President’s Corner > Setting the Bar On Professionalism


No doubt you’ve heard that, by nature, legal professionals are curious about almost everything. I admit that I am curious about almost everything, and of course that leads to seeking answers, which leads to more curiosity, more questions, and the need to seek more answers.

I am curious about what my legal colleagues think about professionalism in our field. We are “practicing law” in many ways and we have all accumulated ideas and practices that lead us to define what professionalism means in this field. How do you define professionalism in the law?

Did you know there are approximately 40,000 members of the WSBA? Do you believe that legal professionals help form the backbone of society through law and order? And do we hold ourselves accountable for doing so? Professionalism is but one component in helping the community respect and trust those in the legal field. Young and not-so-young legal professionals acquire different definitions of how the legal community represents itself in this manner, and I have a few thoughts on this subject as a not-so-young attorney.

Throughout my 45 years as a lawyer, superior court judge, and community volunteer, I have strived to reflect the high bar of professionalism set by those colleagues who have led the way and instinctively modeled the highest standards in this field. I am indebted to those attorneys and judges and trust that my efforts will likewise lead to others following in my footsteps.

As a trial court judge for many years, I observed many hundreds of attorneys and legal professionals ply their craft. I saw and heard outstanding lawyering and not-so-outstanding lawyering.

From my perspective, there are traits and practices that have led many in this field to model and uphold the bar set for professionalism. What I look for in evaluating the level of legal professionalism may differ from what you look for; however, there is probably a basic consensus on traits.

  • Honesty, ethics, civility. These are intertwined and inseparable and speak for themselves.
  • Preparedness. Parties, witnesses, jurors, courts, and the community in general are entitled to our best efforts.
  • Zealousness. Not to be confused with its close relative, bullying. Competent legal professionals identify the line between the two before it gets crossed and proactively intervene should opposing counsel misconstrue where the line is. Passion does not need to invite bullying either.
  • Breaking it down. Yes, sometimes legal professionals can get too arcane and clients, the courts, the community, and employers are left to grasp and, unfortunately, possibly misinterpret the advice or opinion proffered. Professionalism redirects the negative potential into a positive effort to be clear and to confirm the client’s understanding of the advice.
  • Competence. The right legal professional for the right situation. Taking on matters within the legal professional’s skill set, training, and availability further enhance professionalism.

These are only a few traits I’ve identified and look for. What can or should be added to this list? What are your thoughts on what the WSBA can and should do to set the bar on professionalism? What are you doing to help the legal profession be a respected, integral part of society?

WSBA leadership and staff are curious and always interested in your help and your solutions. The WSBA will remain relevant and professional as its members continue to support its quest to move forward and to work together in harmony.

Every year the WSBA hands out professionalism awards at the APEX (“Acknowledging Professional Excellence) ceremony. The awards “honor exemplary members of the legal community, including legal professionals, judges, and members of the public.” Like last year, this year’s APEX awards ceremony will be virtual. I have the honor, as your president, to co-host the awards ceremony on Dec. 13. The awardees are featured on page 26 and videos highlighting each winner and their achievements are available at It is a wonderful event.

Yes, I too am curious. I invite WSBA members to flood my inbox at Tollefson with your definitions and thoughts about “setting the bar” on legal professionalism.

Let’s continue the conversation on how we can all do better by working together.

About the author
About the author

Judge Brian Tollefson (Ret.) is a principal at Black Robe Dispute Resolution Services, PLLC. He can be reached at: