URBANA — John Thies can be forgiven if he appears a bit tired.
The 50-year-old member of a venerated third-generation Urbana law firm — Webber & Thies — just finished a term as president of the Illinois State Bar Association that produced a mind-numbing amount of work.
"Every day started early and ended late. I did still represent clients but had their indulgence as I worked through this. It was a job that deserved my attention to the degree I devoted to it," said the husband and father of two daughters.
Under Thies' leadership, the ISBA turned out three major reports that took on such unpleasant topics as law school debt, judicial bias and inadequate funding of the Illinois courts. And while inspiring his troops to come up with solutions to those problems, his wife, Terry, joined him in getting lawyers around Illinois to provide 3.8 million meals for the hungry.
How did he get so much accomplished?
"I owe a lot of people favors."
Law school debt
"It really is the most significant thing that happened during my year in terms of the long-term that could have a real impact," Thies said.
The 53-page report, (available in its entirety at http://bit.ly/ISBAdebt) was written by 13 judges and lawyers who conducted five hearings around the state to collect information.
With the average law school debt standing at $150,000 to $200,000, they found that new lawyers are unable to afford starting-level salaries of $50,000 offered by small firms or in areas such as public interest law.
"If somebody has greater than $100,000 in debt, he is less likely to be able to work for a firm of 10 lawyers or less. Because those sorts of firms are impactful in terms of the delivery of services, there is a connection between debt and the ability to have legal needs met. A wide range of folks from small businesses to pro bono clients depend on those sorts of lawyers. It really does affect virtually everybody," said Thies, whose firm has nine lawyers.
Additionally, the report left no doubt that law schools do not adequately prepare graduates for practice in the real world. The report said the current emphasis on academic scholarship, rather than practical training, is not the best bang for a student's buck.
Thies said the committee made wide-ranging recommendations that include limiting the amount of federal money law students can borrow, revising the way law schools are accredited, reforming the course work that law schools offer, using more adjunct faculty to keep law school personnel costs down, and putting more emphasis on training in the second and third years of law school.
The report has gotten national attention from several quarters, including university provosts with law schools under their supervision and the American Bar Association, Thies said.
"It translates beyond our profession for warning signs. We're like the canary in the coal mine in terms of what will happen if we don't get a handle on the costs of higher education," Thies said.
Changing the Code of Judicial Conduct
Another area tackled during Thies' tenure as ISBA president was that of the significance of politics in influencing judges.
"The perception has been because so many of our judges are in the political process, they are influenced by contributions, either in-kind or cash. The ultimate solution to this from the bar association's standpoint is to switch our system so we have more of a merit-based process," he said.
But since the likelihood of that happening is slim, as it requires a constitutional amendment, the committee came up with a proposal that the Illinois Supreme Court is now considering adding to the Code of Judicial Conduct.
The proposed rule provides that a judge shall disqualify himself or herself when, after considering all relevant circumstances, there exists a probability of bias.
"There are a number of factors judges should consider such as the amount of the contribution, its proximity to the activities of the courts and whether it was in the past," said Thies.
Funding Illinois courts
Thies also created a special committee to identify the effects of insufficient funding on the judiciary.
Adjusted for inflation, funding for the Illinois courts has dropped 22 percent since 2002 while costs have continued to rise, the report said.
The impact has meant delays in resolving civil and criminal cases, reducing probation services and therefore increasing prison populations. The lack of funding has also meant less security in courthouses and fewer qualified attorneys to represent the poor and juveniles.
The report calls on judges and lawyers to educate the public about the importance of the role of courts in society, to monitor the system and speak up when problems arise, to streamline processes to save money, and to promote equal funding of the judicial branch.
Lawyers Feeding Illinois
In addition to the policy-changing work going on during his presidency, Thies said he and his wife, Terry, wanted to do something "tangible" and thus was born Lawyers Feeding Illinois.
"I'm a child of this community and have been involved in many organizations. You help where you can. I was brought up in that sort of family," said Thies.
Hoping to raise cash and food for a million meals, the ISBA far exceeded its goal.
"We ended up raising 3.8 million meals through more than 2,000 donors and hundreds of teams from all over the state," he said.
"We presented and illuminated the best nature of our profession. These are people serving in so many different ways as it is. Many of them are working with hunger. This coordinated and intensified that effort," Thies said, crediting his wife for spearheading that project.
'An absolute delight'
An active member of the state bar for most of his career, Thies said his service as president was "an absolute delight" and was quick to credit the members of the various committees he appointed as the real work horses.
He also had an advantage that no other president has ever had: his father, Richard Thies, was president of the ISBA in 1986.
"It was not just that he was president, but he's in my office and down the hall," Thies said. "His instincts are superb and he's always been a great resource."