Improving Our Profession

Commentators over the last few weeks have written letters about some of the challenges and opportunities for improving our profession through education.  Subsequent commentators have not addressed the assertions in the letter published January 19, 2011 that (1) mandatory pro bono or community service would be a preferable substitute for MCLE and (2) that the profession has given up on mentoring.  Neither is correct.

First, pro bono publico is a core value of our profession.  In the Preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct, the Court explains that lawyers have a special responsibility to use their training, skills and experience to provide services in the public interest for which compensation may not be available.  The Court declined to include in the Rules of Professional Conduct a requirement that attorneys fulfill a certain number of hours of public service, explaining that “it is not possible to articulate an appropriate disciplinary standard regarding pro bono and public service….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.”

Similarly, although some states and the ABA Model Rules suggest an aspirational goal for attorneys’ service, neither the ABA Model Rules nor any state’s rule of professional conduct requires pro bono service.  High ideals and aspirational conduct may be inspired but not required.

Thus, the Supreme Court inspires awareness of this aspect of professionalism by requiring attorneys to annually register with the Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Commission the number of hours and the dollar amounts devoted to these efforts.  In addition, a proposal to promote and acknowledge pro bono service by allowing attorneys to earn professional responsibility CLE credit for such activity is under consideration by a committee of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.

Second, mentoring is the lifeblood of our profession.  Passing the knowledge and practical experience from one generation to the next is invaluable, and mentoring as a way to improve professionalism is being embraced by organizations in our State and across the country.  Last fall, the Illinois Supreme Court, upon the recommendation of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, adopted a new non-traditional CLE Rule (Rule 795(d)(12)) that will allow attorneys—both as mentor and as mentee or protégé–to receive professional responsibility CLE credit for engaging in a structured yearlong mentoring program. This recommendation followed feedback received from a circuit-wide professionalism initiative that has been underway in the 17th Judicial Circuit since 2007.  Through mentoring relationships, feedback has shown, we engender the excitement of learning and renew pride and purpose in our work among our professional community.

The Commission on Professionalism, guided by a statewide committee of highly respected members of our profession, is currently in the process of developing implementation protocols for the new rule.  The protocols should be available this spring.

Recognizing that the value of mentoring can inure to future lawyers before they are admitted to the bar, several Illinois law schools sponsor programs in which practicing lawyers mentor law students, and the Women’s Bar Association of Illinois instituted this year a lawyer to law student mentoring program involving students at each of the in state law schools.  Outside of Illinois, mentoring programs recently have been started by many state bar associations and commissions, including those in Colorado, Georgia, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas.

We believe that continuing dialogue on these topics will further the common goal of strengthening principles of integrity, civility, and service within our profession.

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