Business coalition backs 2 for Ala. Supreme Court
By The Associated Press
August 27, 2009
A coalition of business groups has endorsed two Republicans in races for the Alabama Supreme Court.
The Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee announced Wednesday that it had endorsed Justice Mike Bolin for re-election. The committee also endorsed criminal appeals court Judge Kelli Wise for the state Supreme Court seat being vacated by Patti Smith. Committee Chairman Tom Dart called Bolin and Wise "respected judicial conservatives."
The committee also endorsed Republican Judge Tommy Bryan for re-election to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals. The committee represents more than 100 business, industry and agricultural groups.
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2010 election will shuffle judicial hierarchy
By Auburn Villager Staff Report
August 26, 2009
Lee County's judicial hierarchy will change dramatically after the 2010 elections when at least two new circuit court judges, as well as a new district court judge and a new district attorney, likely will take office.
"We have the potential for four new faces at the Justice Center," confirmed Corinne Hurst, Lee County circuit clerk and county election official. "It is going to be interesting."
Lee County has three circuit court and two district court judges. All are elected to six-year terms. Hurst and others could not remember a year when two circuit and one district judge's positions all would be so-called "open" seats, meaning that incumbents will not be seeking re-election.
Circuit Court Judge John Denson will be past the age of 70 when he would begin another term and thus is barred from seeking re-election. Family Court Judge Richard Lane also is retiring, although he has not made an official announcement. The Family Court post is also circuit judgeship.
District Court Judge Mike Nix also is expected to retire, although he has not made an announcement either. District attorney Nick Abbett has announced that he is retiring.
With four open seats, a number of local attorneys are lining up to seek office in 2010.
Two candidates, Margaret Mayfield and Mike Fellows, both of whom practice in Opelika, already are actively campaigning for the Family Court job. A third candidate, Missy Thomas, also may join the competition.
Attorneys expected to seek the circuit judgeship currently held by Denson include Bobby Poole, Thomas Eden III and Brian Mosholder.
Poole, of the Opelika firm of Whittelsey, Whittelsey & Poole P.C., ran a very respectable campaign in his first political race when Denson was elected six years ago. He is expected to tout his experience in dealing with matters before the court.
Eden practiced in Atlanta and Birmingham for a number of years but now is with the Opelika office of Capell and Howard P.C. His family is well known in Auburn.
Mosholder, who lives in Auburn, is a partner in the firm of Carpenter, Ingram and Mosholder, which has offices in Opelika and Montgomery.
Other attorneys rumored to be considering a race for the circuit judgeship include Stephen Speakman of the Auburn firm of Speakman & Speakman, Jeff Tickal of the Opelika firm of Gullage, Tickal and Fellows and Brian Mosholder of the Opelika firm of Carpenter, Ingram and Mosholder LLP.
Opelika attorney Bob Meadows, also of the local Capell and Howard office, would have been considered a frontrunner for the circuit judgeship, but says he definitely has decided against the race.
Thus far, Auburn attorney Wes McCollum is the only candidate who definitely is running for the seat now occupied by Judge Nix. McCollum, of McCollum, Crutchfield & Wilson, is a former assistant district attorney who practices criminal and civil law. He is the son-in-law of former Alabama lieutenant governor and famed trial lawyer Jere Beasley of Montgomery, although McCollum's politics are said to be considerably more conservative than Beasley's.
Other attorneys said to be considering the race include Speakman of Auburn and Ben Hand of Hand & Associates of Opelika, although Hand may opt to seek a legislative or congressional seat.
Only one attorney is considered definitely running for district attorney in 2010. Robbie Treese is an assistant DA who already has the backing of his boss, retiring district attorney Abbett.
All announced candidates are expected to run as Republicans, although one or more Democrats may announce later.
Presiding Circuit Judge Jake Walker also is up for re-election in 2010, but with so many open seats available to aspiring jurists, Walker is not likely to have opposition.
The other judge in the Justice Center, District Judge Russell Bush, does not to stand for re-election until 2012. Circuit clerk Hurst also will be next up for re-election in 2012.
