In celebration of Law Day 2023, the ABA Business Law Section’s Rule of Law Working Group and Pro Bono Committee will be collaborating with Reading Partners, a national nonprofit committed to developing children’s reading skills, to provide a volunteer opportunity at the Business Law Section’s Spring Meeting in Seattle. The goal is to engage elementary school students in topics related to the Rule of Law (civic, history, and government) by having Section members (i) donate books to Reading Partners and (ii) visit an under-resourced school to read and talk with students about these topics.
Our volunteer project in Seattle is just one example of how we, as lawyers, can fulfill our ethical responsibility to “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system,” as described in the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct. It also aligns with this year’s theme for Law Day, which is encouraging the legal profession to lead the way in promoting civics, civility, and collaboration—the cornerstones of our democracy—to restore confidence in our democratic institutions and the judicial system, and to protect the rule of law.
Civics, Civility, & Civil Discourse
Indeed, lawyers can play an important role in advancing civic understanding, civility, and civil discourse. As Judge Alvin Thompson observed in his piece titled “Want a Dysfunctional Rule of Law? Then Neglect Civic Education,” “The beneficial effects of civic education are not only desirable but necessary for our well-being as a nation. Consequently, as members of the legal profession, we should engage in and promote civic education that will support and strengthen the Rule of Law. Doing so is one of the ways we can deliver on the solemn promise we made when we took an oath to support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America.”
In many ways, civic education is a condition precedent to an engaged citizenry and a functional rule of law. If we are to strengthen both, we must ensure that civic education is “comprehensive and engaging to prepare the next generation to be knowledgeable and active leaders.” And yet, a 2018 report by American Progress found that civic curricula tends to focus heavily on knowledge but is devoid of experiential learning or local problem-solving components, which help build skills and agency for civic engagement. Without the knowledge, skills, and disposition necessary to become informed and engaged citizens, we the People are left feeling disengaged, disempowered, and apathetic towards our system of government.
In a piece titled “The road to a stronger democracy begins in the classroom,” Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Louise Dubé observed that “[t]he consequences of neglecting civic education are all around us: rampant misinformation, disengagement from democratic action and institutions, acrimonious political divisions that pose a danger to the survival of our system of government, and a sentiment, shared by too many young Americans, that they have no place in American civic life.”
So what can we do? As lawyers, we have an ethical responsibility to advance the rule of law. In fact, the Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Responsibility sets forth that the reason it is a key responsibility of a lawyer to “further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system” is “because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority” (emphasis added). In other words, the very existence of our constitutional democracy and its institutions depends on the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system.
Pro Bono & Professional Integrity
Lawyers can play an important role in advancing the rule of law by fulfilling their professional responsibility to provide pro bono publico service (Rule 6.1) and by not engaging in discriminatory or harassing conduct (Rule 8.4(g)).
In 2022, the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index rated the U.S. at 0.63 out of 1.00 for Civil Justice. Notably, the lowest sub-factors for Civil Justice included accessibility and affordability of civil courts (0.45), and whether the civil justice system discriminates in practice based on socio-economic status, gender, ethnicity, religion, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity (0.36), putting it last and second to last among countries with similar incomes. These ratings indicate that lawyers can make an impact with respect to accessibility, affordability, and nondiscrimination in our civil justice system through pro bono work and nondiscrimination efforts.
The Preamble to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct states, “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.” Paragraph 6 of the Preamble expounds on the special responsibility of lawyers and provides that lawyers should:
- “[F]urther the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system” (as discussed above);
- “[B]e mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance”; and
- “[D]evote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel.”
With respect to #1, Rule 8.4(g) identifies as professional misconduct harassment or discrimination by a lawyer based on “race, sex, religion, national origin, ethnicity, disability, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, marital status or socioeconomic status in conduct related to the practice of law.” Rule 8.4(g), Comment , recognizes, in part: “Discrimination and harassment by lawyers in violation of paragraph (g) undermine confidence in the legal profession and the legal system. Such conduct also engenders skepticism and distrust of those charged with ensuring justice and fairness.”
