Ten years ago, I started the Commission on Professionalism, alongside only one other employee, the former Executive Director, Cheryl Niro. We were working out of our homes. It would be several more months before we opened the office doors. Our first project? Law school orientation. To this day, in my opinion, it remains one of our best projects.
The First Years of Law School Orientation
Before forming the Commission, the Supreme Court’s Committee on Civility contacted several of the law schools, asking them to include a professionalism component during orientation. Once the Commission was formed, I took over contacting the participating law school deans and scheduling Justices and lawyers to attend new student orientations. The message to be delivered: professionalism matters.
At most of the nine Illinois law schools, Justices delivered speeches emphasizing that law students were not just starting a course of study, like an alternative to business or pharmacology school, but entering a profession with a higher calling. At the end of their remarks, the justices asked students to stand and to take a pledge of professionalism. By taking the pledge, students swear that as they begin their academic careers and afterwards, they will behave with the integrity, civility, and professionalism befitting the legal profession.
At some of the schools, practicing lawyers met with small groups of students to facilitate discussions of several scenarios we provided them. The scenarios present real world practice situations with embedded ethical and professionalism issues the students may encounter once they go into practice.
Each time I facilitated the small group discussions, I was struck by how the students’ notions of a lawyers’ obligations had been influenced by popular media. It is gratifying to challenge those misconceptions and introduce the students to the ethical and professionalism concepts that in reality shape lawyers’ practice. It made me realize how those of us in the legal and judicial systems need to be proactive about telling incoming students and the public what we do and how we do it. Otherwise, we relegate to the popular media to define us as a profession.
Law School Orientation Evolves with the Times
The multi-part orientation program has morphed over the years. Now, all nine Illinois law schools sponsor the Justice-and-Pledge portion of the program. In addition to the Supreme Court Justices, Illinois appellate justices and federal judges regularly take part. The members of the judiciary say they enjoy interacting with the students as they begin their academic careers.
The small group discussions still only occur at a few of the schools—DePaul University College of Law, The John Marshall Law School, and Northern Illinois University College of Law. Because law school orientation schedules have become tighter over time, many Illinois law schools instead sponsor professionalism programs later in the students’ academic careers.
At Loyola University School of Law, the Commission helps present a mandatory civility program for all first year law students. Similarly, we have participated in the Justice Anne Burke Professionalism series at the John Marshall Law School, designed to expose law students to the experiences and perspectives of practicing lawyers and judges. Our team has also presented professionalism-related programming, including the communication styles of the multi-generational workplace and implicit bias, at University of Illinois College of Law, IIT-Chicago-Kent College of Law, and Northern Illinois University College of Law over the past several years.
The Commission has enjoyed these opportunities to interact with students later in their academic careers. We have found that the conversations are more robust–especially after students have had an internship exposing them to the practice in a work setting.
Reaping the Rewards of Professionalism
The impact of the professionalism orientations has been widespread. I frequently run into newly minted lawyers who tell me that the Pledge of Professionalism made a lasting impression on them. They really are inspired by the speeches of the justices. For most students, this is their first introduction to the fact that law is a self-regulating profession and that the state Supreme Court justices are the regulators. That fact just isn’t on their radar. (I know despite the board of bar admissions and character and fitness applications, I really didn’t understand the regulatory scheme until long after I was a practicing lawyer.)
Justices, commissioners, and others who deliver the professionalism programming also feel a personal and professional reward. It is inspiring and validating to interact with young people starting their careers. They are so open, filled with optimism and a sincere desire to make a difference. It reminds us to appreciate the good work lawyers do and the value of mentoring those coming behind us. Often, both justices and practicing lawyers contact us at the Commission, asking to take part in the program. I wish we could accommodate all the requests.
Both law students and those orienting them to professionalism find the law school professionalism programs rewarding. This says something. Bottom line, we all want to know that we have chosen as our life’s work something that makes a difference for others as well as ourselves. The law does just that.
The schedule for the 2016 Law School Professionalism Orientations follows.
[table id=4 /]