Herd Immunity

HerdYesterday, the Commission met with our CLE Advisory Group, a dozen or so representatives from various CLE providers in Illinois and Minnesota.  We discussed ways to make professional responsibility CLE offerings more effective for both participants and presenters.  For those who don’t know, Illinois requires a minimum of six hours of professional responsibility for each two-year reporting cycle.  To put that in some perspective, over the course of some 17,520 hours, your Supreme Court has asked that you spend 6 of them learning about professional responsibility.  Difficult, I know.  But, I mean, not impossible.

However, I’ve slowly come to realize that not everyone loves the idea of professional responsibility CLE.  The biggest reason I’ve heard?  People don’t like the idea of having to take ethics classes.  It’s a common complaint so let’s dispel one misconception off the bat.  The professional responsibility requirement is NOT an ethics requirement.

Ethics is only one of the five areas that fall under the Supreme Court’s definition of professional responsibility.  The others?  Professionalism, diversity, mental illness and addiction, and civility.  The Commission’s Education Guidelines (available on our website) explain each of these categories in detail along with potential classes for each category.  These include classes on trial advocacy (professionalism), access to justice (diversity), stress management (mental illness and addiction), and navigating difficult conversations (civility).  Ethics is necessary.  But so are all the other topics of professional responsibility.  Give them their due and I promise you, that 0.034% of the next two years of your life will go by in a flash.

Which takes me to the second reason a lot of you don’t like professional responsibility CLE.  You think it’s kind of useless.  Yes, I know you don’t need anyone telling you how to act.  However, you show me your impeccable reputation, and I’ll show you three Illinois governors, one impeached president, one almost impeached president, and a host of other attorneys, all of whom probably thought it was useless as well.

But I know that’s not enough for you.  So here’s another idea.  Think of professional responsibility as herd immunity.  If you’ve ever carried your screaming child to the doctor to get vaccinated, you know exactly what herd immunity is.  If you don’t, well I’ll just quote Wikipedia to you:  “Herd immunity theory proposes that, in contagious diseases that are transmitted from individual to individual, chains of infection are likely to be disrupted when large numbers of a population are immune or less susceptible to the disease.”

Here’s the thing about unprofessionalism – it spreads, very easily.  A lawyer writes you a short email about discovery, you write him a brusque reply, he sends a terse response.  Ten emails later, you’re threatening his mother and he’s dragging you to the Daley Center telling the judge to sanction the worst lawyer he’s ever met.

Or to take a common example – you’re a very busy person who can’t afford to log your time every day.  You have a general sense of how much time you spent so you close your time the next day, or the next week, or, since no one’s looking over your shoulder, the end of the month.  And you pad an extra five minutes here, a half an hour there.  The client doesn’t really care if you spent 0.75 hours editing a brief rather than 0.60.  And if you’re part of an organization with a minimum billable requirement, that 0.15 hours can really add up over the year.

But, let’s say a first-year attorney wanders into your office on a Friday in late June.  She sees you frantically putting together your hours for the month, going through your Outlook Sent Messages, clicking through your phone call logs, and reviewing filings to see how much time you spent drafting them.  She thinks that this is something all lawyers do.  She passes this on to her office neighbor, her roommate, her spouse, and boom, the infection spreads like wildfire.  Next thing you know, you hear about a lawyer hauled before the ARDC for overbilling a client, and you say “Tsk, tsk, where could he have gotten that from?”  From you, Patient Zero.

So go to these classes.  Get immunized against unprofessional behavior.  Herd immunity cured a lot of diseases in this country.  Who knows?  It might cure our profession as well.


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