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Downturn Dims Prospects Even at Top Law Schools
By GERRY SHIH, The New York Times
August 25, 2009
This fall, law students are competing for half as many openings at big firms as they were last year in what is shaping up to be the most wrenching job search season in over 50 years.
For students now, the promise of the big law firm career — and its paychecks — is slipping through their fingers, forcing them to look at lesser firms in smaller markets as well as opportunities in government or with public interest groups, law school faculty and students say.
The frenzy has even pushed the nation’s top firms, a tradition-bound coterie, into discussing how to reform the recruitment process with an earnestness that would have been unthinkable just years ago.
Even if the economy is beginning to pick up, the legal profession has been pummeled over the last year, with some firms closing and survivors often asking associates to take leaves of absence.
How bad is it? Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, the juggernaut of New York, has slashed its hiring by more than half. For the first time in 136 years, Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, a respected Philadelphia firm, has canceled its recruiting entirely. Global firms like DLA Piper and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe have postponed recruiting for several months to see if the market improves.
At Yale, students accustomed to being wooed by Big Law’s glittering names — like Baker & McKenzie; Milbank, Tweed, Hadley, & McCloy; and White & Case — were stunned when those firms canceled interviews in New Haven this month.
New York University, Georgetown, Northwestern and other top universities confirm that interviews are down by a third to a half compared with a year ago, while lower-ranked schools are suffering more. What is more, when interviews finish in a few weeks, even fewer offers will be extended, said Howard L. Ellin, the chairman of global hiring at Skadden, Arps, because many firms are interviewing students for slots they may not fill.
After he lost his job as a television reporter two years ago, Derek Fanciullo considered law school, thinking it was a historically sure bet. He took out “a ferocious amount of debt,” he said — $210,000, to be exact — and enrolled last September in the School of Law at New York University.
“It was thought to be this green pasture of stability, a more comfortable life,” said Mr. Fanciullo, who had heard that 90 percent of N.Y.U. law graduates land jobs at firms, and counted on that to repay his loans. “It was almost written in stone that you’ll end up in a law firm, almost like a birthright.”
With the cost of law school skyrocketing over the years, the implicit arrangement between students and the most expensive and prestigious schools has only strengthened: the student takes on hefty debt to pay tuition, and the school issues the golden ticket to a job at a high-paying firm — if that’s what the student wants.
“Students came in with a certain sense of what the compact was going to be,” said Irene Dorzback, the assistant dean for career services at the New York University School of Law. But with the system crumbling in recent months, Ms. Dorzback said, “people are now accepting this notion of a lost year.”
The timing is worst for the class of 2011, the second-years now looking to get into firms, because of a unique logjam created last year. After the September financial crisis, firms chose to defer their new hires at the price of steeply cutting recruiting this year.
But students who miss the brief window of opportunity to land an offer this fall may struggle to break into firms once next year’s class rises. When Julia Figurelli, a second-year student at the University of Pennsylvania, decided to enter law school a year ago, she expected to find a lucrative law firm job in three years — if not collecting the $160,000-a-year associate salaries at one of the uppermost partnerships. By the time she obtains her J.D., she says, she will have around $200,000 in debt.
“Had I seen where the market was going, I would’ve gone to a lower-ranked but less expensive public school,” she said. “I’m questioning whether law school was the right choice at all.”
Once aiming to work in Philadelphia, Ms. Figurelli is now hunting for jobs in lower-paying markets, like Pittsburgh and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I’m looking anywhere my competition isn’t looking,” she added.
School officials are pushing students to look beyond the white-shoe firms, to delve deep into alumni networks and to start mass letter-writing campaigns to potential employers. Like Ms. Figurelli, many students say that for the first time, they are considering and seeking work with government and public-interest groups.
The Social Security Administration, for example, said applications for lawyer positions and clerkships had more than doubled this year, to 2,000, from 800. The public-interest job fair at N.Y.U. this year was “packed to the gills,” Mr. Fanciullo recalled, but whereas in past years students had seven or eight interviews, some of his classmates this year had zero. “There’s a humongous trickle-down effect,” he said. “When the big firms don’t hire, everyone looks to government. And when those get filled up, then what happens?”
