To say we are experiencing challenging times is an understatement. Yet, there is also momentum brewing to change the status quo. Within that, lawyers must work to build the public’s trust in the justice system. The time to act is now.

Our Current Climate

COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill with the sobering number of cases, deaths, and unknown future consequences. In the middle of this global pandemic, the world witnessed the horrific death of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer while other officers stood by and watched. Sadly, this type of behavior toward people of color is not new.

However, there is a new wave of Americans saying “Enough is enough!” and “Things must change!” George Floyd’s death sparked thousands of people across the nation to protest and even riot in some cities. People are demanding change in a system that is not equal for everyone.

North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley directly addressed this issue by challenging the legal profession to do better. In Justice Beasley’s powerful address, she stated, “We must be better. Too many people believe that there are two kinds of justice. … In our courts, African-Americans are more harshly treated, more severely punished, and more likely to be presumed guilty.”

The Legal Profession Must Act

The legal profession cannot sit on its hands and watch others do the necessary work. It is the responsibility of lawyers to take action by building trust in the justice system.

At the Commission on Professionalism, we often discuss how to address the public’s lack of trust in the justice system and the impact of not seeing many lawyers or judges who look like them on people of color.

One of the best places to look for guidance is the Preamble of the Illinois Rules of Professional Conduct. According to the Preamble:

  • A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice (emphasis added).
  • As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice, and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.

Four Things the Legal Profession Can Do

As former President Barack Obama reminded us last week, “If we want our criminal justice system, and American society at large, to operate on a higher ethical code, then we have to model that code ourselves.” He stressed that this cannot be only aspirational. Rather, it must “be translated into specific laws and institutional practices.”

There are several roles lawyers can play in building trust in the justice system now. I include four ways to help generate ideas for yourself and your colleagues below. However, this only skims the surface of what lawyers can and must do to bring about change.

1. Ensure That Diversity & Inclusion Remains a Priority for the Legal Profession

In the 2019 NALP Diversity Report, data showed that “despite small increases in the past three years, the representation of Black/African-American associates remains shy of its pre-recession level, and representation of Black/African-American partners has barely changed since 2009.”

Ten years of no progress is unacceptable. On top of this, during times of crisis, underrepresented communities experience a larger negative impact in the workplace.

The Belonging Project was created to address this very issue. The Belonging Project is a national effort to support and build community among diverse law students, attorneys, and their allies to combat the impact of COVID-19 on diversity in the profession. According to The Belonging Project, COVID-19 “threatens the institutional progress towards more inclusive and diverse workplaces, including the legal industry.”

Join efforts such as The Belonging Project and commit to promoting a more diverse legal profession now.

2. Support Community Efforts to Impact Change

Many local community groups are not only protesting but also creating new policies for change.

For example, Campaign Zero has created #8CANTWAIT, a campaign aimed at inspiring cities around the country to adopt eight policies in their police departments that may reduce harm and help prevent what happened to George Floyd and so many others from happening again. Changes include banning chokeholds and strangleholds and requiring comprehensive reporting.

Find a group that is working on this issue in your city. If no one is, bring this or other initiatives to your local community.

3. Offer and Participate in Trainings

The Salt Lake City Justice Court of Salt Lake County issued a recent order regarding court operations under the exigent circumstances caused by COVID-19 and other emergencies including damage to its courthouse during protests. The Court stated in the order that “we are painfully aware that municipal courts like ours have historically been situated on, or at least very near, the tip of systemic racism’s spear.”

The Court went on to describe actions it has taken to address this issue over the past year and actions it will take going forward. This includes running additional trainings for judges, courthouse staff, and justice partners on strategies for lessening the impact of implicit bias in all court operations as well as redesigning courthouse spaces to make them more inclusive.

Use this Court’s actions as a model for similar efforts at your office and/or local courthouse.

4. Create Alliances and Participate in Collaborative Efforts

Let’s be honest, sometimes lawyers think we know best. While we can bring specific legal knowledge and experience to the table, we need to apply it in work with community stakeholders to have a bigger impact.

Again, Chief Justice Beasley from North Carolina highlighted the importance of alliances in her address after the death of George Floyd. She discussed her excitement about a recent initiative that brings together lawyers, judges, community service workers, and clergy to tackle issues like the public’s lack of trust in the justice system.

Could you form a similar alliance in your community? Or share your legal knowledge and expertise in an alliance that already exists?

How Will You Contribute?

The examples above are just a sampling of how lawyers can build trust in the justice system. There are countless other ways that lawyers can practice the Preamble’s guidance of furthering the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law. This work never ends.

As Chief Justice Beasley so eloquently states, “The work of improving justice is never truly done. Justice is not an achievement; it is a practice.”

Lawyers must build trust in the justice system. Do you plan to take action? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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