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MSBA speaker series examines lawyers’ role in seeking justice

“We’re the guardians of this profession, and we have to stand up and speak when it’s required,” says Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the first speaker in the MSBA’s Spark Series. (MSBA contributed photo)

How can lawyers be a part of building a more equitable legal system and democracy?

The Maryland State Bar Association is examining that question and more at its ongoing Spark Series, a program designed to start “critical conversations for the legal profession” as the bar association celebrates its 125th anniversary.

The series aims to help lawyers reflect on “how our profession has wielded its position of influence historically and how we might exercise that influence going forward in relation to advancing justice in our state, our nation, and the world,” said the MSBA’s president, M. Natalie McSherry, in her opening remarks at the latest presentation in the series.

Most recently, the Spark Series featured Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., who argued that lawyers should speak out when they see injustice or wrongdoing in the field.

The Spark Series will continue through the spring. A presentation from Vanita Gupta, associate attorney general and the third-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Justice, is set for March 15.

Grace Speights, a partner at the Washington, D.C., firm Morgan Lewis, will speak on April 20. Speights handles high-profile workplace matters, including helping employers navigate diversity and inclusion issues and investigating misconduct claims.

Ifill’s presentation earlier this month focused on the role lawyers play when democracy faces unprecedented challenges, like former President Donald Trump’s repeated lies that the 2020 election was “rigged” against him.

“Lawyers have outsized power,” Ifill said. “We are leaders, even when we haven’t earned it, and around the world, lawyers have been at the forefront of changing how we think about justice and equity and fairness. If your democracy is ailing, is sick, is unhealthy, then you have to look at the state of the legal profession.”

Ifill said part of that examination should include a look back at the legal system’s historical role in propping up unjust systems and turning a blind eye to horrific crimes, including the lynchings of Black men in Maryland.

Lawyers today must understand that history in order to move toward a profession that is more equitable and justice-centered, Ifill said.

Those lessons should come into play as lawyers weigh how to advocate for the rule of law in modern America. Some of the abuses that took place during the Trump administration — from Trump’s remarks about a federal judge’s Mexican heritage to other Trump associates’ refusal to comply with congressional subpoenas — should have triggered widespread condemnation from the country’s lawyers, Ifill said.

“We’re the guardians of this profession, and we have to stand up and speak when it’s required,” she said.

Lawyers should re-examine the profession’s norms and rules of conduct so that there is a clear sense of what’s right and what’s wrong, regardless of political party, among the people who play such an enormous role in democracy.

“We have the ability to address all of those things within the profession. In our law firms, in our law schools, in our bar associations, we have the spaces where we should feel that we can, as a unified profession, talk about these things,” Ifill said.