It has been a bizarre new reality, especially for elite schools. At Harvard, officials have had to hawk résumés or tell students, quite simply, to buck up. (“Now is not the time for avoidance, denial or panic,” Mark Weber, the assistant dean of career services, wrote in a March memo to Harvard Law’s graduating class.)
With the system’s frailties exposed by the recession, said Mr. Ellin from Skadden, Arps, the time could be ripe for “massive overhaul.”
Discussions at industry roundtables and casual talk among officials at leading schools and firms suggest a consensus that interview dates should be pushed back to the spring of the second year, if not the third year. The recent problems have arisen, reform-minded critics say, because the legal industry essentially hires two full years ahead of when employees begin to work. And because young lawyers have to be advanced by lockstep every year, it is difficult to make recruiting changes that are responsive to shocks in business.
“There’s a long list of issues that need re-examining,” said Ralph Baxter, the chairman of Orrick. “The current economic circumstances have helped people see the economic inefficiencies we’ve been living with.”
Even lockstep, as sacred a pillar of Big Law as the billable hour, has been undermined by the hiring headaches of the last year, some argue. Orrick and another major firm, Howrey, have introduced innovative programs for associates based on apprenticeships or tiered systems that depart from the traditional “up or out” partner-track models. Some industry observers say their moves represent first steps that may ultimately give firms greater flexibility in hiring.
“The situation is so dramatic it has freed them up to make changes that they wouldn’t otherwise,” said James G. Leipold, the executive director of the Association for Legal Career Professionals. “We’re going through a period of a surprising amount of experimentation.”
Not that any of those changes will come into effect soon enough to help the class of 2011.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Mr. Fanciullo sat at home waiting anxiously for his first callback after four days of interviews. Firms customarily called within 48 hours, he explained.
“You almost bank on the big firms hiring you because they’re really the only ones who can help you pay your debt,” he said, his mind already skipping forward to a situation he didn’t choose to articulate. “Quite frankly it would be an absolute disaster. I don’t know what I’d do.”
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Justice O'Connor Presents the Supreme Court, Middle School Edition
Tony Mauro, The National Law Journal
Retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor's "Our Courts" Web site, aimed at middle-school students, has gone live with two interactive animated games that will, she hopes, engage young people in learning about and appreciating the role of courts in their daily lives.
The game that engaged us the most was Supreme Decision, in which a hypothetical female swing-vote justice -- hmm, who might that be? -- asks you, the player, to help her reach a decision in a First Amendment case, Ben v. Hamilton Middle School. The dispute involves a student barred from wearing a t-shirt bearing the name of his favorite band, called "Hall of Rejects." After brief arguments on both sides, the swing justice, named Irene Waters, comes out of the Court's conference to seek research help from her law clerk -- that would be you -- on how to decide the case. You then get to listen to mini-debates between justices on each side of the issue, answer questions about their views, and then vote which side to support. The issues imbedded in the dispute are well-explained and presented in an interesting way.
The game's full court, by the way, is composed of five women and four men, and the chief justice, male, is named Zimmer. Justices Mendez and Hsu are among the nine. We won't tell you how it all ends.
The other game, Do I Have a Right?, puts players in the role of lawyers in a law firm, with new clients coming in the door with civil liberties-related issues to litigate. (How come no "dormant commerce clause" disputes, one wonders?) As relative novices with such online games, we found this one somewhat clunky, and the clients seemed to pile up in the waiting room. But maybe that's a touch of realism. Your middle-schooler might navigate it more quickly.
In a statement, O'Connor said Monday, "Law and government are not about abstract rules or dry facts. They are about how people use the rules and facts to get things done. Our Courts' first two games teach students how to apply the law through the eyes of a judge or a lawyer. They are fun and engaging for students, and easy to use in the classroom or at home.
