New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law, 25 years of raising the bar

By NJSBA Staff posted 11-02-2020 11:09

  

By Charles J. Hollenbeck

first executive director of the New Jersey State Commission on Professionalism in the Law

When the New Jersey Commission on Professionalism in the Law met for the first time 25 years ago today, the cooperative venture was a relatively new concept in the country. Formed with the New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA), state Judiciary and New Jersey’s two law schools, the commission’s primary goal was to encourage the observance of the highest standards of professional behavior among lawyers and judges, thereby helping to improve the profession and bolster public confidence in the legal system. The federal Judiciary was added to the commission several years later.

Origins of the Commission

The concept grew out of an NJSBA-sponsored conference in the early 1990s on the topic of professionalism. Following the conference, then-NJSBA President Matthias Dileo appointed a special committee, chaired by attorney James Youngelson, to study the topic. The committee recommended forming a commission comprised of bar, law school and Judiciary representatives to address a perceived decline in civility and professionalism. They modeled it on the pioneering Georgia Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism.

Once NJSBA leadership and the law school deans approved the special committee’s proposal to form the commission, the proposal was submitted to the New Jersey Supreme Court. After careful study, the Court endorsed the proposal and approved Judiciary participation on the commission. Then-Chief Justice Robert N. Wilentz, who agreed to be the first chair of the commission, appointed Justice Daniel J. O’Hern as court liaison to the group.

Membership

The commission consists of 23 members, including five judges from the state courts including the chief justice or designee, an Appellate Division judge, an assignment judge, a superior court judge and a municipal court presiding judge. Representing the federal bench is the chief judge, a magistrate judge and a bankruptcy court judge. There are 10 lawyers on the commission, including the NJSBA president or designee, the chair of the NJSBA Professional Responsibility Committee, two Young Lawyers Division representatives, three at-large NJSBA attorneys, and three representatives from county and affinity bar associations. The deans of Rutgers and Seton Hall law schools are members, along with an academic from one of the state’s universities. There is also a public member.

The chair of the commission serves a two-year term and the position rotates between representatives of the bench, bar and law schools. New Jersey is unique in this respect because most other state professionalism commissions are chaired either by a chief justice or state bar president.

Programs and Accomplishments

Over its 25 years, the commission has developed a number of successful programs and initiatives, aimed at both lawyers and judges. The commission has been recognized by the American Bar Association for its educational offerings. Commission initiatives include the following:

Principles of Professionalism: These aspirational guidelines for lawyers and judges are intended to supplement existing codes of conduct. The guidelines cover professional conduct in litigation, and also transactional practice, and cover such topics as lawyers’ relations with clients, lawyers’ relations with other counsel, lawyers’ relations with the court, and judges’ relations with lawyers and others.

Lawyer’s Pledge: The Lawyer’s Pledge is used primarily at swearing-in ceremonies for new lawyers and stresses fundamental principles of conduct and responsibility. The pledge is intended to be a supplement to the statutory oath taken by all lawyers newly admitted to the bar. Both Rutgers and Seton Hall law schools include professionalism themes in orientation sessions for first-year students, including the administration of the Lawyer’s Pledge by the president of the NJSBA.

Professionalism Counseling: One of the commission’s first projects was the development of a professionalism counseling program aimed at lawyers who fail to adhere to accepted standards of professional conduct. The program has been approved by the New Jersey Supreme Court. Counseling operates through county bar associations that appoint professionalism committees, often including judges, to receive and evaluate complaints received from lawyers and judges. They counsel errant lawyers if necessary.

Professionalism Day: The state and federal court endorsed the commission’s recommendation that there be an annual Professionalism Day in courthouses across New Jersey. The vicinage assignment judges, as well as the chief judge of the U.S. District Court, work with bar associations to develop minimum continuing legal education-compliant professionalism seminars that are offered in court facilities.

Judicial and Lawyer Education: Commission members frequently participate in the annual Judicial College for state court judges, as well as in training sessions for newly appointed superior court judges and for municipal court judges. The commission also provides speakers and panelists for bar associations and inns of court. Recently, the commission has offered an ethics and professionalism seminar for state court law clerks attending the NJSBA Annual Meeting.

Professionalism Awards: The commission annually holds a Professionalism Awards Luncheon that honors lawyers, nominated by the state, county and affinity bar associations, whose achievements and dedication have enriched the profession and contributed to improving public confidence in the bar. The luncheon features the presentation of the commission’s prestigious awards: the Daniel J. O’Hern Award is given to an outstanding lawyer for career achievement, service to the profession and adherence to the highest standards of professional conduct; the Charles J. Hollenbeck Award is given to an outstanding attorney employed by a governmental agency at the federal, state, county or municipal level—or by a nonprofit organization that serves the needs of the legal community— and have served with diligence, competence and dedication to the profession. The Lighthouse Award is given out periodically to an individual who has exhibited a lifetime of professionalism. 

Mentoring: The commission is committed to encouraging the mentoring of attorneys new to the profession. Most recently, it supported a voluntary mentoring program, undertaken in connection with the Morris County Bar Association (MCBA). The Joint Unified Mentorship Program, known as JUMP, involves a 12-month mentoring term consisting of meetings between a mentor and protege. n

 

Current commission members

Chair

Karol Corbin Walker

Members

Justice Barry T. Albin

Judge Louis J. Belasco Jr.

Andrew Cevasco

Kerri Chewning

Judge Wendel E. Daniels

David Edelberg

Susan A. Feeney

Judge Linda R. Feinberg (Ret.)

Prof. Paula Franzese

Judge Michael Kaplan

Emily Kelchen

Judge Edward Kiel

Sarah K. Regina

Rajeh A. Saadeh

Louis Thompson

James J. Uliano

Judge Freda L. Wolfson

Advisory Members

Judge John W. Bissell (Ret.)

Judge Georgia M. Curio (Ret.)

Dean Rayman L. Solomon (Emeritus)

James Youngelson

Benjamin D. Heller

Sabrina G. Comizzoli

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