Federal Judge Hanks sees trend of unprofessionalism as threat to legal profession

U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks, Jr., was the third speaker in the Judge Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics Jurist-in-Residence program at the University of Houston Law Center.

March 24, 2016 - U.S. District Judge George C. Hanks, Jr. of the Southern District of Texas encouraged students to prioritize integrity and professionalism in their practice during his part of a lecture series this week at the University of Houston Law Center.

Hanks’ talk, titled “Professionalism and the Law,” was the third of four sessions of the Judge Ruby Kless Sondock Lectureship in Legal Ethics Jurist-in-Residence Program.

“A reputation for professionalism is far more valuable than anything that can be attained by conforming to uncivil behavior,” Hanks said in his talk on Monday. “Uncivil behavior and a lack of professionalism is extremely costly to an attorney’s career in terms of lost credibility with the court, the inability to get favorable agreements with opposing counsel, and clients who will not send additional work once they understand the attorney has a history with the court and the bar.”

Hanks said in recent years that he has seen a discernible erosion of professionalism in the legal justice system in what he called a “rising tide of instability threatening to engulf” the legal profession. He said the behavior includes attorneys and judges making threatening remarks and correspondence to opposing counsel or the court, inappropriate language, and outward displays of anger.

"On the issue of professionalism, we the bench and the bar are at a crossroads,” he said. “The decisions we will collectively make about how to proceed will determine nothing less than the future of our society. This disturbing trend may have severe consequences to our society and our profession if we do not act soon to reverse this course."

“It seems that every day we hear anecdotal stories of lawyers and judges behaving badly and dishonoring the oaths that they once took. As a result, many of our colleagues, especially younger attorneys are being lulled into the perception that this type of behavior is not only socially acceptable, but that it’s an integral part of our profession.”

Judge George C. Hanks, left, Judge Ruby Kless Sondock ’62 and University of Houston Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes.

Judge George C. Hanks, left, Judge Ruby Kless Sondock ’62 and University of Houston Law Center Dean Leonard M. Baynes.

Hanks said leading causes of the demise in professionalism is the economic pressures of the modern practice of law and the decline of mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities for young lawyers. He also said that the ubiquity of instant communication has also negatively impacted the legal field, and that many unprofessional and vitriolic exchanges between attorneys occur electronically. Hanks suggested that such confrontations or misunderstandings can be avoided by attorneys discussing case matters in person or at least by telephone.

“Email and text messaging makes it easy for lawyers to disregard their responsibility to our legal justice system,” he said. “It’s very easy to shoot off an email or a text message saying things or threatening to do things that anyone with common decency would have difficulty saying to someone in person. The relative speed and convenience of this technology, especially social media sites, makes it very easy to speak without thinking through the consequences of that speech.”

Before being appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama, Hanks served as a U.S. magistrate judge, a justice on the Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas, and as judge of the 157th District Court in Houston. Before coming to the bench, Hanks was in private practice with the law firms of Wickliff & Hall, P.C. and Fulbright & Jaworski, L.L.P. 

Hanks graduated first in his class from Louisiana State University, receiving his B.A. in economics, summa cum laude. He attended Harvard Law School where he received the Legal Defense Fund/Earl Warren Scholarship and was an editor of the Harvard Blackletter Law Journal. Upon graduation, he served as a law clerk for U.S. District Judge Sim Lake of the Southern District of Texas. He later received his LL.M. in judicial studies from Duke University School of Law. 

Hanks is a member of the American Law Institute, an adjunct professor at the University of Houston Law Center, and a faculty member of the National Judicial College and the National Institute for Trial Advocacy. He is also on the board of directors of the College of the State Bar of Texas and is a member of the advisory board of the Judicial Education Program at George Mason University. Hanks is a published legal author and a lecturer at educational seminars throughout the country. He has served as a member of the Texas Judicial Panel for Multi-District Litigation and the board of directors of the Judicial Section of the State Bar of Texas. 

The final speaker of the 2016 Sondock lectureship is Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey V. Brown, who will visit the Law Center on April 18. Previous speakers included Chief Judge Robert A. Katzmann of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in January and U.S. District Judge for the Southern District of Texas Lee H. Rosenthal in February.

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