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Program pairs rookies with veteran lawyers
By The Associated Press
Sunday, Aug. 16, 2009
A new Utah Supreme Court program pairs new lawyers with veteran mentors to help them navigate the legal world, from finding the court house to going through the metal detectors once they are there.
The skills that new lawyers get in the mandatory program could be essential, said Stephen Owens, the recently elected Utah State Bar president, who is implementing the program.
"It's a very young bar," said Owens, 41, who is older than half of the state's 7,500 active lawyers.
Utah Supreme Court Justice Christine Durham said in a video message on the bar's Web site that she hopes the new program will give lawyers better training in ethics, civility and professionalism and give them "a chance to get some breadth of perception on the culture of their new profession."
The program is mandatory for new lawyers passing the bar exam and lawyers moving to Utah who have practiced less than two years. Mentors must have at least seven years of experience, no past or pending bar disciplinary actions and be approved by the Utah Supreme Court's Advisory Committee on Professionalism.
Owens said 350 of a planned 500 mentor lawyers have been approved.
One mentor is Susanne Gustin, a criminal defense attorney for 18 years. Darren Levitt finds himself contacting her twice a day with questions such as how to handle an upset client to navigating routine court procedures like motion to continue filings.
"In school, you learn how to spot legal issues," said Levitt, 31. "What you don't learn is the day-to-day procedural things that occur in a law practice, like communicating with the court and opposing parties, what needs to be filed and some of the local rules."
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Let the willing pay - [Editorial]
Greensboro News-Record (North Carolina)
August 18, 2009
The state can't force lawyers to pay for judicial campaigns, a Wake County judge ruled last week.
That should get other professions off the hook if the state tries to expand public campaign funding.
In a decision worthy of Solomon, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning found a way to protect attorneys' constitutional rights without overturning the state's Public Campaign Fund. Nevertheless, if his ruling stands, the state may be hard-pressed to keep enough money in those coffers.
The judge was sorting out a complaint filed by a group of public defenders in Mecklenburg County. They protested a law that requires the State Bar to collect a $50 annual surcharge to their licensing fees, with the money going to the Public Campaign Fund. That fund pays for publicly financed campaigns for statewide judicial candidates and for a voters' guide published by the State Board of Elections and mailed to all registered voters.
The plaintiffs argued it violates their First Amendment rights to compel them to provide financial support to candidates without their consent. Manning agreed.
Rather than overturn the law, however, he offered this remedy:
"The plaintiffs, and those other lawyers who are chafing under the collar because some of their $50 may go to an appellate judicial candidate they despise or disagree with, should simply be permitted to designate that their $50 go into the pot for the very constitutional and very legitimate Voters Guide ... ." He ordered the State Bar to implement his solution.
That's fair for the lawyers, but it potentially bleeds the fund of money to pay for an expanding program of public campaign financing. It barely pays enough now for participating Supreme Court and Court of Appeals candidates to run an effective statewide campaign. Last year, the state added public funding for candidates for state superintendent, auditor and insurance commissioner.
If lawyers could be taxed to pay for judicial campaigns, it was probably a matter of time before teachers would be assessed a fee to pay for superintendent campaigns, accountants for auditor races and insurance agents for insurance commissioner contests. When the agriculture commissioner is added, farmers might be taxed. And so on.
But Manning's ruling, unless reversed on appeal, knocks those options off the table. And it should. No one should be required to contribute to a political campaign that may represent values and beliefs he abhors or simply has no interest in supporting.
The public campaign finance debate has moved down to the local level, with some in Greensboro pushing for a similar system to fund municipal campaigns.
Manning's decision should encourage them to couple their proposals with plans to obtain voluntary funding rather than rely on fees or taxes.
Not only lawyers will chafe under the collar if they're forced to pay for campaigns they don't like. Local taxpayers might, too.
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N.J. Courts Use Twitter, Facebook & YouTube to Keep Users Informed
By Martha Neil, ABAJournal.com
August 18, 2009
If a New Jersey court closes due to bad weather this winter, linked-in lawyers don't have to worry about driving there for no good reason.
