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State bar looks to the future

The New York State Bar Association held a special panel Friday for managing partners of law firms from across the region as part of an initiative to plan for the future of the legal profession.

The past few years have seen a great deal of change, including a lack of jobs for graduating students, better training, changes in billing and technology. The state bar association created the Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession and have met with college deans to discuss education demands from firms and general council from corporations. On Friday, the task force looked for input from managing partners from Monroe, Erie and Onondaga Counties.

“The last couple years have been among the worst to be a lawyer,” said Stephen P. Younger, president of the state bar association and a partner with Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler LLP. “Managing partners are the nerve center of the field … We can keep doing things the way we’re doing them, or do something about the need to change.”

The panel was made up of five attorneys from around the region, including T. Andrew Brown, managing partner with Brown & Hutchinson and a co-chair of the task force. Brown said the task force’s goal is to gather as much data about the most pressing issues facing law firms and create plans for alternative billing, ways of getting students with better training, and create new best practices.

“These are things we’ve been talking about for years, but the downturn in the economy has forced us to react,” Brown said. “We know that changes are coming in the field, we just want to positively affect those changes.”

Education has been a major issue, Brown said, because firms are not hiring new students out of school because of the economy. There are plenty of seasoned attorneys out of work and firms and clients don’t want inexperienced attorneys handling cases. He said internships and clinical programs would help improve the quality of students graduating from law school.

“Firms are looking for students with shovel-ready skills,” Brown said. “Law schools do a great job of teaching students to think like lawyers. But they don’t teach them to apply those skills practically.”

Susan Schultz Laluk, president of the Monroe County Bar Association, said  survey of its members found that the economy, work/life balance and technology were the three most important issues facing attorneys over the next five years.

“That did not surprise us,” she said. “It’s certainly a very timely topic.”

Vincent Doyle, the president-elect of the state bar association and a partner at Buffalo-based Connors & Vilardo LLP, said feedback from bar members during the task force’s information gathering will be a critical part in the bar creating plans and best practices.

“What we are talking about is more than a business calculation,” he said to a group of about 30 partners at the  Telesca Center for Justice. “Your feedback will help shape the future for attorneys.”

One of the hot button issues today is alternative billing. There is a divide among lawyers over the issue. According to a state bar report, 33 percent of its members are using alternate rates or blended rates for billing. Younger said he wants the bar to create a model for firms and lawyers to use.

A. Robert D. Bailey, general counsel for Bausch + Lomb Inc. and a panelist Friday, said he is “not a fan of alternative billing” unless firms have a proven track record of experience.

However, fellow panelist Sharon Underberg, the assistant general counsel and vice president in the Legal Department of Eastman Kodak Co., said the company uses alternative fee arrangements regularly.

“We use them all over the world,” she said. “They’re not always appropriate. Sometimes clients hear bells going off and think they’re going to get ripped off. … We all need to be open minded.”

The panel discussion was open to the press. However, after the panel spoke partners were given the opportunity to give them feedback. That session was closed to the press.