Letter From The President Of The Chicago Bar Association

2006-01-01 00:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

Reprinted with permission from the October 2005 CBA Record

"We must learn before we can prepare. We must prepare before we can serve."

William Arthur Ward, American educator.

Like it or not, Illinois has plunged into the refreshing waters of mandatory

continuing legal education.

And, from my close reading of the new rules, Chief Justice Robert Thomas and his fellow justices have put together a sensible, equitable and comprehensive plan that is among the best in the country. While large portions of the plan suggested by the CBA and ISBA in 2002 remain, the Court's version is more dynamic, flexible and, with the establishment of a Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, better equipped to meet the challenges of the practice of law today and tomorrow.

Consider MCLE like a wellness program for lawyers. Just as we should exercise at any age to keep healthy, we should continue our legal education throughout our careers to stay fit and active lawyers. Many of us already meet or exceed 10-15 hours a year in CLE. Those who for one reason or another have become couch (or, more accurately, office) potatoes will soon enough appreciate their MCLE workout. MCLE will require us to assess ourselves and our competencies on a yearly basis. And that is a positive step toward more knowledgeable and informed practitioners.

At the CBA, with MCLE, membership will have its privileges. In the works are accredited luncheon committee meetings, greater opportunities for members to write and speak for hourly credits, more tailored CLE seminars, and free tracking of member hourly requirements, for starters.

The icing on the cake for me, though, is the Commission on Professionalism and the requirement that during a two-year period four hours must involve professionalism issues such as diversity, civility, legal ethics and mental illness and addiction. As a component of the overall MCLE regime, these topics send an unmistakable and calculated signal to the public and to us: how we behave, how we manage the stresses of the practice and of life, how we handle ethical issues, how we do business, and how we treat and affect others all matter.

As someone who has written, spoken and presented seminars dealing with professionalism for many years, I applaud the Court's professionalism push. I adhere to Sol M. Linowitz's observation in The Betrayed Profession, "The most frightening measure of what the legal profession has lost is that most Americans do not even remember the trust this society once placed in its lawyers . . . . [L]awyers are supposed to be the custodians of a community's legal and ethical sense." In Illinois, with MCLE and the Committee on Professionalism, I believe we can over time again regain our place as the custodians of our community's legal and ethical sense.

As MCLE makes its entrance, a proposal to help meet the legal needs of the poor is percolating before the Illinois Supreme Court Rules Committee. A legal needs study released earlier this year found a crisis for justice in Illinois. Hundreds of thousands of our neighbors are effectively shut out of the legal system because they cannot afford an attorney. The proposal offered by the Supreme Court Special Committee is an innovative way for all of us to voluntarily contribute to making a difference. Our

sense of justice and professional responsibility demand nothing less.

The CBA has an historical, passionate and proud commitment to advancing equal access to justice for all. One person in Illinois denied access to justice is one person too many.

The CBA endorses the aspirational goal that encourages lawyers to provide at least 20 hours of pro bono legal services to persons of limited means or make an annual contribution of at least $250 to a legal aid organization. This is not mandatory pro bono, which the proposal explicitly rejects. Since 1995, the CBA has a standing resolution encouraging our members to contribute 50 hours of pro bono service or $500 to support legal aid, which the Board of Managers has recently been asked to reaffirm.

The rule defines those it seeks to help as "persons whose personal incomes are below federal poverty standard" and "those persons frequently referred to as the 'working poor'" and relies on the good faith of attorneys. It has nothing to do with community service. You don't need a law license to undertake community service. But you do need a law license to perform pro bono. And that's the whole point.

The proposal, which has been suggested as part of the Rules of Professional Conduct (the CBA agrees with the ISBA that it should be incorporated as part of the Supreme Court Rules), would go a long way toward heightening awareness among lawyers of our unique obligation to perform pro bono work. It would also emphasize the need for us to support legal aid organizations financially. The CBA endorses a simple reporting form, information collected and maintained in aggregate and confidentiality.

To emphasize the bar's commitment to pro bono, I established October 17-21 as the first Chicago Bar Association and Chicago Bar Foundation's pro bono week, "Hope and Justice in Action." If you were unable to attend the YLS Pro Bono Community Service Fair October 20, the free legal training, or the other activities, go to the CBF website - www.chicagobarfoundation.org - to learn how you can make a difference in the welfare of the vulnerable and the needy who are unable to afford legal representation.

I am reminded of the haunting words in the poem Apolitical Intellectualsby Guatemalan revolutionary and poet, Otto Rene Castillo: " Que hististeis cuando los pobres sufrian? " (What did you do when the poor suffered?) No lawyer, ever, should be unable to respond when asked: What did you do when the poor suffered?


Michael B. Hyman