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Professionalism: Two decades of progress in Ohio’s courts

By Lori L. Keating

At a luncheon on Sept. 27, 2012, past and present members of the Supreme Court of Ohio Commission on Professionalism will gather to mark the commission’s 20th anniversary.

The commission has come a long way since the late Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer established a Committee to Study Creeds of Professionalism in 1989, which reviewed and compared the creeds of professionalism adopted by courts and bar associations in Ohio and other states and explored the feasibility of adopting a statewide creed of professionalism. The committee was also asked to consider other options that would “raise the consciousness of attorneys and remind them of their responsibility to maintain a high level of professionalism in their relationships with clients, judges and other members of the bar.” In its final report, the committee recommended, among other things, creating a permanent body to “serve a valuable oversight function and make additional recommendations to the Supreme Court on issues relevant to lawyer professionalism.”

That permanent body—the Supreme Court of Ohio Commission on Professionalism, which was born 20 years ago, was the third of its kind to be established in the United States. At that time, only Georgia and Texas had similar commissions. Since then, 11 more states have formed commissions charged with promoting professionalism among attorneys and judges statewide.

When Gov. Bar R. XV became effective in 1992, the commission was entrusted with monitoring and coordinating professionalism efforts and activities in Ohio courts, bar associations and law schools; promoting and sponsoring activities that emphasize and enhance professionalism; and developing and making available educational materials that emphasize and enhance professionalism for use by judicial organizations, bar associations, law schools and other entities.

Cleveland attorney Marvin Karp, who has practiced law for more than 50 years at Ulmer & Berne, was there at the beginning. He served on the committee that preceded the commission in 1989. Nineteen years later, Karp was appointed as a commission member and currently serves as vice chair. After re-reading the original committee report, Karp said he was struck by the fact of how many of the initial recommendations had been accomplished by the commission.

Articulating the ideals

In one of its first projects the commission drafted A Lawyer’s Creed, A Lawyer’s Aspirational Ideals and A Judicial Creed, which the Supreme Court of Ohio adopted in 1997. These documents articulate the foundations of professionalism, including “integrity, the achievement and maintenance of competence, a commitment to a life of service, and the quest for justice for all.” These ideals remind lawyers and judges to “remain mindful that their primary obligations are to the institutions of law and the betterment of society, rather than to the interests of their clients or themselves.”

The commission later partnered with the Clients’ Security Fund to publish the “Consumer’s Practical Guide to Managing a Relationship with a Lawyer.” This booklet provides a helpful service for legal consumers by explaining, in simple terms, the duties that lawyers have to their clients, the reciprocal obligations that clients have when working with lawyers, and what to do when something goes wrong.

Passing along the ideals to new lawyers: Lawyer to lawyer mentoring

After establishing the ideals that all legal professionals should aspire to, the commission began planning a project to bring these principles into action—a way to introduce newly admitted attorneys to the legal community and teach the importance of conducting themselves in a professional manner.

With a 2006 pilot initiative, the commission launched a statewide mentoring program for new lawyers. The Lawyer to Lawyer Mentoring Program guides new lawyers as they begin the practice of law. By pairing new lawyers with experienced attorneys, mentoring provides opportunities to share practical advice and to develop lawyering skills, as well as to impart the importance of professionalism on newly admitted lawyers. The program assigns mentoring pairs throughout Ohio, provides a mentoring timeline and plan, and offers written materials to help the mentor and the new protégé lawyer engage in meaningful discussion, learning and skills-development tailored to their practice needs and goals. Since the program’s inception, nearly 2,000 new lawyers have successfully completed the program. Nineteen mentors who have participated in this program every year since its start will be honored during an awards ceremony at the September luncheon.

Justice Terrence O’Donnell, a former commission member, deserves much credit for the mentoring program’s success. On joining the Supreme Court, he made the creation of this program a priority and continues to personally recruit mentors and new lawyers for Lawyer to Lawyer Mentoring each year.

Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Court Judge and Commission Chair Michael P. Donnelly said that before the Lawyer to Lawyer program was established, he observed a disparity in courtroom etiquette between lawyers from larger firms and solo practitioners. Large law firms had inhouse mentoring programs in place, while solo practitioners were oftentimes on their own to discover the pitfalls of not acting in a professional manner. He noticed right away how Lawyer to Lawyer Mentoring provided guidance to those new lawyers who did not have the benefit of being in a larger firm. Judge Donnelly also touts another benefit to the program: an accelerated pace of learning for new lawyers. He said he started out as a county prosecutor and it took him years to experience what new lawyers involved in the program learn at the outset.

