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Vol. 37, No. 3

Award-winning bar professionalism programs offer templates for success

by Paul A. Haskins

The best bar association professionalism programs make lawyers better while illuminating success pathways for other associations to follow. Each year, the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism takes on the daunting (but secretly enjoyable) task of selecting recipients of the E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Awards, honoring the nation’s exemplary professionalism programs for lawyers and law students. 

As many as three Gambrell Awards are conferred annually on established programs that have proved to be exceptional, successful, and readily replicable. Award-worthy programs emerge from law schools, state commissions, and other law organizations, as well as bar associations.  The three programs featured in this article are bar association initiatives, with one developed in concert with a state circuit court.

For more detailed information on how to replicate any of these programs, see “The Professionalism playbook: Tips from Gambrell recipients,” also in this issue.

Basic Training program, District of Columbia Bar, 2011 Gambrell Award recipient

In 2008, the D.C. Bar initiated a more structured approach to helping “suddenly solo” lawyers in the District. As a unified bar, the D.C. Bar was sensitive to the special ethical hazards present when lawyers take the leap into a solo environment. The solo sector was burgeoning, a product of firm downsizing and fewer lateral opportunities as recession descended on the profession, and Dan Mills knew the new wave of solos would benefit from stepped-up guidance on building a healthy and ethically sound practice model.

Mills had joined the D.C. Bar early that year as manager of its Practice Management Advisory Service, after a 28-year solo career in Indiana. In his new role, Mills was counseling D.C. lawyers through various practice quandaries; a rule of professional conduct in D.C. assures  confidentiality between bar association practice-management counselors and their callers.

In those days, many of Mills’ callers were lawyers who had just been let go or knew they would soon be laid off as big firms retrenched. Many were starting or thinking about starting solo or small firms, but Mills found that they too often lacked essential knowledge of how to manage firm finances, stay within their subject matter depth, and handle client funds in a compliant fashion. 

“For a lot of good lawyers out there,” Mills says, “it’s been a long time since they looked at the rules. They think they know how to handle money, but they don’t.” For many lawyers coming out of large firms, he points out, “they don’t even see money, other than their compensation.” 

As a more structured and systematic complement to the law-practice counseling call-in service, the Basic Training course was launched in November 2008. Instantly, it became clear that the program had tapped a deep vein of unmet need. The first course filled immediately.  Initially a half-day program, Basic Training has since expanded into a full two-day affair. As of December 2012, the D.C. Bar had held 92 Basic Training sessions, helping 1,595 lawyers.

A common challenge facing Basic Training attendees—one seen more often in a city like Washington, with close suburbs in neighboring states—was what to do when D.C.-licensed lawyers want to practice out of their Virginia or Maryland home. Mills says he impresses on them that maintaining some office presence in the District is the best insurance against an unauthorized practice complaint by a neighboring state.

This year, the D.C. Bar Practice Management Advisory Service augmented Basic Training with a new program dubbed Successful Small Firm Practice, running one evening a week for 12 weeks. For that program, Mills often brings in successful solos, to share their experiences with an average audience of about 20 lawyers.  

The huge law-firm layoffs seem to have run their course, Mills notes, but demand remains high for Basic Training. “The downturn in the economy has caused many lawyers to rethink the practice of law and what they want to do,” he explains, adding that the program “attracts people who are thinking about going out on their own, for whatever reason.” For example, in the District it is not unusual these days for a retiring government lawyer to hand in his Hush Puppies and hang out a shingle.   

In addition to telephone counseling and face-to-face classes, Mills stays in touch with his solo group through a monthly networking email and monthly events at local restaurants.

MENTORmatch program, Indiana State Bar Association PLEADS Section, 2012 Gambrell Award recipient

When court and bar leaders in Indiana were faced with a failed statewide lawyer mentoring program, they built a better mousetrap by borrowing from a neighbor and adding a critical incentive to the mentoring relationship. Today, the revitalized MENTORmatch program, administered by the ISBA Professional Legal Education, Admission and Development Section (PLEADS), is on a promising trajectory with CLE credits awarded to mentors and mentees and a dynamic program curriculum guiding participants toward professional growth.  

Program leaders are encouraged by the fact that since November 2010, the revived MENTORmatch has already matched 228 pairs, with 66 mentees  having completed  the program—a hopeful sign in a state where a high percentage of lawyers  work in small-firm settings in which mentors are not easily found. As of the end of 2012, 30 lawyers were on the current wait list to be matched with mentors.

After a previous misfire, mentoring advocates realized that for a matching program to work in Indiana, it needed a healthy infusion of participant motivation and structured content. The former was supplied in late 2009, when the Indiana Commission for Continuing Legal Education tied structured mentoring to the six-hour Applied Professionalism Credit required of all newly admitted Indiana lawyers. The Commission determined that an approved mentoring program would qualify mentees for the six-hour professionalism credit. Moreover, the Commission provided that a mentor who completed an approved program could receive 12 ethics CLE credits.

ISBA President Dan Vinovich says the availability of CLE credits for mentor program participants has made all the difference. With a credit opportunity in place, he notes, “This thing really exploded. That really took the program to the next level.”

With that powerful incentive structure,  the ISBA PLEADS developed and garnered Commission approval of a curriculum-based mentoring program model and associated materials. The materials support both in-house and external mentoring programs anchored in individualized plans created by mentor and mentee. Only those mentoring programs that are certified by the Commission  can result in professionalism and ethics CLE credits for participants. The ISBA program is currently the only one in Indiana with such  certification.

