Perspectives on Professionalism: an Interview with Martin Sinclair, Chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism

Interviewed by Kenny Matuszewski and Laura Wibberley

Q: For people unfamiliar with the IL Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism, can you explain the organization and its mission?

A: The Illinois Supreme Court established the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism in 2005 under Supreme Court Rule 799(c) to foster increased civility, professionalism and inclusiveness among lawyers and judges in Illinois. We do so through CLEs and other educational programming, lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring, courthouse professionalism trainings and partnerships with law schools, to name a few.

Our tagline is “Connecting lawyers. Inspiring change.” By connecting lawyers to one another and to the core values of our profession, we seek to advance the highest standards of conduct among lawyers and judges. This, in turn, will promote more effective, equitable and efficient legal and judicial systems.

Q: What are some of the Commission’s current initiatives and projects?

A: The Commission develops and implements innovative programming to advance professionalism, beginning with new law students and continuing throughout attorneys’ legal careers.

Our lawyer-to-lawyer mentoring program pairs newly minted lawyers with more experienced practitioners to ensure new attorneys receive practical professional guidance (and free CLE!) after the rigors of law school. More than 5,000 Illinois lawyers have participated since its 2011 launch. Feedback on the program is uniformly positive; 100% of participants said they’d recommend our program to other lawyers.

The Commission facilitates continuous learning through our in-person and online CLE programs in ethics, mental health and substance abuse, diversity and inclusion, civility and professionalism. More than 6,000 Illinois attorneys took our free online courses in 2018.

To connect lawyers with innovation in the profession, we host an annual conference focused on the future of the law, The Future Is Now: Legal Services. This year thought leaders from across the U.S. will explore the rule of law amid changes in the legal industry. The Future Is Now will be held on May 16 in Chicago. Early bird registration is open.

Another popular program is the Commission’s Courthouse Professionalism Training titled “Walk in Their Shoes.” The goal of this program is to increase professionalism and service to those who access our judicial system. We have facilitated 11 trainings at courthouses across Illinois, and plan to expand our reach in 2019.

Finally, the Commission works with law schools throughout the academic year, leading discussions with students and alumni about professionalism, inter-generational communication, diversity and inclusion. We’re also thrilled to facilitate Jumpstart, a tuition-free law school preparation program for traditionally under-represented incoming law students.

Q: Why did you join the IL Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism and become its Chair?

A: My first job out of law school was an appellate clerkship. For a year, I had the opportunity to watch oral arguments regularly and witness some of the finest advocates in our community present their cases. What I saw was that professionalism, civility and preparation mattered. I took that lesson to heart.

I joined the Commission in 2015 and was appointed Chair in 2019. Through its programming and leadership, the Commission plays an important role in combating the incivility threatening our legal and judicial systems. At the same time, the Commission provides Illinois legal professionals with tools to adapt and thrive in the ever-changing legal profession.

Illinois is one of 14 states to have a statewide Commission on Professionalism. Ours is the most comprehensive and influential in the country.

Q: What has been your most memorable experience with the Commission?

A: Every year I participate in administering the oath of professionalism to new students at law schools in the Chicago area. Getting to spend time with the students is a great experience. Their excitement about entering the legal profession is palpable and it’s an honor to have the opportunity to emphasize civility and professionalism from the very beginning of their education.

It’s also helpful for me to recite the oath of professionalism each year. It helps keep the Commission’s (and my) goals at the front of my mind.

Q: What would you like to accomplish as the Commission Chair?

A: As Commission Chair, I’m focused on empowering Illinois legal professionals to embrace the future of the law, while ensuring the tenets of civility and professionalism are upheld in the Illinois legal community. I anticipate furthering our commitment through innovative programming, elevating the administration of justice in our society and continuing to execute the nationally renowned programming we’ve developed to date.

Q: Why is the practice of civility, wellness, diversity and inclusion within the legal profession important for attorneys across the country and Illinois?

A: Civility, wellness, diversity and inclusion are central to the moral code that binds us together as officers of the court. Adhering to these tenets is essential for our legal system and our democracy to operate efficiently.

The practice of law is inherently contentious. To remain focused on resolving client cases, it’s crucial for lawyers to treat one another with respect. When disagreements abound, our focus shifts from the client, diminishing our quality of service.

Today’s world is a wonderfully complex mix of ethnicities, sexualities, cultures and abilities. However, the legal profession isn’t keeping up. The more accurately the legal profession reflects this diversity of our nation, the better equipped we are to render fair and equitable justice for all.

The same can be said for wellness. A lawyer who doesn’t prioritize self-care won’t be as productive as one who is practicing wellness. Adopting a healthier lifestyle can increase our efficiency, which leads to improved client satisfaction.

Q: What are some professionalism challenges currently faced by young lawyers? Do you have any recommendations for overcoming them?

A: Bridging the gap between generational expectations of behavior is a huge challenge. Joining the legal community, with its established professional norms, can be daunting. It can feel, at times, like deciphering a code. There are so many things to learn and each interaction can feel like a graded performance.

Today, it seems like there’s an even broader gap between generations in terms of behavioral expectations. Older generations expect traditional forms and styles of communication, while new lawyers are used to a more intimate and rapid exchange.

My advice to young lawyers is to observe and think before acting–in everything you do. It’s always helpful to observe how other people at your firm or in your practice area approach situations and try to emulate them.

Q: Should new attorneys get involved with the Commission on Professionalism? How can they participate?

A: Absolutely. The Commission is a helpful and thoughtful resource for new attorneys.

Our mentoring program is a great way for attorneys in their first five years of practice to gain support in the transition from law student to lawyer. Mentees are paired with more experienced professionals who share the nuances of legal practice and help build connections in the legal community.

Moreover, newly admitted attorneys must complete a six-hour basic skills course in professional responsibility. This requirement is fulfilled by the completion of our mentoring program.

I’d also encourage new attorneys to attend The Future Is Now on May 16. It will be a great opportunity to network with other legal professionals and learn how to apply innovations in the legal industry to your practice.

Q: Do you have any last pieces of advice for young lawyers?

A: It’s important to recognize that we are a community. As you spend time practicing, you will see the interconnected nature of our professional work and the importance of reputation in this community. The lawyer opposite you on a case isn’t a nameless person. She is an individual, operating like you as an officer of the court, and someone you’re likely to see again in court or in public. We owe it to her, and, in fact, owe it to each other, to be our best selves.

About Martin:

Martin Sinclair is an attorney with the firm of Sperling & Slater, P.C., and Chair of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism.

He joined Sperling & Slater in 2017. He practiced previously in the litigation group of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP, where he represented public and private companies and individuals in regulatory, administrative, and transactional matters including advising on corporate governance, complex disputes in the mergers and acquisitions context, class action lawsuits, shareholder derivative litigation, and commercial contracts. In addition, Mr. Sinclair defended civil investigations and conducted internal investigations in anti-corruption, fraud, securities and related matters. 

In his first year of practice, Mr. Sinclair clerked for the Honorable William J. Bauer on the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.

Mr. Sinclair maintains an active pro bono practice and serves currently as the President of the Northern District of Illinois Court Historical Association and a Director with Landmarks Illinois. He has served on Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism since 2015. He was appointed Chair of the Commission in 2019.


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