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ISBA President John E. Thies will promote adequate funding of and public trust in the Illinois justice system and examine the impact of the law-student debt crisis on the delivery of legal services. Here’s a look at the man and the year ahead.
For Urbana attorney John E. Thies, who took the helm of the Illinois State Bar Association in June, deciding where to direct the association’s attention was a calling of sorts.
“The way I’ve looked at it is, your focus for the year almost chooses you as president,” Thies said. “That has been true of me as I have worked toward this year. I’ve been very sensitive to the matters that have been of great concern to the profession and have tried to tailor the year to address those.”
The challenges that Thies said he felt compelled to tackle in leading the 33,000-member ISBA as its 136th president include some of the most pressing facing the legal profession: The funding crisis facing the courts, the need to assure public confidence in the judicial system in light of the role of politics in selecting judges here, and the impact of the escalating cost of legal education — and its corresponding, ongoing problem of student debt — on the delivery of legal service.
It is, perhaps, an ambitious agenda, one set out by a leader who prefers to focus first on the big picture and the long-term implications of a problem, with an M.O. that unfolds like this: “What’s it going to do toward the ability of the profession to meet legal needs? And then work backwards from that,” Thies said. “To me, every challenge we face as leaders of the bar should be looked at through the lens of: What does it do to the delivery of legal services?”
Consider his focus on the systemic problem of the rising cost of legal education and law students’ need to borrow money to cover that cost, leaving the typical graduate with an average debt that has climbed into six-figure amounts.
“Lawyers have been talking about it for a while. It’s been kind of a progression nationally, where the law schools are acknowledging that now there is a debt crisis,” Thies said. “Nobody really talks about it in terms of the delivery of legal service, how it will impact it. This problem will impact how many top quality students will go into law school, without a doubt, and [lawyers] care about that a lot.”
But the law school debt crisis, as seen from Thies’ big-picture point of view, will also affect how many lawyers are available to serve clients.
“It means fewer and fewer law graduates are available of going to work in firms that have 10 and fewer lawyers,” Thies said. “Even in Chicago, where there are lots of small firms, there will increasingly be a problem with getting people to work in those firms because they won’t be able to afford it, because they are essentially graduating with a mortgage.”
Much of the delivery of legal service in the state comes from small firms, which are also where the lawyers who make up the bulk of the ISBA membership practice.
“If our smaller firms are fading away because they can’t get newer lawyers to be willing to be in these firms, there will be a pretty dramatic impact on the ability of our profession to meet legal needs,” Thies said.
Thies wants to record that impact. He has created a special committee charged with collecting and studying evidence on the issue. The committee, Thies said, will conduct hearings around the state, inviting “anyone and everyone: small-firm lawyers, legal aid lawyers, judges, solo practitioners, and anybody who wants to get up and present.”
“We want to hear what is happening to them now, by virtue of the practicalities of law students that are graduating with so much debt,” Thies said.
Thies envisions that the evidence collected in the public hearings, and the committee’s report on its findings, will inform the greater national discussion of the issue, or at least other discussions here in the state.
“We want to use the information to help us evaluate alternatives, how to try to solve the problem, which [raises the question]: Is there a problem with how we train lawyers?” Thies said. “There are people with different interests in this, well-meaning people, people who care about doing the right thing, and that debate needs to take place.”
Like father, like son
Thies, 49, has spent his entire career at the 10-person firm of Webber & Thies P.C. in Urbana, where he is a shareholder concentrating his practice in business representation and general litigation.
A third-generation lawyer, Thies is making ISBA history in assuming the presidency, marking the first time that the association is being led by the son of a past president. His father, Richard L. Thies, 80, who is still practicing at the Urbana firm, was the ISBA president in 1986-87.
“My wife and I are very proud,” Thies’ father said. “It’s natural to think back 24 years ago when I became president, and of the times that we experienced, and know that John will be having those same kinds of experiences. They’ll be different, but significant.”
Reaching the top post at the ISBA doesn’t happen overnight, Thies’ father said.