Vinovich points out that the need for lawyer mentoring will only increase in the years ahead, as federal labor data project a growing gap between law firm job openings and law school graduates, compelling increasing numbers of new lawyers to go solo. Law schools do not teach students how to manage firm accounts or run a law firm, he adds, and young lawyers starting their own practice “will need more help from lawyers like us.”  

Vinovich further observes that the program has made the mentors better lawyers, too. “It really brings out the best in the mentors,” he says. “When you have the responsibility of teaching a new lawyer, you put your best foot forward.” 

To date, Williams says, Indiana’s revitalized bar mentoring  regime has served its purpose of enhancing lawyers’ skills, contributing  to their integrity as professionals, promoting development of professional relationships and involvement with the bar, and encouraging best practices and highest ideals.

Williams adds that the program’s receipt of a Gambrell Award in 2012 enhanced its effectiveness by elevating its visibility in state bar and court circles and raising awareness of the value of structured mentoring. 

17th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Initiative, 17th Judicial Circuit (Illinois), Winnebago County Bar Association, and Boone County Bar Association ­, 2012 Gambrell Award Recipient

The “s” remains stubbornly silent in Illinois, but a unique regional professionalism collaboration is making noise in the Land of Lincoln. The 17th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Initiative is showing the way for judiciaries prepared to partner with local bar associations to improve lawyer behavior. The innovative Illinois program mixes elements of education, mentoring, and informal peer review with a new circuit-wide aspirational code to deter uncivil and otherwise unprofessional lawyer conduct. 

The 17th Circuit, a two-county trial-level court in northwestern  Illinois, launched the initiative in close collaboration with the Winnebago County and Boone County bar associations. In 2007, then-Chief Judge Kathryn Zenoff, now an Illinois Appellate Court justice, gathered stakeholders from bar and bench into two groups:  an inclusive Professionalism Advisory Committee, to provide direction; and a smaller Drafting Committee, to craft the court’s Aspirational Code of Conduct.  

The code was pushed out for comment and adopted by the judges of the 17th Circuit and by members of the two county bars, voting independently. The other three elements of the Professionalism Initiative all flow from the Aspirational Code. Through the Educational Advancement piece, the Advisory Council and program partners raised awareness among area lawyers and judges that the new Aspirational Code was asking more of them than the disciplinary rules, in terms of level of professional behavior.   

The bench-bar partnership grew out of Zenoff’s courtroom observations while chief judge. “It seemed to me that as lawyers and judges, we could certainly aim a little higher in terms of how we treat each other,” now-Justice Zenoff says, “and how we behave in a highly charged courtroom environment.

“We were aware that the disciplinary code was the floor, and we wanted to aspire above that, to make it a more pleasant and civil environment for everyone.”   

The mandatory mentoring program in the 17th Judicial Circuit kicked off in 2009 with 33 new lawyer/experienced lawyer pairs. Each pair was required to execute an agreement and develop a plan using templates provided in program materials. Participants were required to finish a detailed curriculum over the course of a year.  

Illinois allows MCLE credit for participation in a year-long structured mentoring program such as the 17th Circuit initiative.   

As of mid-January, 62 attorney pairs had completed the program and another 24 pairs were expected to have completed the program by the end of that month. Moreover, 15 new attorney pairs were to start on February 1. 

Circuit Judge Janet Holmgren, immediate past chief circuit judge, notes that the mentoring program has been a boon to mentors as well as the new lawyers. Echoing ISBA President Vinovich’s comment on that state’s MENTORmatch program, Judge Holmgren observes, “I am hearing from my peers how it has reinvigorated them and their commitment to professionalism ideals.”

The other key piece of the 17th Judicial Circuit Professionalism Initiative, the Peer Review Council, considers referrals involving any lawyer informally reported to have run afoul of the Aspirational Code. The Council, formed in 2008, is composed of respected bar members with credibility and standing in the legal community. If the Council believes action is warranted, a member will contact the subject of the referral to discuss and discourage any unprofessional conduct. 

There is no record of proceeding and no formal action taken. The chief judge simply tracks the nature of complaints and number of referrals, while confirming that the Council addressed the matter. Initiative leaders take pains to point out that the process is nondisciplinary, entirely voluntary, and confidential. The Council will not pursue any matters that are properly before bar disciplinary authorities. 

As of mid-January 2013, there had been eight complaints referred to the Council. Though volume has been modest to date, program leaders are persuaded that by its mere existence, the Council is a force for professionalism compliance. Thomas Jakeway, deputy administrator of the 17th Judicial Circuit, says  the presence of the Peer Review Council “keeps the spotlight on the aspirational goals that we’re asking people to follow.” The Council members, he notes, “are the leaders of this effort.”

Program leaders say the Initiative, a recipient of a 2012 Gambrell Award, has made a meaningful impact in local legal circles. Says Judge Holmgren, “It has been a unifying force that culminated in the Gambrell Award, which really reinforced and institutionalized, if you will, the program here.

“The program has had a very positive effect on bench-and-bar relations, as well as inter-relationships within the bar.” 

Judge Holmgren urges court-bar partnerships in other states to take advantage of the model already in place in the 17th Circuit. “What we tried to create here is portable and replicable,” she says. “Any jurisdiction can use it.” 

Nominations for the 2013 E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Awards will be accepted through March 29. For award information and guidelines and the nomination form, go to the competition web page.

Paul A. Haskins

Paul A. Haskins is senior counsel in the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility and lead counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on Professionalism.