With respect to #2 and #3, Rule 6.1 addresses “voluntary pro bono publico service,” the work that we lawyers should aspire to do, and what efforts and endeavors qualify under the Rule. It states that “[e]very lawyer has a professional responsibility to provide legal services to those unable to pay.” By doing so, lawyers can play a role in advancing the rule of law.
Given our terribly low ranking on accessible/affordable civil justice and discrimination in both the civil and criminal legal justice systems, it is clear that lawyers can play a role in strengthening the rule of law with respect to these factors by doing pro bono work and maintaining professional integrity in all of our interactions. At the Spring Meeting in Seattle, we will be discussing these and other ethical obligations in a CLE program titled: “Legal Ethics in the Emerald City: What The Rules of Professional Conduct Say About Brains, Heart, and Courage.”
So What Can You Do to Strengthen the Rule of Law?
First, you can work to eliminate bias, discrimination, and harassment in the practice of law. Consider engaging in diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts at your law firm. Converse with your colleagues about these topics. Collaborate with organizations like Reading Partners, who believe in the power of educational equity to interrupt systemic racism, poverty, and social inequality, and are committed to building a culturally competent and representative team to advance social justice through service in schools and communities.
Second, you can increase access to our justice system by taking on a pro bono case to help an individual or charitable, religious, civic, community, governmental, or educational organization in matters designed primarily to address the needs of persons of limited means. You can provide additional services through participation in activities for improving the law, the legal system, or the legal profession. And if you are attending the Spring Meeting in Seattle, you can support pro bono by hearing from a panel of local pro bono leaders at the Pro Bono Committee’s breakfast on April 28, 2023, at 7:30 AM. The Pro Bono Breakfast will feature two distinguished volunteer attorneys from Communities Rise and an inspiring pro bono manager from Legal Counsel for Youth and Children.
Finally, you can find a way to promote civic education in your local community.
Whether you choose to engage in an activity like our volunteer project in Seattle or choose to support an organization that advocates for sustained and systematic attention to civic education in your state or local community, you, as a lawyer, can make an impact in this space.
Just as Reading Partners recognizes that strong literacy skills are the foundation for all future learning, we, as members of the legal profession, recognize that strong civic literacy skills are the foundation for the future of our constitutional democracy.
As discussed above, the ABA Business Law Section Rule of Working Law Group and Pro Bono Committee are collaborating with Reading Partners to provide a volunteer opportunity for the Spring Meeting in Seattle. Complete this form to volunteer in person and visit a local school during the Hybrid Spring Meeting. You can also support these efforts by donating a book to Reading Partners. Donate online (Civics Books or General Books) or bring a book to the Reading Partners table in the Section Lounge at the Meeting. Thank you for supporting this important initiative!
Special thanks to Judge Alvin Thompson, John Stout, Laksmi Gopal, Tsui Ng, and David Burick for planning this initiative.
Alvin W. Thompson, “Want a Dysfunctional Rule of Law? Then Neglect Civic Education,” Business Law Today (February 14, 2023). ↑
Sarah Shapiro and Catherine Brown, “The State of Civics Education,” American Progress (February 21, 2018). ↑
Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Louise Dubé, “The road to a stronger democracy begins in the classroom,” Boston Globe (March 8, 2021). ↑
World Justice Project, “WJP Rule of Law Index 2022: Civil Justice, United States” (last visited April 14, 2023). ↑
ABA Comm. on Ethics & Prof’l Responsibility, Formal Op. 493, at 1 (2020). ↑
Vision and Values, Reading Partners, (April 16, 2023). ↑
This article is part of a series on intersections between business law and the rule of law, and their importance for business lawyers, created by the American Bar Association Business Law Section’s Rule of Law Working Group. Read more articles in the series.