Spotlight on Sections: Professional Responsibility

Spotlight on Sections: Section on Professional Responsibility


By Barbra Elenbaas

AALS Sections provide a forum for law school faculty and staff and to connect on issues of shared interest. Each of the 100 AALS sections is focused on a different academic discipline, affinity group, or administrative area. For a full list of AALS sections and how to join, please visit
In this edition of “Spotlight on Sections” AALS spoke with the leadership of the AALS Section on Professional Responsibility.
The Section on Professional Responsibility promotes the communication of ideas, interests, and activities among members, provides support for pedagogical and scholarly endeavors, and facilitates dialogue on matters of interest in the teaching and improvement of the law relating to the legal profession and issues of professional responsibility.

Barbara A. Glesner Fines, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Chair  (Photo courtesy of University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law)

Barbara A. Glesner Fines, University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, Chair (Photo courtesy of University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law)

Susan S. Fortney, Texas A&M University School of Law, Chair-Elect (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University School of Law)

Susan S. Fortney, Texas A&M University School of Law, Chair-Elect (Photo courtesy of Texas A&M University School of Law)

What can you tell us about the membership of the Section on Professional Responsibility?
Barbara Glesner Fines: The section is made up of teachers and scholars of professional responsibility. Our members teach or are involved with the ABA required professional responsibility course and related courses in ethics and professional regulation.
Susan Fortney: Some members are also involved with newer course offerings that fall under the title of “legal profession.”
BGF: I know many clinical professors and those who teach legal writing courses have an ethics component in their skills courses. Some of those scholars for whom professional responsibility has become an important part of their whole portfolio may join the section as well. But it’s primarily those folks who teach the classroom courses in professional responsibility or the legal profession.
Your section is one of the largest at AALS. What strategies do you use, with such a diverse membership, to keep everyone connected and engaged?
BGF: Our most consistent and successful method of communication is our newsletter, which is very robust. It’s the product of a team of faculty members who have done amazing work over the years in making it very substantive. There are faculty members who look at that newsletter as their main update letter and source of information. Have I missed some new development in the law that I need to be aware of? They’ll look at the newsletter as a check on their own understanding of what they’re doing.
SF: The editor, Margaret Tarkington at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, deserves special recognition for her work on the newsletter. Roy Simon, emeritus professor from the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University also provides regular updates of developments in the field of professional responsibility. We have members like Roy who are no longer teaching but do the heavy lifting and stay connected through the newsletter.
BGF: As long as I’ve been a member of the section, it’s been a great, robust newsletter.
SF: Since 1992, when I was a young professor, the newsletter has also served the function of connecting people. Among the different features you have are announcements of events, recognition of people—I think it helps build the community. I find the professional responsibility community to be incredibly interesting and supportive.
BGF: There are a few other things our section does in terms of engagement. We have and have always had a very strong connection with the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility. Several years ago at their conference, we began piloting a works-in-progress session in association with that group. Nowadays, AALS is nimbler and recognizes that relationships with partner and sister organizations are critical. I think we make an important distinction in our section by recognizing that our section is not the be-all and end-all of professional responsibility, but rather a place to bring together all these other opportunities and events.
SF: We also have established get-togethers at the ABA conference such as luncheons or dinners.
BGF: We also work with affiliated organizations and individual law school conferences as opportunities to gather together outside of AALS. A few years ago, someone said “Hey, all these great conferences are being scheduled at the same time. Can’t we have some central clearinghouse to know when these are all happening? So if you want to have a conference, you won’t be bumping up against someone else?” Our section went ahead and created this clearinghouse for conferences, and now we know.
The clearinghouse was a wonderful development that helps us keep things going throughout the year. For example, we just had the International Association of Legal Ethics meeting in New York. I wasn’t able to attend but I know many section members were there because it gets advertised at AALS.
We also have a mentoring program. I’ve been involved in it over the years and it is not particularly formal but even having a mentoring program keeps the responsibility for mentoring visible among section members. And we have senior members in the section who have made it their personal mission, over the years, to make sure that new members are noticed and welcomed. Those people don’t necessarily have a formal role, but they are still mentors. Being open and welcoming to newer teachers is something we’ve worked on very hard in our section. I feel we’ve made a lot of progress and I believe our new members feel the difference.
One other thing we’ve done that might be of interest to other sections is a webinar works-in-progress presentation. That format takes a little bit of doing with someone who is tech savvy. Andrew Perlman, who’s now dean at Suffolk, was chair the year our section did that. It was an interesting way to engage. I think it was a pretty impressive experiment.
SF: I hope to continue that type of engagement over the next couple of years. I think there’s a particular need for digital tools because you find schools are increasingly limiting their budgets for travel for faculty members. This will allow people to continue to share their completed projects or works-in-progress with the benefit of a live audience, while not having to exhaust the limited travel funds that schools are able to offer.
BGF: Our members have a lot going on. One final way we engage is at the AALS Annual Meeting where we host a lunch or a breakfast. Just coming to our panel programs may not make you feel part of the community, and neither does attending the business meetings that happen after the programs. But if you can get people together for a meal, that really builds community.
Your section gives out an annual award called the Fred C. Zacharias Memorial Prize. What can you tell me about it and those who have won?
