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Democracy in Peril: The Role of Lawyers & The Legal Profession

The MSBA is marking this bar year’s milestone with its 125th Anniversary Thought Leadership Initiative, a unique set of events and programming designed to kindle community-wide introspection on the role of the legal profession in furthering the cause of justice in our state, the nation, and the world. Through a variety of offerings , the Initiative is intended to foster robust dialogue around the historic contributions of the profession to a legal system that strives for fair and equitable administration of justice, particularly as it relates to people of color and other disadvantaged populations. These programs, which will include interviews, podcasts, colloquiums and policy papers, will examine how successful the legal profession has been in promoting equal justice in the past, assess the ways in which it may still be coming up short, and plan strategies for doing better in the future. 

The Initiative has been constructed around several themes, including: the collective ethical obligation of lawyers to serve as Guardians of Justice; the profession’s role in leading efforts to ensure Access to Justice for marginalized communities; the responsibility of the profession for Reforming Justice to ameliorate historic inequities; and its emerging obligation to address challenges and opportunities currently found at the intersection of Science, Technology and Justice. To set the stage for this year-long initiative, the MSBA is sponsoring a SPARK Series of foundational presentations by prominent thought leaders who can provide both historical context and a vision for the future in each of these important arenas.  

The MSBA is proud to announce that the 125th Thought Leadership Initiative will formally open on January 13, 2022 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. Ms. Ifill, an internationally recognized expert on matters related to each of the themes to be highlighted in the Series, will present on lawyers as Guardians of Justice

Ms. Ifill was recently named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2021, in part for being “the rare strategic lawyer who has the ability to inspire, educate, and disassemble the distortions and misguided analyses that often paralyze policymakers.” She is also one of the teachers on the MasterClass on Black History, Freedom & Love. Ms. Ifill also received the 2021 American Bar Association Spirit of Excellence Award for her commitment to racial and ethnic diversity in the profession, and was selected as the 2020 Attorney of the Year by the American Lawyer. 

Prior to taking the reins at LDF in 2013, Ms. Ifill was a professor of constitutional law and civil procedure at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law, a position that she held for 20 years. While at Maryland, she helped start several clinical law programs, including one of the first in the nation committed to challenging legal barriers faced by ex-offenders when reentering the community after their release from prison. 

Ms. Ifill is the author of several books and countless essays published in the nation’s leading newspapers and periodicals. She was the lead author of A Perilous Path: Talking Race, Inequality and the Law, a book that augured the national dialogue on race relations that began to take hold shortly after its release in 2018. An earlier book, On the Courthouse Lawn, Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the 21st Century, likewise initiated public discourse on the still simmering effects of an historic national trauma long relegated to remote corners of the nation’s consciousness. 

A frequent television commentator, Ms. Ifill has often informed and reset the boundaries for debate on issues relating to the mistreatment of disadvantaged populations at home and abroad with ground breaking columns like It’s time to face the facts: Racism is a national security issue (The Washington Post) and How to change policing in America (Slate Magazine).  More recently, Ms. Ifill focused a spotlight directly on the legal profession by observing that Lawyers Enabled Trump’s Worst Abuses (The New York Times).

A vocal critic of policies such as family separation and what she viewed a series of frivolous lawsuits based on unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, Ms. Ifill argued that it is time for the legal profession to own up to its complicity in a sustained assault on individual rights, liberties and political norms that the nation once held dear. “As a profession,” she wrote, “we must confront ourselves if lawyers are to be worthy of the mantle of leadership that is so routinely and unquestionably conferred upon us, and if we are to protect the rule of law in our democracy.” Citing a failure of “the unspoken code of civility and integrity” among lawyers to avoid their active participation in such abuses and the inadequate response of state bar counsel and law firm ethics committees to enforce rules of professional conduct that might have stopped them from participating, Ms. Ifill argues that “bold changes” are necessary to strengthen the ethical foundations of the profession on which the profession has built its claim to leadership. 

The 125th Anniversary Thought Leadership Initiative is intended to provide a forum to encourage us “to confront ourselves” – to speak frankly about the role of lawyers as “guardians of justice,” past, present and future.  Plan to join the MSBA for what promises to be thought-provoking salvo to be offered to be live-streamed on January 13, 2022, at 6:00 PM.  Register Now: https://www.msba.org/product/sparkseries-ifill/.