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President's Page

Keeping the Legal Profession Relevant

We must meet the challenges to the integrity of our profession and our courts

By Roland L. Coleman Jr.

Roland L. Coleman Jr. is president of the Association. His e-mail address is colemanr@wemed.com

This President's Page was originally published in the July/August 2001 issue of Los Angeles Lawyer.

Please believe me when I tell you I am not a numerologist. However, I cannot help but note that this is actually the first year of the new millennium and, simultaneously, a time in which our profession and the courts must confront important challenges. Fortunately, as I assume the presidency of the Los Angeles County Bar Association, I can rely on several valuable assets as we try to meet these challenges.

First, I have the asset of the high standard of excellence that my predecessor presidents have established through their performance. Their insight and foresight has maintained our bar organization as one of the most exemplary in the nation. The staff of the Association, led by Richard Walch, is another important asset. I personally can bear witness to the fact that Rich's advice is so valuable that it is often sought by those outside the Association.

A third asset available to me are the thousands of lawyers in this association who contribute their valuable time, in spite of the ever-increasing billable-hour requirements for those in private practice and the additional demands placed on in-house counsel and government lawyers. These volunteer lawyers, with whom I have had the pleasure of working over the last several years, are the lifeblood of the organization, because this is, after all, an organization of volunteers.

As I have prepared to assume the presidency of this association, I have become acutely aware of the decline in volunteerism across the nation. This decline has affected not just attorney organizations but all volunteer associations. In light of the dwindling support of volunteerism and the increased challenges facing our profession, I have come to realize that we must reach across the lines and work with other bar associations, from our local affiliates to the American Bar Association, to ensure that we maintain the relevancy of the legal profession. This is particularly important today because forces are at work, both from within and without the profession, that may have a serious, negative impact on the practice of law.

From within our profession, we are plagued by the public's widespread disapproval of attorneys, a perception that we may be indirectly promoting. Many of us are aware of recent surveys that indicate that the public holds attorneys just above car salesmen in esteem and trust. Leaving the defense of car salesmen to others, we know that most of our fellow attorneys are honorable and conduct themselves at a high level of professionalism. Yet, since the image of attorneys is so negative, and we know that image is incorrect, we must engage in a course of conduct that will correct the public's view of our profession.

One method is for attorneys to make a greater commitment to performing pro bono services. I understand that the changing dynamics of our economy have caused law firms to demand greater hours from their associates, leaving less time, desire, and energy to engage in pro bono activities. That makes providing more pro bono services a serious challenge, but if we are ever to improve our image we must improve our commitment in this area.

Outside our profession, a certain segment of society would rather do without lawyers altogether. This anti-lawyer sentiment was revealed in California by the lack of concern the public expressed when the State Bar was virtually disbanded. One would have thought that a profession that is responsible for safeguarding the rights of citizens, including individuals and companies, would receive vocal support to ensure that a system of regulation and discipline remained in place. Yet, in that darkest hour of the State Bar's history, there was no overwhelming outcry from the public.

These forces are also manifest in the focused effort to eliminate the need for lawyers as advocates for resolving disputes. If you do not believe me, turn on your computer tonight and visit the Web sites cybersettle.com and icourthouse.com. While you are at it, check out desktoplawyer.net. That site purports to offer unlimited use of legal documents, information, telephone support, and access to legal insurance to cover a wide range of disputes.

Such trends are alarming to me as a lawyer not because lawyers may possibly lose some business to these services but because we do not know what quality of service the public will receive from those sites. If those services are provided by incompetent or unscrupulous people, many innocent victims may have their lives permanently altered in a way that no lawyer can undo.

More important, we need to ask ourselves why such online services have sprung up. Perhaps the motivation is not a dislike of attorneys but a feeling by many citizens that they lack access to legal services. Consider, for example, a 1999 survey by the National Center for State Courts. People were asked whether "it is affordable to bring a case to court." Strikingly, a plurality (38 percent) "strongly disagreed" and another 30 percent "disagreed." Only 32 percent "agreed" or "strongly agreed." When asked further, 87 percent indicated that hiring a lawyer contributed "a lot" to the cost of going to court. One interpretation of that result is that many people view lawyers as an obstacle to obtaining justice.

The anti-lawyer forces use such sentiments in their efforts to marginalize the legal profession. The current administration in Washington, D.C., has seen fit to eliminate the American Bar Association's quasi-official role in the selection process for the federal bench. This role began during the first year of President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration. When he became president after 20 years of Democratic presidents, he was inundated with requests by party loyalists seeking appointment to the federal bench. This former general, who knew how to use a chain of command, installed the American Bar Association's evaluation process as a buffer between him and the many people pressing for appointment.

Some attribute the current effort to minimize the influence of the ABA in the selection process to the 1987 fight over the nomination of Judge Robert Bork. However, in its May 2001 issue, the ABA Journal reports that only 3 of the 26 potential nominees rated "nonqualified" since 1960 were named by Republicans. Furthermore, the rating seems not to play a controlling role in the confirmation process, since three of President Clinton's appointments were rated as unqualified.

I do not view the current controversy over the ABA's role as a political issue. Rather, it reflects on how an organization of lawyers that will not bend to prevailing political winds will be viewed as an obstruction to an agenda that does not necessarily have the interest of the public at heart.

Add to these already disturbing trends the increasing rate at which wealthier clients are opting out of the court system in favor of private judges, and it becomes clear that we are in danger of experiencing rapid changes in our court system, and these changes will be for the worse. If the general public joins with the wealthier segments of our society in withdrawing support from the courts, it will become increasingly difficult to obtain the financial resources needed to make our courts more accessible to the public, to improve our courtrooms and courthouses, to obtain funding for more judges, to obtain salary increases to attract better judges, and to keep the wealthier clients in our judicial system.

If lawyers and our courts are to remain relevant in the future, we must improve our image, improve access to the courts, and secure long-overdue improvements in our court system. In my year as president of the Association, I will call upon the wisdom of past presidents and seek advice from any quarter on how to address these issues. I urge all of you to select one of these issues and volunteer some time to address it. While the problems that confront us cannot be resolved in one year, with the work of those before us and those to come, we will remain a strong, viable, necessary, and relevant profession. 

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