How Erika Harold’s Experiences Prepared Her to Lead the Commission on Professionalism

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How Erika Harold’s Experiences Prepared Her to Lead the Commission on Professionalism

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Earlier this year marked the 15-year reunion of my graduating class at Harvard Law School. Although I was unable to attend the reunion in person, the milestone caused me to reflect on the idealism I felt at commencement.

Erika Harold holding degree from Harvard Law
Erika Harold holding her degree from Harvard Law.

Like so many graduating law students, I hoped to advocate for worthy clients and causes, litigate intriguing legal issues, and make impactful contributions to society. And, during the subsequent 15 years, I’ve been blessed with many opportunities to pursue those goals.

One such opportunity came in March when I was appointed Executive Director of the Illinois Supreme Court Commission on Professionalism. The Commission has been charged by the Supreme Court with promoting civility and professionalism among the state’s lawyers and judges. This includes attorney well-being, ethics, and diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Civility, professionalism, and public service have been motivating forces throughout my life. They have driven my desire to practice law, run for political office, and support related organizations and causes through volunteering and serving on boards of directors.

The opportunity, however, to fully dedicate my career to promoting these principles among the lawyers, judges, and law students of our state brings me back to the idealism I felt at commencement.

Civility as a sign of strength

Prior to joining the Commission, I was a litigator at Sidley Austin LLP and Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. in Chicago and Meyer Capel in Champaign. I represented businesses and individuals in disputes involving trust and estate administration, shareholder agreements, construction projects, and other commercial contracts.

Erika Harold sitting at a desk
Before joining the Commission, Erika was a litigator at Sidley Austin LLP and Burke, Warren, MacKay & Serritella, P.C. in Chicago and Meyer Capel in Champaign.

During that time, I witnessed the differing ways lawyers approached the practice of law, whether it be from a place of civility or not, and saw the direct consequences incivility had on lawyers and the clients they serve.

I watched lawyers unnecessarily prolong proceedings with already steep legal fees, undermine litigants’ confidence in the legal and judicial systems, and create toxic environments for other lawyers.

Conversely, even in some of my most contentious cases, I saw lawyers communicate respectfully with one another, negotiate in good faith, use courtesy when setting schedules, and commit to problem-solving when a settlement could benefit all parties.

At the Commission, we often discuss how, given lawyers’ unique role as officers of the court, civility must be more than an aspirational goal. Civility must be a standard by which we measure a lawyer’s effectiveness and competence, and strategic incivility should be seen as a sign of weakness.

I am dedicated to continuing the Commission’s tradition of winsomely promoting this ideal to Illinois’ lawyers and judges.

Laying a foundation for future lawyers

Erika Harold at desk
Erika Harold teaching at Harvard Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop.

The Supreme Court is committed to creating an ethos of professionalism, which inspires not only the current generation of Illinois lawyers and judges but also law students who will soon enter the profession. The Commission, therefore, partners with Illinois law schools to help students cultivate a mindset of professionalism and a commitment to ethics.

For the past several years, I’ve had the privilege of returning to Harvard Law School as part of the teaching faculty for its Trial Advocacy Workshop. The workshop helps students hone their skills as advocates, encouraging them to contend vigorously yet civilly.

I try to communicate to students that while a lawyer’s credibility among the bench and bar is built through years of demonstrated professionalism, it can quickly unravel through even small lapses of judgment or character.

Therefore, it’s important that students not compromise their integrity, reputation, or future law licenses by rationalizing even minor deviations from the Rules of Professional Conduct.

Sharing lessons learned has been profoundly gratifying. My time teaching was an opportunity to help shape the future of the legal profession while learning from the perspectives and insights of these talented students.

As such, I am excited to bring this passion to Illinois’ law students through the Commission’s strong collaborations with the state’s law schools, helping them promote civility and integrity as noble values worthy of students’ best efforts and firmest commitments.

Prioritizing well-being

Like so many other attorneys, mental health and well-being became more personal for me during the pandemic.

Erika Harold outside
Erika is a dedicated Illini fan who enjoys being outside.

I tested positive for COVID-19 and then experienced long COVID. Although my symptoms didn’t include brain fog, difficulty breathing, or the loss of my sense of taste or smell, I did experience long bouts of crushing fatigue and insomnia, which persisted long after my initial COVID diagnosis.

For a while, I couldn’t accept many new clients and had to reduce the number of hours I worked. In a profession driven by numbers — whether hours billed or dollars originated — this reduction, though temporary, felt demoralizing.

However, being a COVID long-hauler enabled me to acutely appreciate why so many lawyers find it difficult to seek help or prioritize their health and well-being. For many of us, our identity and self-worth are often defined by end-of-year metrics.

Prioritizing our health, therefore, can feel like a short-term loss as opposed to a long-term investment in our personal health and the health of our careers. Moreover, because the legal profession often rewards quantity over quality, there is unspoken pressure to continue accelerating the treadmill of production, regardless of the circumstances.

I ultimately regained the stamina to resume my regular caseload, but battling a chronic illness deepened my empathy and strengthened my passion for well-being. I feel privileged to be able to put this to use developing and promoting the Commission’s well-being initiatives and partnering with organizations like the Illinois Lawyers’ Assistance Program, which is providing such vital support to legal professionals struggling with substance use, addiction, and mental health challenges.

Creating a tipping point toward justice

The Commission is dedicated to eliminating bias in Illinois’ legal and judicial systems. As a Black woman, I’ve experienced some of the inequities that pervade these systems firsthand.

Like so many other attorneys who are women or people of color, I’ve been mistaken for a legal assistant, subjected to racist and sexist comments, and have had to repeatedly prove myself qualified, despite my credentials and experience.

Before joining the Commission, I served on the board of directors of Prison Fellowship, a faith-based nonprofit that serves incarcerated people and their families. During my visits to prisons and my work on criminal justice reform initiatives, I’ve seen how poverty and discrimination can limit people’s access to justice and legal services.

Erika Harold speaking at a podium.
Erika Harold speaking at a Prison Fellowship event.

Given the seeming stagnation of progress around many issues of justice and fairness, the Commission’s mission of working to eliminate those biases and forge more equitable systems deeply resonates with me.

I look forward to partnering with the other Supreme Court Commissions and Committees tasked with promoting greater equity and inclusion. Whether it is the Committee on Equality (on which I served for several years), the Commission on Access to Justice, or the Judicial Conference of Illinois, the Supreme Court has empowered a critical mass of organizations to help create a tipping point toward justice.

Upholding what is true, what is right

During my law school commencement, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, who was then Dean of Harvard Law School, shared words of wisdom that capture the Commission’s mission: “You will face choices between expedience and principle. You will face choices between doing what is easy and doing what is right. You will face choices between disregarding or upholding the values embedded in the idea of the rule of law.”

She then challenged us to be “the lawyer who stands up for principle, and upholds the true and the right” as opposed to being “the lawyer who manipulates or bends or evades the law to seek short-term advantage.”

The Commission’s mission is to help inspire and equip Illinois lawyers and judges to stand up for principle and uphold what is true and what is right. I could not be more honored to work with you, the lawyers, judges, and law students of Illinois, to help lead this mission into the future.

I would love to connect with you! Please stay connected with me and the Commission’s work by clicking here.

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