“These things come to pass because of what you do and how you do them,” the elder Thies said. “I think people come into this job because their leadership skills show, because of their ability to work with people and their desire to give back to the profession.”
Around the same time when his father was leading the ISBA as president, Thies was attending University of Illinois College of Law.
“He was a great president,” Thies said of his father. “It gave me a good perspective on being ISBA president. I, of course, watched him carefully.”
Thies has been involved in the ISBA since he became a member while in law school, when he served as an ISBA law student representative for the U of I College of Law.
He has fond memories of chairing a group of law student volunteers who helped organize a celebration of the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution that included a panel featuring former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson, who was a prominent figure in the Watergate scandal; retired judge and former high-ranking federal government official Abner J. Mikva; and former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese.
“That was a big deal,” Thies said. “And it sort of introduced me to what is possible as a bar leader, even as a student.”
After graduating from law school in 1988, he received his first of many ISBA committee appointments. In 1996, he started climbing the ranks of the ISBA after winning a seat on the Assembly. In 2001, lawyers elected him to the ISBA Board of Governors (he served on the Board from 2001 to 2007, and since 2009). A past chair of the association’s Standing Committee on Membership and Bar Activities, Thies is also a past ISBA treasurer and secretary. He was elected third vice president three years ago, putting him on the guaranteed path to the presidency.
What is it that has kept Thies involved in the ISBA for more than two decades, since the time he was studying to be a lawyer? “The short answer is that it has made me a better lawyer,” Thies said. “The longer answer is: I’ve enjoyed it.
“The people you work with in the ISBA are some of the best lawyers in the state, and they’re very enjoyable to work with.”
Plus, Thies said, “The ISBA allows you to do important work.”
“[G]reat lawyers…aspire to do important work”
At the Chicago regional office of the ISBA, a wall in the Abraham Lincoln President’s Office is adorned with framed copies of original letters in Lincoln’s handwriting that deal with his law practice.
“You can’t grow up in Urbana without being a Lincoln aficionado,” Thies said.
One of the letters deals with Lincoln’s interest in representing either side of a very significant dispute between the counties, on one hand, and the Illinois Central Railroad on the other. The letter, dated Sept. 12, 1853, is addressed to Thomson R. Webber, the first county clerk of Champaign County and Thies’ great great great grandfather.
“Lincoln gravitated toward doing important work,” Thies said. “When I talk to young lawyers or law students, I will say that an important trait of a great lawyer is they aspire to do important work.”
“[Lincoln] was very passionate about being a lawyer and being a good lawyer,” Thies said. “There’s a lot to learn from Abraham Lincoln even today.”
For Thies, “it’s hard not to be” passionate about the profession of law and the ISBA.
“There’s so many things that we can do as a profession, that we have done and can do, for the good of society,” said Thies, who was recently in Washington lobbying for the funding of the Legal Services Corp., the quasi-federal agency that distributes grants to scores of legal aid programs nationwide, including three in Illinois.
Thies was exposed to the practice of law as well as bar service from a young age. The Urbana firm where he practices with his father and a brother, David C. Thies, was founded by his maternal grandfather, Charles M. Webber, who was also a judge and served as president of the Illinois County and Probate Judges Association, a predecessor to the Illinois Judges Association.
But Thies, who is the fourth-born of five siblings, said while that long family line of lawyers was a significant influence, it was not the only influence that helped draw him to the law as his chosen profession.
“What tipped the scales for me was, I came from a family that was very politically aware,” Thies said. “We all had very spirited conversations at the dinner table, where you were encouraged to speak your mind and also to be involved in serving the public.”
For Thies, that meant becoming involved in school and church activities, including student council and student senate. He also ran track in high school and at Indiana University, where he received his bachelor’s degree in economics.
By the end of middle school, Thies started thinking that the law could be the right fit for him.
When he was a high school senior, Thies participated in a model constitutional convention in Washington D.C., arguing for and against constitutional amendments and appearing on the floor of the U.S. House.
