Of Interest

Professionalism: Inspiring respect, building trust


by Hon. Elizabeth T. Clement   |   Michigan Bar Journal

When the COVID-19 pandemic began and Michigan courts pivoted quickly to online proceedings, hundreds of thousands of interested parties were able to watch livestreamed court hearings. Since April 2020, litigants have participated in more than 11 million hours of hearings and local trial court YouTube channels have grown to include more than 350,000 subscribers. The public is interested in the work of our justice system, and judges and lawyers owe them our best effort to achieve and maintain the highest standards of professionalism and civility.

For the most part, when Michiganders tune in to watch trial court proceedings, they see just that — a justice system in which all are treated with dignity and respect. However, we all are aware of instances when civility is sacrificed — sometimes for sake of argument, sometimes because of frustration or anger, and sometimes for other reasons. No excuse is acceptable for bad behavior, especially when we are talking about judges and lawyers. We know better and we must act like it.

The lack of professionalism is not a new phenomenon; livestreaming just made it more visible to the public. The State Bar of Michigan has long been concerned about the problem, leading to its hosting of a summit on professionalism and civility in October 2018. Based on the work of the summit, former SBM President Ed Pappas chaired a workgroup that developed professionalism principles endorsed by the SBM Representative Assembly in 2020. In December of that year, the Michigan Supreme Court formally adopted the 12 Principles of Professionalism and Civility in Administrative Order 2020-23.

The principles embody civility, cooperation, respect, fairness, open-mindedness, honesty, integrity, courtesy, and responsibility, holding attorneys accountable and demanding that we in the legal profession hold one another accountable. The principles and the associated guidance in the administrative order provide a detailed set of rules for lawyers and judges. Judges, for example, are advised to be punctual and patient and maintain control in the courtroom so proceedings are civil and fair-minded.

In 2022, the State Bar of Michigan transitioned the workgroup into the Special Committee on Professionalism and Civility to continue this mission. Under the leadership of chair Michael Lieb, the committee maintains materials intended to support lawyers and judges as they implement the professionalism principles on a day-to-day basis. The committee also operates a speakers’ bureau whose members are ready, willing, and able to attend professional events to help lead the charge on upholding and increasing civility within the legal profession. I encourage law schools, firms, courts, sections, local and special purpose bar associations, and others to take advantage of this new resource. More information is available at michbar.org/professionalism.


Our justice system relies on a basic understanding that all people will be treated equally under the law. As protectors of the rule of law and champions of justice, we have a duty to uphold respect for the laws of the land and all parties operating within our courts.

Whatever our role or specialty in the legal community, whatever our personal politics or ambitions, we owe it to both our colleagues and the public who depend on our legal system to show that even in the fiercest legal battles, professionalism and civility are absolutely necessary.

We also should recognize that our duty stretches beyond our professional lives. Professionalism encompasses our actions from the law school classroom to the courtroom, including emails and phone calls with clients and other attorneys and our behavior at public meetings and in the halls of justice. As members of the legal profession, we represent our profession wherever we go.

As noted in the commentary on the administrative order adopting the principles:

Underscoring and reemphasizing as these principles do, such virtues as respect, cooperation, courtesy, fairness, honesty, good faith, and integrity in our everyday dealings, is hardly to define our professional obligations in a novel or remarkable manner, but it is necessary nonetheless that we occasionally remind ourselves of these fundamental obligations as we each engage in a profession in which these virtues are so ordinarily and regularly implicated.

Take this reminder seriously. Professionalism and civility in the practice of law builds public confidence in the justice system. A lack of professionalism puts clients at risk, interferes with the justice system’s ability to function fairly and efficiently, and often brings attorneys and courts into disrepute. This discussion is about more than any one of us or any one moment. Our commitment to professionalism is about maintaining — at all times — our greater responsibility to our clients, our community, and our democratic society. All lawyers and judges should conduct themselves in a manner that promotes a positive image of the legal system, fosters its reputation, and preserves public trust.

Professionalism does not come at the sacrifice of success. The most successful lawyers and most highly regarded judges are also known as highly courteous and professional. Professional and civil conduct naturally inspires the respect of others, which in turn builds a reputation for trustworthiness — the most critical attribute for success.

Please consider taking advantage of the new resources available through the work of the Special Committee on Professionalism and Civility and take time to reflect on your own work and the impact of your own actions. As a new year begins, remember that each of us has the capacity to improve, grow, and be an example for others.