The MSBA recently launched its 125th Anniversary Thought Leadership Initiative with a SPARK Series presentation by Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), the nation’s leading civil rights law organization founded more than 80 years ago by future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. In a live-streamed presentation on January 13, 2022, Ms. Ifill spoke about lawyers’ ethical obligation to serve as guardians of justice. MSBA’s Thought Leadership Initiative is a one of a kind series of programs and events that aims to inspire members of the legal community to contemplate and discuss the role of the legal profession in furthering the cause of justice, not only in Maryland but also in the United States and throughout the world. The Initiative focuses on four themes: the ethical obligation of lawyers to serve as Guardians of Justice; the legal profession’s role in leading efforts to ensure Access to Justice for marginalized communities; the responsibility of the profession for Reforming Justice to alleviate historic inequities; and its emerging obligation to address challenges and opportunities currently found at the intersection of Science, Technology, and Justice.
Ifill began practicing as a civil rights attorney in New York in 1988 and came to Baltimore in 1993. She taught at the University of Maryland Law School for 20 years and considered it a great privilege to be able to educate future lawyers of Maryland. She insisted on teaching civil procedure in the first year because she wanted to reach first-year students, and inspire in them the kind of enthusiasm she has about being a lawyer.
Ifill is the youngest of 10 children and is the first and only lawyer in her family. It was always understood that “the family business is service” and that she and her siblings would use their skills and education to better the lives of their communities and their people. And so Ifill wanted to be a civil rights attorney from the time she was a girl.
To Ifill, civil rights work is about using the words of the Constitution itself and working towards ensuring that they are fully realized and true for all people, even if your rights are not currently in jeopardy, and that’s what makes the work so noble. She recounts it as a uniquely hopeful kind of work.
Focusing on the legal profession’s role in civil rights work, Ifill noted the importance of maintaining a high level of respect and playing fairly within the system, to uphold the integrity of the profession. All attorneys share the job of upholding the rule of law, and if it is teetering, it is a weakening of a foundational pillar of a healthy democracy and is a problem for all of us. She emphasized that it is a privilege to be a part of the legal profession and that people look to us for leadership. According to Ifill, members of the legal profession need to confront uncomfortable truths about the past and our own character and stand up for the rule of law.
Ifill said she tries to believe in the civil justice system, but also refuses to undermine her own credibility by pretending that the system actually does work when it doesn’t. She noted how prisoners are released from jail for crimes they did not commit so frequently that it is no longer notable, but we should be angry that such miscarriages of justice happen and that Brady violations continue to his day. Ifill said that we talk about upholding the rights of criminal defendants, and yet, until this past administration, it was clear that the route to becoming a federal judge was to be a prosecutor to the extent that criminal defense lawyers had very little chance of being nominated to serve as a federal judge. These are the imbalances that we need to be attentive to as a profession.
The message Ifill wants to impart on attorneys is that we are the guardians of our profession. Lawyers take an oath to demean themselves honorably and it is important that we police the boundaries of our profession, conduct a historical examination of where we have gone wrong, and speak out as a bar about what we think is right and what we think is unacceptable.
You can view the entire presentation here.