Off the Bench | Reinforcing a culture of civility

Off the Bench | Reinforcing a culture of civility

In a recent conversation, a friend commented on the deterioration of civility in our society. He was referring to civilized conduct in which people are polite and show courtesy to others. I had to agree. While our technological and scientific advancements have proceeded with astonishing pace, our behavior toward one another has become more hostile and rude. Whether in political settings or on the local streets and highways, we see this played out.

As I continued to reflect on the conversation, my own profession came to mind. While lawyers spend considerable time planning and drafting in an effort to avoid problems, we are also called upon to represent people who are in the middle of a dispute. Litigation to resolve disputes is adversarial. It can be intense and can take a toll on all involved. I witnessed my share of heated exchanges in the courtroom over the years. I am sure my face got red and my tone turned sharp from time to time as well.

Our Illinois Supreme Court recognized the risks associated in the process and decided to act. In 2005, the court adopted Supreme Court Rule 799, which established the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.

According to Rule 799, the commission was established "... in order to promote among the lawyers and judges of Illinois principles of integrity, professionalism and civility; to foster commitment to the elimination of bias and divisiveness within the legal and judicial systems; and to ensure that those systems provide equitable, effective and efficient resolution of problems and disputes for the people of Illinois."

Unlike enforcement of Rules of Professional Conduct, which mandate or prohibit particular conduct, the commission focuses on what judges and lawyers should do to achieve the goals stated in the rule.

I suspect most people know little about the commission or its important work. Having questions myself, I turned to Mark Palmer of Champaign, who serves as professionalism counsel for the commission. My conversation with Mark was enlightening, and his commitment and enthusiasm for his work was quite apparent.

The commission conducts a futures conference each year to focus on the future of the profession. In addition, education is an important part of the commission's work. Continuing Legal Education (CLE) is required for Illinois lawyers. The commission is tasked with reviewing and approving all professional responsibility CLE courses before those courses qualify for professional responsibility credit. Further, commissioners and staff participate in CLE presentations throughout the state and have developed online courses that are easily available to lawyers.

One of the programs developed by the commission that caught my eye is the lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program, in which lawyers in the first five years of practice are paired with a veteran lawyer. The pairs meet at least eight times through the year to engage in discussions regarding professionalism, ethics and civility, to name a few. I see this as an excellent way to reinforce a culture of civility and professionalism.

Although not part of the purpose as stated in Rule 799, it strikes me that the outreach to people entering the profession is, in part, designed to make it clear that members of our noble profession do not conduct themselves in a manner displayed by television lawyers and judges.

In fact, in addition to the mentoring program noted above, the commission works with the law schools in Illinois in an effort to ensure that future lawyers are well-schooled regarding civility and professionalism. Among other components of this outreach is the administration of the pledge of professionalism at the time of law school orientation.

A person entering a courthouse will encounter a number of people functioning together. Judges, lawyers, court security personnel, deputy clerks and court reporters all interact with the public. The commission offers training in courthouses through the state for all of those people in an effort to refresh the outlook on civility. Regardless of the reason for the visit, persons entering the courthouse are entitled to respect and to be treated in a civil manner. The training is a good reminder of that.

Certainly this is not an exhaustive description of the important work done by the commission. However, I hope I have shed some light on its work and the example of the commitment of the judges and lawyers in Illinois to civility. You may learn more regarding its work at

In our political arenas, our roadways, sporting events and many other places, we have a problem with how we conduct ourselves. I am very proud of my profession and its efforts to promote civility.

David Bernthal of Mahomet is a retired 21-year federal magistrate. He is a counsel with the Webber & Thies PC law firm and serves as senior mediator and arbitrator with ADR Systems. His email is

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