BGF: This will be our seventh award. It’s a scholarship award, so the committee looks for a recently published article. They tend to look for not just a really good article, but an article with the depth of understanding that would really honor the kind of work that Fred Zacharias did. There was never an article of his that you picked up and didn’t say “Yes! Boy does that help me understand. That’s really clear and insightful.” Maybe you didn’t always agree with it, but it never felt like drudgery, reading his articles. It was always very informative, timely, and connected to the current trends of what was happening in the profession. I believe all members of the committee are keeping his scholarship in mind as they read these articles.
Your section utilizes several committees. How do you make use of these groups, and what are you accomplishing by having the section structured in this way?
BGF: A committee structure allows you to designate one person who takes responsibility. It facilitates delegation of authority. That’s the critical feature.
It also gives recognition for section work more broadly. In the past 10 years or so that I’ve been involved in section leadership, we’ve grown opportunities for people to participate in ways that are recognized. It’s hard, in these times of declining resources, to go to your deans and say “I need to go to the AALS Annual Meeting and I want to go to this other conference that’s more specialized to my field.” Suddenly, you are over your annual travel budget. A lot of schools require you to present in order to pay for travel to conferences. So if you can say “I’m the chair of this committee,” or “I have this responsibility,” it lets the dean know the real service that you’re providing to the section, and it also gives a basis for providing resources to support that service. I think that’s its primary benefit: it gives a formal title to the many kinds of contributions people make to a section apart from being an officer.
What are the important conversations happening right now regarding professional responsibility in legal education?
BGF: On the teaching side, the profession has dramatically changed. It’s undergoing extraordinary transformation because of globalization, the shift from viewing the lawyer as a professional to viewing a lawyer as one of many providers of legal services, the pressures of people representing themselves and web-based legal services—there’s a number of reasons. All of those things have changed the business of the legal profession, and that impacts the profession overall.
There are also changes in legal education and the drop off in applications, and changing data on who’s coming to law school and why they’re coming to law school. That has a big impact on professional responsibility because we teach the one course that every law school in the United States requires in some form. Professional responsibility is the course where all students get a more direct picture of what it means to be a lawyer. So it is a critical juncture for shaping the profession.
That goes for the scholarship side, as well. All these dramatic changes in the structure and delivery of legal services and the regulation of the profession and business are the stuff of which the scholars in the field are on the front lines. We are determining where that’s going to go and the role of those institutions and regulatory structures.
The substance of the law of professional responsibility has grown dramatically in the 30 years that I’ve been teaching the course. It is unbelievable. All law continues to grow, but especially professional responsibility.
Once the semester starts, I’ll be working with Catherine Carpenter from Southwestern Law School, who did the ABA curriculum survey. A few years back, Laurel Terry at Penn State Dickinson did a survey of the section members on how they teach and what they teach. I’m going to take that survey and what Catherine Carpenter did with the ABA curriculum study, and we’re going to send out a survey to all section members and associate deans to see where professional responsibility teaching is going. We’ll present the results of that survey at the AALS Annual Meeting. I’m very curious to see what’s happening.
At last year’s Annual Meeting, you teamed up with both the Section on Taxation for a program on ethical tax advising and the Section on Criminal Justice on ethics in criminal practice. What can you tell me about those programs?
BGF: There are many in our section who believe that the only effective way to truly teach professional responsibility and form students as professionals is through a “pervasive method”—that is, that professional responsibility should not be the province solely of a required course, but should be an integral part of courses across the curriculum. It makes sense, then, that we co-sponsor AALS programs quite often.
The co-sponsored programs generally come about because we have a member of the executive committee who is aware of another section’s planned programs or because we have identified interests that another section might share with us based on the topic we are addressing. We try to invite co-sponsorship wherever it seems appropriate and generally accept co-sponsorship quite freely, so long as we have a member of our section who can act as a liaison.
Last year’s co-sponsored section on Monroe Freedman’s 1966 article, “Professional Responsibility of the Criminal Defense Lawyer: The Three Hardest Questions” was very successful, with broad representation on the panel from both the criminal justice and professional responsibility scholarly communities.
SF: Monroe Freedman was one of the leaders in establishing legal ethics as a field of interest for academics. Before his death, a number of people thought it would be worthwhile to use the anniversary of one of his seminal works to explore issues facing attorneys who practice in the criminal defense area. The Criminal Justice section, naturally, was interested in co-sponsoring because of the relevance to their work and Professor Freedman’s standing. Ed: see Spring AALS News for Spotlight on Sections – Criminal Justice.
What programming do you have in the works for the 2017 AALS Annual Meeting? 
BGF: This year, we will be co-sponsoring a panel for the Section on Elder Law’s program: “Ethical and Moral Dimensions of Lawyering for Clients with Limited Capacity.” This program should provide excellent discussion of this difficult topic—one of our former chairs of the section, Jack Sahl, coordinated with the Elder Law section on this program. We will also be co-sponsoring with the section on Transactional Law and Skills (a relatively new and very active section). I was approached by the section to co-sponsor because their topic, “Ethics in Business Transactions,” fits nicely with our section. Topics that might be covered include corporate compliance, corruption, disclosure (fraud), fiduciary law, and professional responsibility.
What is your vision for the section, this year and in the years to come? What new initiatives would you like to see as part of the section?
SF: Personally, I am going to ask the executive committee to conduct a survey that would ask members about our Annual Meeting programming. We may also ask the membership to consider what the section’s official mission and vision should be. I want to consider whether, in addition to focusing on legal ethics teaching and scholarship, we should assume a role in helping law professors and their schools consider larger ethics issues in legal education.