“It was so much fun. I’ll bet 80 percent of the people who went to that are now lawyers,” Thies said.
“I had seen the other lawyers in my family, and all of them were very active in the community,” Thies said. “Not only did they do important law work, but they had the chance to serve others outside their law practice.…They were making a difference for the client on the one hand, but also for the community on the other.”
In his law practice, Thies said he has had the “very good fortune of doing a lot of different types of legal matters.” He has appeared in state and federal courts throughout Illinois, and before numerous administrative agencies.
Some of his noteworthy matters include his work as lead defense counsel in Mills v. Health Care Service Corporation, in which the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, affirming the district court, established new law in the area of reverse gender discrimination. He was also co-defense counsel on behalf of the successful appellant in two significant Illinois Consumer Fraud Act putative class actions litigated in the Illinois Supreme Court: Shannon v. Boise Cascade Corporation and Oliveira v. Amoco Oil Company.
Champaign attorney John T. Phipps, a longtime ISBA assembly member, has opposed Thies on cases.
“He’s very tenacious, very creative, always well prepared,” Phipps said of Thies the lawyer. “He does the little things that make a difference in winning or settling a case.”
As ISBA president, Thies “brings a tremendous enthusiasm, and he will represent the practicing bar in a very effective way,” Phipps said. “He’s a hardworking, excellent lawyer who daily deals with the issues all of us have to deal with. He’s one of us. He’s out there in the trenches, doing the same thing we do.”
Recently, Thies co-chaired a joint taskforce of the ISBA, Chicago Bar Association, and the Illinois Judges Association that developed rules related to limited scope representation. Phipps, too, served on that committee.
“When we all got together there were a number of us that were on polar opposites. You couldn’t believe how far apart some of us were on that,” Phipps said. “John was able to get us to work together so that at the end we were in agreement. If you look at his greatest strength, it’s his ability to build consensus on difficult issues. He’s not afraid of taking on great tasks.”
Thies is also president-elect of the National Caucus of State Bar Associations as well as a member of the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association.
He has served on numerous philanthropic boards and committees, frequently in leadership positions, including as president of Cunningham Children’s Home Foundation, which serves children and adolescents with serious emotional and behavioral disabilities.
Thies and his wife, Terry, have also served as youth advisors to local high school students, leading them on a number of church missions, including trips to West Virginia, Mississippi, and Mexico.
ISBA president-elect Paula Hudson Holderman, the chief attorney development officer at Winston & Strawn LLP in Chicago, described Thies as an “incredibly organized individual who remains calm and thoughtful under pressure.” She said her ISBA colleague possesses a strong commitment to the profession of law and a deep understanding of the history of the ISBA — qualities that will help steer the association into the future.
“He is dedicated to the finest traditions of what it means to be a lawyer — an outstanding advocate providing excellent service to his clients, contributing to the profession through his participation in the ISBA, ABA and countless other legal organizations, giving back to his community through volunteer leadership and missionary service,” Holderman said.
Holderman said ISBA members can expect to see their new leader take on “some of the toughest issues facing our profession.”
“He’s well on his way to tackling these issues already,” Holderman said. “He’s just a phenomenal organizer. John is probably one of the more conscientious lawyers and bar leaders that I have ever met. It really comes through in everything he does. He’s always well prepared.”
In preparing for his presidency, Thies said, “I didn’t set out to have a year that really pushed us to the limit on everything. But what I did set out to do is try to tackle some of the important issues of our day and empower people who I know are terrific to work on them.”
Assuring funding for – and trust in – the judiciary
Thies was referring to ISBA volunteers, including the 1,600 “extraordinary citizens” he recently appointed to serve on standing committees and section councils as well as those whom he has selected to head the special committees he appointed to delve into the issues of focus during his presidency. Like the committee he charged with the task of looking into the impact of inadequate court funding on fair and impartial courts.
“I know nationally courts that have had problems with having to close their doors sometimes for a day a week, failure to have enough courtrooms for judges, having lawyers bring their own materials — paper to use for their orders,” Thies said.
