Lawyer Spotlight: Steve Fus, Pro Bono Attorney and Former Associate General Counsel, United Airlines

steven fusSteve Fus is a pro bono attorney and legal advisor. He formerly served as Associate General Counsel for United Airlines, Inc.

What’s your primary practice area? What drew you to this area?

I’ve been fortunate during my 30-year career at United [Airlines] to have practiced in several different practice areas. Most recently, I oversaw international, regulatory, alliances, environmental, health and safety. I’ve always loved aviation and spent virtually all of my career working for an airline.

After obtaining Federal Aviation Administration certifications as an aircraft mechanic and pilot, I started my career as an airline mechanic. I wanted to advance and learned that I could leverage my experience, with additional education, to change careers within the same company.

I moved on to aircraft maintenance management, quality assurance and then engineering, where I started doing regulatory work. I became keenly interested in legal work and decided to enroll in law school. After obtaining my JD, I managed aircraft maintenance and engineering purchasing contract work before transferring into the legal department at United Airlines.

How has your practice evolved over the last few years?

Similar to my pre-legal career, variety and new challenges keep me stimulated. I started practicing in the commercial transactions group but was able to build on my practice by taking on other areas and managing the disciplines of commercial transactions, ethics and compliance, and antitrust, in addition to those previously mentioned.

Not surprisingly, the area I enjoyed the most was international work, because it included all legal issues outside of the United States regardless of the legal discipline. United has a global presence supplemented with alliance and commercial relationships in the few areas where it doesn’t operate itself, which provides for a truly global practice. Working with many different legal regimes and cultures has been very stimulating and rewarding.

As much stimulation as I experienced from that varied practice, it wasn’t until I started doing pro bono work for Cabrini Green Legal Aid that I realized my true passion. After establishing and building United’s legal department pro bono and community service program, I soon realized that legal aid and public interest attorneys are the true heroes of our profession. In fact, that realization is what led to my early retirement from United — to improve access to justice for those without that access.

How can lawyers adapt to the changing legal profession?

I believe in continuous improvement and that it’s important to be receptive and open to change, at least to the point of becoming educated on the topic before rendering a judgment. For example, I know very little about the capabilities of artificial intelligence, but if it can be used to eliminate inefficiencies and allow me to focus more on the strategic and qualitative decisions affecting my client’s needs, then I want to understand it and how it can help improve my practice.

Practically speaking, there’s a fair amount of good CLE available on almost every topic, which can help lawyers keep abreast of changes both in the profession and in the law. As an in-house member of the Association of Corporate Counsel, much of the CLE is offered free to members with a breakfast, lunch or even dinner. If the topic is of interest to you, there’s really nothing to lose.

Why is civility important in the practice of law?

There’s really nothing to gain, but a lot to lose, in an uncivil practice. A lack of civility ultimately results in inefficiencies in the form of increased costs, wasted time and a disservice to the clients, regardless of what side they’re on. Zealous advocacy is one thing, but that doesn’t mean one should abandon civility. Doing so harms the clients and degrades the public perception of our practice.

Besides treating others like you’d like to be treated, civility is important because every act of civility has the potential of improving public perception of the practice. Thereby, encouraging rather than discouraging participation in the legal system when that participation is warranted.

What’s one thing lawyers can do today to increase civility in the profession?

One of the standard events that’s held during the Chicago Bar Foundation’s Pro Bono Week is Breakfast with the Judges. While attending last year’s breakfast, I was impressed by Justice Michael B. Hyman’s remarks suggesting lawyers need to exercise more empathy in their practice. I had never heard anyone mention empathy in relation to the practice of law before. It struck me as so obvious, yet worthy of an explicit reminder.

Being empathetic naturally leads to civility. If there’s one thing lawyers can do today to increase civility, it’s take on a pro bono case for someone who doesn’t have access to the judicial system because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Pro bono work for the underserved can be a stark stimulant for empathy and a reminder of why civility is important.

What do you do in your free time?

In my free time I spend quality time with my family, run along Lake Michigan’s shoreline and am committed to a new project to increase the engagement of retired attorneys and legal professionals doing pro bono work.

Our Lawyer Spotlight recognizes attorneys throughout Illinois who are admired for their professionalism and civility. Check out more interviews with attorneys like Steve Fus here.

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