Spokane County Puts Ethics on Center Stage
Alexander P. Ryan is an assistant editor of The Affiliate and practices with the Groom Law Group in Washington, D.C.
The Spokane County ( Washington) Bar Association Young Lawyers Division has come up with a way to make getting legal ethics credits more exciting—by adding drama to the process. Literally!
Most lawyers practice in jurisdictions that require them to attend a certain number of continuing legal education seminars each year to maintain their law licenses. Generally, these continuing legal education requirements include a certain number of hours devoted to legal ethics.
We may tend to forget about this component of our annual CLE obligation. After all, let’s face it: we all know plenty about legal ethics, don’t we? Surely, that professional responsibility course in law school taught us everything we will ever need to know about ethics, right? We learned the important stuff: avoid conflicts of interest when representing our clients; strictly maintain our clients’ confidences. And then, of course, most of us were required to pass some type of ethics examination for admission to practice in our jurisdiction. What else could we possibly need to do to demonstrate our ethical worthiness?
I suspect that many of us are familiar with the following scenario: we get caught up in the press of day-to-day practice and, toward the end of the bar year, we receive a notice from our state bar association reminding us that we need to fulfill our annual CLE obligation. Since most of us don’t spend the year thinking about which CLE and legal ethics courses to attend, when we receive these friendly “reminder” notices, we generally scramble to sign up for a seminar or web conference that will give us the number of credits we need to maintain our licensure for another year.
Young lawyers in the Spokane County Bar Association, based in Washington State, decided to address this dilemma by sponsoring an annual ethics CLE called “Judicial Theater.” Chances are, if you’re like a lot of young attorneys, you don’t exactly get excited at the prospect of sitting through another lecture about the proper handling of attorney trust accounts or the disciplinary procedures in your jurisdiction that apply to violations of the ethics rules. That is why in Spokane County instead of attorneys spending a day in a hotel banquet room listening to ethics lectures, the local bar gathers in a converted photography studio to watch local judges act out various ethical dilemmas and then engages in a follow up discussion about these performances.
The process is straightforward enough: the members of the YLD invite state trial and appellate judges to attend the event and put on short skits that revolve around particular ethical issues. Sometimes a member of the YLD’s “Judicial Theater” CLE committee will volunteer to write the performance, so that a particular judge can just show up at the event and perform the skit. Often, however, the judges will opt to write their own performances. In either case, members of the audience get an opportunity to see a real-life ethical dilemma played out in dramatic fashion, instead of listening to lectures. After the performances, the judges and the audience members engage in a dialogue about the particular ethical issue involved and the best way to handle it in practice.
According to Kammi Mencke, current Chair of the Spokane County Bar Association YLD, the “Judicial Theater” CLE was created several years ago, at a time when it was hard to find seminars that would fulfill Washingto n ’s CLE ethics requirements. The initial response to the CLE was very positive, and, according to Mencke, the YLD has sponsored the event nearly every year for the past eight or nine years. “The Spokane County Bar Association is relatively small. Therefore, the ‘Judicial Theater’ CLE has always been very well received because it attempts to bridge the gap between practicing attorneys and the judiciary. The CLE is a great opportunity to bring all sides of the legal system together to discuss ethical dilemmas,” she says. The CLE presents a wide array of ethical topics. According to Mencke, “all aspects of the rules of professional conduct are discussed during the CLE. We attempt to plan the program and create the skits to address nearly all the various parts of the rules of professional conduct. . . .” Elizabeth Mosey, who currently chairs the Spokane County YLD “Judicial Theater” CLE committee, says that frequent ethics topics include attorneys’ duties of confidentiality and trust fund issues.