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Reaffirming our Commitment to the Profession

10/25/2017

October 25, 2017

This month’s issue of Illinois Courts Connect reminds us that fall is a time of reflection and renewal for the judicial system. The U.S. and Illinois Supreme Courts reconvene with new cases to hear and decide. Bar exam results are in. Freshly-minted lawyers prepare to receive their licenses and embark on their careers as attorneys and counselors at law. We pause to consider a legal heritage that dates back to Lincoln and before. We look ahead at strategies to confront an economic and political environment in which ensuring equal access to justice requires increased dedication and resolve and in which individual lawyers are forced to deal with new and difficult challenges.

Something else important also happens each fall, something that has a greater impact on the future of our profession than perhaps any other single event: Illinois’ nine law schools welcome their incoming class of new students. Both literally and figuratively, the men and women who will make up the next generation of Illinois lawyers take the stage.

The Illinois Supreme Court has long recognized that to effectively develop the next generation of lawyers, it is essential that we instill the values of civility and professionalism at the earliest possible moment. To aid in this effort, the Court, through its Commission on Professionalism, teams with each of the nine law schools to provide orientation programs dealing with the core concepts of attorney professionalism. The programs, which were pioneered by the SIU School of Law in Carbondale, are designed to help incoming law students better appreciate the importance of incorporating courtesy, integrity, and honesty into their professional lives.

The initial orientation programs always culminate in an event in which the students assemble to take a Pledge of Professionalism. At most schools, the pledge is one formulated by the Commission on Professionalism. At SIU, where the tradition began, the pledge (they call theirs the Declaration of Professional Commitment) is drafted by the students themselves following in-depth discussion and debate moderated by faculty and practicing attorneys.

I have had the privilege of participating in the SIU pledge ceremony for over a decade now. When I address the new lawyers and their families, there are three basic points I always try to make.

First is the hope that by the time they have enrolled in law school, the students who have assembled to take the pledge already possess a fairly developed sense of what it means to be courteous, to possess integrity, and to be honest. These are basic components of good character and take a lifetime to nurture. The students will only be in law school for three years. If they have not already developed these qualities, it is probably too late.  

Second, because we hope and expect new law students to come already equipped with a moral compass, the goal of the orientation programs on professionalism is not to teach them the difference between right and wrong, but to help them understand that the standards for differentiating between what is right and wrong, what is courteous and ill-mannered, what has integrity and what does not, do not change when one attains the right to appear in court as an attorney and counselor at law. Contrary to what cynics may claim, the license to practice law is not a license to forfeit moral responsibility. Rather, it is a charge to obey the highest standards of conduct on behalf of one’s clients in the interest of justice.

Finally, I attempt to impress on the students a lesson some lawyers never learn: they will not practice law in isolation. The lawyers and judges they face today they will surely face again in the future. Over time, those lawyers and judges will know if the student is honest, they will know if they can depend on the student’s word, they will know if the student is someone with whom meaningful negotiations can be conducted. If the student is impossible to deal with, if he or she is thought to be dishonest, that student will inevitably be unwelcome at the courthouse and derided by his or her colleagues and community. The orientation programs and ethics courses that follow will help them avoid that fate. They should pay attention.

When I first entered the practice of law, there was not as much talk about "professionalism" or "ethics". Fortunately, however, I had great mentors in Justice Byron House of the Illinois Supreme Court, for whom I clerked, and in the lawyers with whom I practiced for 22 years before becoming a judge. Their advice to me, which advice they lived, was simple: “As a lawyer, your word is your bond. If you do not keep your word, you may as well quit practicing law in Southern Illinois. And do not forget that lawyers are not exempt from the Golden Rule. Always treat others as you would like to be treated.” In a time when the values of truthfulness and dependability are fading by the tweet, this advice seems more valuable than ever.

Because the students at SIU draft their pledge themselves, it differs each year. As I write this article, I have not yet had the opportunity to see this year’s version, but the one prepared by the class of 2016 provides a powerful example. It read:

As a lawyer, I hold it essential that the protection of life, liberty and property depends upon the conduct and commission of my duties. I vow to handle my clients’ legal matters with diligence, integrity, and respect. I promise to maintain consistent, confidential and effective communication with each client.

I will conduct myself in a manner that instills confidence in the legal profession, I will exercise civility toward colleagues, and I will respect all commitments with punctuality. I pledge to uphold professional ethics and standards prescribed by the Supreme Court and the legal community at large.

I will strive to maintain order in society by upholding and protecting individual rights. By giving back to my community through volunteerism and mentorship, I will promote accessibility, responsiveness, and effectiveness in the legal system.

And as a lifelong student of the law, I will seek to advance my knowledge for the betterment of the profession and those it serves.”

When I administer the pledge, I make it a practice to invite all lawyers and judges present to listen carefully and to reaffirm their personal commitment to the values it expresses. I hope that everyone who has taken the time to read this article will now do so as well.