will be even more important. It will play a vital role in helping clients untangle, synthesize, and meaningfully leverage the confounding mass of freely available legal information.
My most rewarding moments in law practice involved personal interactions tailored to my clients: applying the law to their circumstances and making clear how I would work to protect their rights.
4. The collaboration has been enriching.
During my time at the Commission, I have been fortunate to collaborate with countless talented individuals who have brought expertise, commitment, and differing perspectives to the work.
First, the staff. The team I’m leaving behind at the Commission could be the most impressive ever. Promoting professionalism across the state of Illinois—with 58,000 square miles and 102 counties—takes a multi-faceted approach. We have a talented communications team as well as an expert in education, skilled administrative support, and dedicated lawyers who are fantastic writers and presenters.
All are critical thinkers who bring their A-game to work and challenge the status quo. They share my belief that each day our efforts should leave the world a better place.
Leaning on and learning from colleagues who have the skill sets you lack allows a team to accomplish great goals. Embracing the differing perspectives of our team has allowed us to develop new initiatives over the years, including implementing new professionalism initiatives framed by the sudden and unexpected factors of a global pandemic.
And I am thrilled with the appointment of Erika Harold as Executive Director. Erika brings to the Commission authenticity, wisdom, and empathy. With Erika at the helm, I expect to see even greater legal professionalism programming coming out of this treasured organization.
Second, from the members of the Supreme Court to our Commissioners to our sister Illinois Courts organizations and beyond, I have had the opportunity to work with incredible lawyers and judges who believe in our professionalism mission.
Stakeholders in law schools, bar associations, units of government, and corporations from across the state have given generously of their time and talents.
When developing focus groups, pilot projects, or CLE panels, I’ve found almost universally that people are truly invested in bettering our profession and respond positively to an invitation to join the professionalism movement. And we all should be proud of that.
5. The mission is rooted in deep purpose.
This is the most personal. The mission of the Commission on Professionalism struck a chord with me from the beginning, and it still does.
It tapped into a desire to use my skills and talents to positively influence those around me and the world more generally. I believe each of us has a current like this running through our hearts and souls. And when you find work that feeds it, it’s a force multiplier that fills you with both energy for the mission and a sense of reward every day.
Take civility for example. I was incentivized in my private litigation practice for being overly aggressive—yes, uncivil. I could put on armor and battle with the best of them. But inwardly I became ashamed of my behavior. It was unseemly and a waste of my time and the client’s money. It didn’t comport with my personal goals. So, at the Commission, it has been validating to promote civility as a strategy for success.
Diversity is another example. I began my undergraduate education at the University of Notre Dame just a few years after they started admitting women. Women were a novelty in the classroom and not necessarily a welcome one.
I remember the discomfort of being called on in class to “give the female point of view.” And when I entered practice, I was dismissed in the courtroom as a court reporter or “just a lady lawyer.”
I thought then, and I think now, that diverse perspectives are unique and valuable and aren’t monolithic across demographics. It has been gratifying, therefore, to advance the notion that we do better when we consider and incorporate diverse perspectives without judgment or categorization.
I leave the Commission with an unwavering belief that our work matters and is making a difference. When you change the hearts and minds of lawyers, you change the world.
As I move on, I wish to thank the Court, Commissioners, my teammates, and all with whom I have collaborated for allowing me to build a cathedral of professionalism alongside them that will uplift people for generations to come.
My time at the Commission allowed me to feel useful, and for that I’m grateful. I wish the same for you. Because as teacher and humorist Leo Rosten said: “The purpose of life is not to be happy, but to matter, to be productive, to be useful, to have it make some difference that you have lived at all.”
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