Last Wednesday night Jim Drennan received the Chief Justice’s Professionalism Award at a joint dinner of the North Carolina State Bar and the North Carolina Bar Association held at the Angus Barn Pavilion in Raleigh. The award “is presented annually to an individual or organization whose contributions have demonstrated the highest commitment to genuine professionalism and the highest standards of legal ethics.” It seeks to demonstrate “the good that can be accomplished by turning intellectual honesty, compassion, and practical skills in the practice of law.”
Jim’s career has been dedicated to seeking justice for all North Carolinians by improving their justice system. He exemplifies professionalism, intellectual honesty, the highest legal ethics, and compassion.
It was an evening full of well-deserved good feeling for Jim, and also indirectly for the School of Government. In presenting the award, Chief Justice Sarah Parker made lovely remarks about the many contributions Jim has made over the course of his career. She clearly was speaking from the heart and from her own direct experience with Jim. In addition to his teaching, writing, and advising for court officials, Chief Justice Parker described his leadership role in facilitating many important legal developments (including the reform of drunk driving and sentencing laws). She also praised his leadership in creating the North Carolina Judicial College and serving as Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts.
Chief Justice Parker then introduced a video in which several people shared their reflections about Jim and his impressive career. I was honored to be included in the video, along with UNC President Tom Ross, Chief Judge John Martin, and Chief District Court Judge Beth Keever. Not surprisingly, common themes included Jim’s commitment to court officials and his unerring good judgment and wise advice. Tom Ross referred to Jim as his personal Yoda, the one person he goes to for advice on difficult professional and personal issues. Everyone reflected on the many positive differences Jim has made in the court system, as well as the importance of his friendship to them over the years.
Jim believes that the court system is about how we treat one another as a people, and it reflects our deepest democratic values of justice, fairness, and equality. In addition to his many direct contributions to improving the court system, Jim has improved it indirectly by setting a perfect example of professionalism for his colleagues at the School. We have seen someone who treats all court officials and everyone at the School with tremendous respect―without regard to their place on an organizational chart. We have seen someone who puts the needs of court officials before his own, and who goes out of his way to help them on their terms. Finally, we have seen someone who has great compassion for the needs of others.
Jim’s example has inspired all of within his orbit to be better at serving public officials in North Carolina and to be better colleagues for each other. Think of it as the Drennan Multiplier Effect.
Of course Jim’s remarks in accepting the award were predictably humble and self-effacing. He talked about each of the people in the video, and he mentioned each of his colleagues who attended the dinner. Jim used the ceremony as an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the importance of justice in the court system, the commitment of North Carolina’s court officials, and the value of the School. He talked about “catching the virus” of public service as a young faculty member and being inspired by our mission, and he has carried it out faithfully for nearly 40 years. It was terrific that many of his colleagues from the courts group were able to attend, and it was especially meaningful for Jim to have his family with him that evening.
We will post the video from that evening on our website as soon as it is available from the Commission on Professionalism, along with a longer interview with Jim that was conducted by Franklin Freeman. In the meantime, please congratulate Jim on this significant honor.