Making Civility Education A Law School Standard

Civility EducationThe measurement of one’s ability to foster respect for fellow citizens, the law, and the legal profession – to have civility – is a requirement for admission into the practice of law. In Illinois, a future lawyer’s character and fitness is first evaluated in his or her first year of attending law school (the “1L year”) for those intending to take the Illinois bar examination. They must file a character and fitness registration application and show, by clear and convincing evidence, that they have the requisite character and fitness for admission to the practice of law. This standard includes, among other things, “the ability to conduct oneself with a high degree of honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness in all professional relationships and with respect to all legal obligations.” (Board of Admissions Rule 6.3(4)).

One’s time in law school is a time of continued growth and development. Law students are often in their very formative years, led by their desire to learn and launch their careers in the right direction. These future lawyers, leaders of the profession, and the next defenders of justice, find themselves consumed by the law school experience as the foundation is laid for their futures. They are highly impressionable and ready to learn, as they should be. The voluminous substantive legal knowledge and practical legal skills that the law school experience affords them demands their profound attention and best efforts. As such, the teaching of civility must parallel their educational process, incorporating civility education directly and indirectly into the law-based curricula.

Delivering Civility Education

While the need for facilitating civility education in the law school setting may seem obvious and clear, the execution demands attention. Structured curricula allow little room beyond substantive coursework and clinical instruction that has been added. But therein lies the solution. The delivery of civility instruction can come through pervasive instruction – civility should be incorporated into substantive teachings. The exploration into behavior and conduct can be part and parcel with the core teaching of the law school education.

As law schools integrate the civility component as an accepted segment of their learning environment, the law school community likewise must adhere to an environment of civil commitment and attitudes. As the Commission has written on before, lawyers acting with “zeal in advocacy” does not mean they are bound to “press for every advantage” on a client’s behalf. An uncivil environment begets uncivil behavior. The Socratic Method still prevails in law school teachings, which may be encountered by some students as an inherently critical methodology that fosters incivility. It is the law professor’s duty to create and nurture respectful views from students while demonstrating that civility is not defined as being in agreement. In fact, as the democratic process thrives on dialogue and dialogue requires disagreement, this is the opportune time for the leaders of legal education to adopt and encourage the tenants of civility into their teachings.

Additionally, law students often find their first exposure to a professional working environment during their law school experience. Internships, externships, judicial clerkships, legal aid volunteer work, clinical work, and even assisted legal representation (711 work) draw students into the legal work environment early on. These experiences provide great opportunities for students to absorb the principles of professionalism and civility, and to learn the skills they will need during their careers. Along with such opportunities comes the time to dispel early on the notion that effective representation requires or even involves incivility toward opposing counsel, the court, or otherwise, and only makes the practice of law less satisfying.

Pledge of Professionalism

Every August, lawyers-to-be at law schools throughout Illinois participate in an important induction ceremony. While a similar oath hopefully awaits them upon admission to the bar in the years to come, this Pledge of Professionalism taken at the start of their formal legal education begins the commitment to keeping civility at the core of their profession:

As I begin the study of law, I acknowledge and accept the privileges and responsibilities inherent in becoming a law student and thereafter a lawyer, and the high standards and ideals that accompany my status as a legal professional. I accept my status as a professional, and will approach my colleagues and adversaries alike with the same integrity, professionalism, and civility, which I expect from them.

Accordingly, I pledge that I will at all times conduct myself with the dignity befitting an advocate and counselor in a learned profession.

I commit myself to service without prejudice, integrity without compromise, and the diligent performance of my duties with the utmost good faith.

I acknowledge that I will be a zealous advocate, but will act with courtesy, civility, integrity, and cooperation toward others, and I will at all times behave in a professional manner.

This pledge I take freely and upon my honor.

Law schools are uniquely situated to provide a springboard to civility for all future lawyers in their profession. This civility component begins with 1Ls raising their hand and pledging to accept their status now, and in the future, as a true professional. Integrating civility education into law school academics delivers and fosters such a standard. Civility must become a standard in learning law and practicing law.

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