What was the first thing you learned in law school? Maybe it was why you should double check the name of the ship you’re loading with cotton? Or how you can be liable for someone losing their leg if all you did was kick them under the table? What about who really caught that fox – Pierson or Post? If you’re a law student in America, it’s likely that one or more of those black letter law questions were the first legal issues you considered in school.
For most law students in Illinois however, the first thing they learn isn’t black letter law. Instead, it’s professionalism.
For the past eleven years, my organization, the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, has partnered with all nine law schools in Illinois to introduce new law students to professionalism. We invite an Illinois state or federal judge or justice to speak on professionalism, civility, mentoring, and their journey to the bench. The judges who participate in our program come from a variety of backgrounds, particularly while they were in law school. We have had judges who were once part-time and evening students, judges who had children while in law school, and judges who were the first in their family to graduate from college. One of my favorite programs was when two judges whose sons were first year students in the class, appeared on stage to deliver remarks, to the complete and utter shock of their own children.
Whatever their path to the bench, each judge spends some time in their remarks conveying the ideals we hold as a profession – service, competence, diligence, expertise – and how law students can keep those professionalism ideals at the core of all they do.
Following the remarks, each student stands and joins the judge as he or she leads them in the Pledge of Professionalism. The Pledge is unique to each school but often follows this general outline:
As I begin the study of law, I acknowledge that my role in the legal profession is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. Accordingly, I pledge to support my colleagues, respect the faculty and staff, and uphold the reputation of my school. I commit myself to service without prejudice, integrity without compromise, and to civility and professionalism in all my interactions. I will promote the principles of justice handed down by the generations of attorneys who have gone before me. This pledge I take freely and upon my honor.
Over the years, dozens of judges and thousands of law students have recited the Pledge as part of their dedication and re-dedication to our profession. I often go back to law schools for various academic year programs and frequently meet students who remember taking the Pledge in their first days of law school. It is our goal, and hope, that the Illinois law students who take the Pledge have incorporated its lessons about respect, integrity and justice into their law school studies and subsequent careers.
Judges aren’t the only ones who play a key role in our orientation programs. At some Illinois law schools, lawyers are also invited to participate. They facilitate discussions with small groups of first year students. These discussion groups, held after the judge’s remarks, are often the first chance students have to experience a law school type class.
The issues discussed do not offer easy answers. A supervising attorney orders you to take actions against opposing counsel you believe cross an ethical line and certainly a professionalism one. Your client is a criminal defendant who has posted incriminating pictures from the night of the crime on his social media account. An older white male partner and a younger black female associate are working together on a case but feel that their relationship is plagued with misunderstandings. What should you do in any of those scenarios? These are questions best answered by those with years of experience, who can impart life lessons, and the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct, to future attorneys.
After more than a decade, professionalism orientation has cemented its role in Illinois law schools. We are grateful that so many judges and attorneys are willing to show new law students how to engage with the ideals of professionalism at the start of their careers, and how to incorporate those ideals throughout the students’ academic and professional journey.
Even if your law school doesn’t participate in a similar orientation program, I encourage you to keep the Illinois Pledge of Professionalism in constant thought – through Peerless, Vosberg, and Pierson, in your clinics and in your externships – and consider how professionalism will shape your experience in the law, both as a law student and beyond.