Having sufficient funds to cover the costs of operating our judiciary and court system is crucial, Thies said.
“In Illinois we have a real threat, long term, to the viability of a co-equal branch of government — that is the courts — from a lack of funding of the courts,” Thies said. “The crisis is a national one, where there are lots of states that have had very serious problems following from not funding their courts adequately. We haven’t seen it to the same degree in Illinois. So part of our job, I think, is to make sure this issue is on the front burner so that the public knows just why it’s so important that we have viable courts.”
Thies offered this explanation of how insufficient court funding translates to a threat to fair and impartial courts.
“When parties cannot have their disputes heard in court, they have to look at other ways to resolve their disputes, or their disputes cannot be resolved at all,” Thies said. “You can imagine in divorces, for example, people that have been separated and because they can’t get court dates or because of high filing fees they don’t get divorces, and so it has an impact on children and the question of remarriage. And lots of bad things follow from limiting peoples’ access to our courts.”
Among other tasks, Thies said, the committee will survey chief judges around the state for their own war stories, experiences that they are now having due to a lack of funding, so that recommendations could be made for the future.
Considering that less than one percent of the state budget is directed toward court spending, Thies said he also wants to make sure the ISBA’s relationship with the state legislature is strong.
“A substantial portion of funding should come from the state,” he said. “That’s a pretty serious problem in and of itself. For trial courts, we still depend on a lot of funding from various circuits and various counties.”
In tackling another issue related to the courts, Thies, who supports merit selection of judges, said he is also focusing his presidency on looking at other ways to enhance the public’s trust in the fairness and impartiality of the courts and judiciary. He has appointed a special committee to consider judicial disqualification standards in Illinois.
“While our preference would be merit selection, until the time we can have that we need to look at other mechanisms, like disqualification standards, making sure they’re effective,” Thies said.
The role of campaign contributions in judicial elections is one reason why Thies said he chose this issue as a focus for his year as president.
“It raises the suspicion, at least on the part of the public, that our judicial system is influenced by campaign contributions, and we need to do whatever we can to minimize that impression,” Thies said. “We want there to be sunlight on the process. We also want there to be due process, so where all the facts are known about the involvement between a lawyer or a party and a judge, then the parties are educated and can make educated decisions about what, if any, steps they should take, such as moving to substitute a judge, asking a judge to recuse him or herself.”
Thies has other projects planned for his year, including a statewide food bank challenge planned for February with the help of his wife, Terry. The project, Lawyers Feeding Illinois, will have lawyers competing to collect as much nonperishable food and cash donations as they can to be directed toward one of eight regional food banks.
While tackling tough issues facing the legal profession, “Consistent with John’s personality and the way he lives his life, he will … also take on the much more basic concern of providing food to Illinois families in need,” Holderman said.
Integrating practice and service
Still, Holderman said, there is another side to Thies.
“We talk about all these very serious qualities, which are in fact what John is about, but he also has a great sense of humor, too,” Holderman said. “He and his brother, [David C. Thies, the managing shareholder at Webber & Thies] do a Smothers Brothers routine where they sing and play the guitar that’s hilarious.”
Thies aims to keep his law practice, bar service, and community outreach all working together.
“I’ve always tried to never isolate any part of my life. Things just work congruently,” he said. “The goal is to try to make a difference in each of those spheres and hopefully they work well enough together that you get the most out of yourself.”
“I want to look at life with humility and understand that it’s not about me,” Thies said. “I’m very fortunate and very blessed. A lot of lawyers out there are a lot like I am and do the best they can.”
At the same time, Thies and his wife are raising “two very energetic daughters,” Kathryn, 11, and Caroline, 9. The girls, Thies said, “love the bar work” and even offered some of their own insight into the planning of a “family-friendly” ISBA annual meeting, which took place June 15.
Does the future hold a third-generation ISBA president coming from the Thies family?
“You just don’t know,” Thies said. “Wouldn’t that be great?”
Maria Kantzavelos <email@example.com> is a Chicago-based freelance writer focusing on legal topics.