Now on his fourth mentoring relationship, Judge Donnelly said it has been a great experience. He has kept in contact with each one of the attorneys he has mentored. Even after the end of a mentoring relationship, new lawyers he has worked with occasionally call him with questions.

The Supreme Court of Ohio Commission on Professionalism, which was born 20 years ago, was the third of its kind to be established in the United States.

Conversation with Ohio law schools

The work of the commission has also included engaging Ohio’s law schools in a discussion about the importance of increasing professionalism instruction in law schools. The commission has worked with Ohio’s law schools to develop orientation materials that introduce new law school students to the importance of professionalism issues. In 2010 the commission hosted a Student to Lawyer Symposium, which brought together law school deans and professors, experienced practitioners, judges, and new lawyers for a conversation about how law schools could best prepare law school students for the practice of law. Much of the discussion centered on what law schools could do to more fully integrate the practical skills necessary for the effective practice of law and better address the development of professional identity and values of future lawyers.

A second symposium is planned for November. This time lawyers from around the state will be encouraged to connect with their local law schools to offer their expertise to help prepare the next generation of lawyers. Their experiences as practicing attorneys will be invaluable to those who will soon be faced with many daily decisions that will test their knowledge, skills and commitment to professionalism.

Encouraging judges to set the bar

The commission has also reached out to judges, reminding them of the role they play in setting the bar for professionalism in the legal profession. In a series offered through the Ohio Judicial College called “Promoting Professionalism on and from the Bench,” judges discuss their responsibility to serve as role models and to correct the unprofessional behaviors of attorneys that they see inside and outside of the courtroom. Reviewing realistic scenarios featuring attorneys acting unprofessionally, judges talk about ways they may most effectively address this disruptive behavior when it occurs.

Providing guidance for all practitioners

Now the commission is returning to its roots, according to Karp. After spending a great amount of time and attention focusing on law students, new lawyers and judges, the commission is focusing again on all practitioners. By concentrating more attention on the bedrock principles of professionalism—courtesy, respect and civility—Karp said the commission hopes to “reawaken” the bar.

The commission is making materials available that can be used for continuing legal education courses on professionalism. The commission hopes to gather existing materials instead of reinventing the wheel, and to post the resources on its website. The programs will encourage meaningful discussion about professionalism issues. Creating a sophisticated dialog about how to act professionally in various situations will be a more effective way to teach professionalism than for a presenter to stand up and say to a group, “be civil, be courteous, and be a good lawyer.” Judge Donnelly said the commission hopes providing this material will improve the quality of professionalism continuing legal education programs. “We want professionalism CLEs to be something attorneys look forward to and get something out of,” he said.

Continuing its mission

The Statement on Professionalism, issued by the Court in 1997, states:

The Court created the Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism in order to address its concerns that trends were developing among lawyers in Ohio and elsewhere which emphasize commercialism in the practice of law and de-emphasize our historical heritage that the practice is a learned profession to be conducted with dignity, integrity and honor as a high calling dedicated to the service of clients and the public good. These trends have been evidenced by an emphasis on financial rewards, a diminishing of courtesy and civility among lawyers in their dealings with each other, a reduction in respect for the judiciary and our system of justice and a lessening of regard for others and commitment to the public good.

As professionals, we need to strive to meet lofty goals and ideals in order to achieve the highest standards of a learned profession.

As it has for 20 years, the commission will continue its efforts to elevate the level of professionalism of Ohio practitioners and judges. The September anniversary celebration will be a working luncheon, a time to not only celebrate the commission’s past successes, but also to set new goals. The commission welcomes your suggestions on ways to better promote collegiality, civility and respect in the legal profession. With the support of lawyers and judges, the Supreme Court of Ohio Commission on Professionalism will come closer to its ultimate goal— making its lofty ideals of professionalism the reality of law practice.

Author bio
Lori L. Keating serves as attorney services counsel for the Supreme Court of Ohio and is the secretary to the Supreme Court’s Commission on Professionalism. She is a faculty member of the Ohio Judicial College, a member of the Ohio State Bar Association, the American Bar Association and the Consortium of Professionalism Initiatives. Keating currently serves as the chair of the National Legal Mentoring Consortium.

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