By: Denise M. Champagne//August 11, 2011
By: Denise M. Champagne//August 11, 2011//
Adequate funding for the nation’s court system will be a recurring topic in the legal profession for years to come.
It was also one of the major items discussed at the American Bar Association’s annual meeting in Toronto, which wrapped up Tuesday.
“One of the big themes throughout was that basically the justice system and the ability to deliver justice to people are under great threat,” said Bryan D. Hetherington, president of the Monroe County Bar Association, one of several local attendees.
He said incoming ABA President William T. Robinson III said most states are spending between 1 and 2 percent of their budgets on their justice systems and that it is inadequate.
New York’s Office of Court Administration had to cut $170 million from its proposed $2.7 billion budget earlier this year. The total state budget, passed March 31, is $132.5 billion.
“That would be at about the 2 percent range,” said Hetherington. “That clearly is not enough spending to be able to carry out all of the judicial functions that we need to have a healthy system. That’s going to be a big piece of the ABA’s message in the upcoming year — that the third branch [of government] is the least powerful branch and is getting the short end of the stick.”
Outgoing President Stephen N. Zack brought up the issue when he addressed young lawyers, charging them with raising awareness and money.
“The third branch is supposed to be independent protectors of justice, but is depending on the other two branches,” said James M. Paulino II, one of New York’s delegates to the Young Lawyers Division Assembly. “It’s a terrible situation. Essentially, the chief judge tells the Legislature how much money we need and the Legislature responds by saying, ‘No you don’t.’ It’s frightening to think that the third branch of government is at the mercy of the Legislature and the executive. ”
He said LexisNexis is now providing pens and paper to one Southern state for its court system and that all civil jury trials were postponed for a year somewhere in New England. He said in other places, attorneys are supplying their own paper for printouts.
“We need to understand that if we’re going to practice in courts, we need to take an active role now to make sure people know what’s going on,” Paulino said. “Essentially, the courts have no majority voice among the voting public in New York state.
We have a small number of judges and attorneys in every district. The courts are the minority in terms of representation in front of the Legislature.”
He said someone at the conference warned they could be seeing the beginning of the slow death of the third branch of government. Paulino, past chair of MCBA’s Young Lawyers Section, said he will raise the issue with the section to try to come up with ways to raise public awareness of the importance of the court system and ways to raise funds.
“I think it really was an awareness campaign for the young lawyers,” he said. “We can’t work 10-hour days and not realize outside of our office, there are problems that will affect us.”
Hetherington said the conference also included good discussions on diversity in the profession and bar associations.
“The toughest problem in the profession is really the retention issues,” he said. “People from diverse populations are now entering the profession in large numbers, but are not progressing in private firms and public settings into partnerships and leadership roles.”
Hetherington said the pipeline was talked about and how law can be seen as a field in which diverse populations can be successful because law is competing with academia, medicine and other disciplines for talented young men and women.
“Our Diversity Committee is working hard on that,” he said. “I think it is fair to say that why people enter and leave is very complex.”
He said one of the issues being talked about is a lack of high quality mentorships and people who are successful working to bring along diverse people in the field.
Hetherington attended a conference for bar association presidents in which the production of better CLEs was discussed.
“It was very interesting,” he said. “Most of the bar associations are finding that their CLEs are a very important thing to their members and trying to do more of them, so it was good to hear we’re on the right track there. What was very good to hear is that membership is up in Monroe County, while most have declining membership.”
MCBA Executive Director Mary Loewenguth met with about 300 bar association executive directors, sharing what is happening on a national level.
She said the big thing is technology and how quickly it is evolving. Just six months ago at the spring conference, people were talking about Facebook and LinkedIn. Now, she said, the big thing is QR codes, a two-dimensional barcode read by specific readers and smartphones.
Loewenguth scanned one that welcomed her to the meeting. The discussion centered on how the executive directors can use the technology for the benefit of their association members. She said one bar association offers weekly “Technology Tuesday” learning sessions and that MCBA is considering something similar.
She also learned about a website (www.checkdog.com) that allows people to scan their websites for typos and grammatical errors.
“The other challenges we’re seeing are what is happening across the country economically and the impact on the courts and how, as bar associations, we can be supportive of the courts,” Loewenguth said.
She noted the Foundation of the Monroe County Bar Association recently supplied a $3,000 grant that allowed MCBA to take over the courts’ Assistance for Children in Transition program which was about to be eliminated because of budget cuts. The program is aimed at helping families in divorce situations.
Audrey Peartree, president-elect of the foundation, attended various sessions that included topics on foundation governance and fundraising.
“We were there to meet other bar foundation personnel and presidents and exchange ideas on how they run their organization,” she said. “I found it very helpful and enjoyable to meet others who are serving on foundation boards.”
T. Andrew Brown, managing partner of Brown & Hutchinson, not only attended, but spoke at a seminar on the current changes in the law profession, looking at how it got to where it is and where it is going.
He said change is being accentuated by the economic downturn, changing the structure of law firms and the way they do business. The traditional pyramid, with associates at the bottom and leadership at the top, is changing.
Brown said a lot of the issues are spelled out in a report by the New York State Bar Association’s Task Force on the Future of the Legal Profession which he co-chaired.
“That is continuing to generate considerable discussion throughout the United States, as well as abroad,” he said, noting it is especially attracting practitioners in other countries that have been providing U.S. firms with legal services.
Brown said globalization issues and the influence of outsourcing to foreign nations were also discussed.
“One of the things I thought was interesting is half of the people in the audience were seemingly from foreign countries including South Africa, Australia, the United Kingdom and Spain, to name a few,” he said. “There’s a strong interest in what legal services are being outsourced from the United States and a considerable amount of outsourcing is taking place in the United States for services that were historically performed by attorneys here in the United States.”
Brown said he does not think there is anything lawyers can do about the trends; that they are the impact of a changing world.
“I thought it was a highly successful convention,” he said. “I think it’s beneficial to have so many lawyers from abroad participating, especially in light of globalization and the continuing trend of outsourcing. I think we all have to realize and appreciate in many ways, the world is getting smaller so there is no longer the same meaning that the practice of law is local.”