The state judiciary will be keeping court users informed of such breaking developments via cell phone texts and Twitter, reports a NJ Courts Online press release. Those who wish may also sign up for RSS feeds of the latest judicial opinions, and check Facebook for press releases and other court information.
The judiciary has also begun posting informational videos about using the state courts on YouTube.
“Our court users rely heavily on social media to stay informed and connected. We are responding to their expectations for timely information that maximizes the convenience of the Internet and of cell phones and other devices,” says Judge Glenn Grant. he is acting administrative director for the courts.
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Mediation urged before foreclosures
BY MONICA HATCHER, The Miami Herald
August 19, 2009
A special task force appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to study the impact of the foreclosure crisis on the court system is recommending a mandatory mediation program to stem the number of foreclosure cases swamping the state's courts.
In its final report to the Supreme Court released Monday, the 15-member task force of bank attorneys, judges, mediators and consumer advocates determined that requiring lenders and borrowers to discuss alternatives to foreclosure before a case proceeds can help to alleviate the paralyzing backlog.
Already several circuit courts throughout the state have established pilot mandatory mediation programs, including the 11th circuit, which covers Miami-Dade County. Advocates of the pilot programs say they have been successful in resolving hundreds of cases in the first few months of their launches.
``The hope is this will stop the filing of foreclosures and make lenders look for other means to resolving these disputes outside of our court system -- or make it the very last alternative,'' said April Charney, a task force member and foreclosure defense lawyer for Jacksonville Area Legal Aid.
The dizzying amount of paperwork involved in the foreclosure process, as well as the numerous participants involved in the proceedings, often lead to confusion and inefficiencies. In some instances, borrowers' homes have been scheduled for auction, even though lenders have already approved loan modifications for them, some consumer advocates have said.
By forcing parties to sit down and communicate, such situations could be avoided. Other recommendations from the task force included standardizing forms and practices to move cases along more quickly.
The need for a fix is dire. Foreclosure filings in South Florida have skyrocketed in the last three years and show no sign of abating. As of May, there were 29,618 foreclosure cases filed in Miami-Dade and 22,306 in Broward.
Lenders have complained that mandatory mediation programs are costly and slow the process of foreclosing on customers they may have already determined are not eligible or qualified for help. Most of the costs associated with a mandatory mediation program will be shouldered by lenders. Alan Bookman, a task force member who has represented banks in filing foreclosures, said lender representatives on the panel were in agreement with the recommendations. Banks and other parties will have a chance to comment on the task force findings in writing, before the Supreme Court schedules public hearings on the issue.
Then, the Supreme Court will determine whether it will proceed with implementing the program throughout the state.
Free indigent legal services coming to Morgan County
By Sheryl Marsh, The Decatur Daily News
August 12, 2009
A door will soon open to provide free legal assistance to indigent Morgan County residents who cannot afford an attorney to represent them in civil matters. The County Commission agreed Tuesday to give courthouse office space to Legal Services Alabama.
Prior to the commission approving an office for Legal Services, a local attorney asked the governing body to adopt a resolution designating the week of Oct. 25-31 as Pro Bono Week in Alabama.
Attorney Phil Mitchell of Harris, Caddell and Shanks, stressed the importance of pro bono legal assistance for indigent people. Mitchell said 38 members of the Morgan County Bar Association provide free legal services for indigent residents.
He said Pro Bono Week is a national event and it needs to be recognized statewide. He said it will be a time of recruitment of other lawyers to join in doing free legal work for those who cannot afford a lawyer.
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The Birmingham News
August 11, 2009
Birmingham lawyer Jennifer Busby, a partner at Burr Forman LLP and president of the Homewood city council, was selected as the chair-elect of the American Bar Association tort trial and insurance practice section for a one-year term. She will become chair of the section at the close of the 2010 annual meeting.
Michael Choy of Birmingham, has become chair of the Alabama Ethics Commission. Choy, the managing member of the law firm Choy Lichenstein LLC, was first appointed to the commission by governor Bob Riley in 2005.
Benjamin B. Spratling III, a lawyer with Haskell Slaughter Young & Rediker LLC, has been reappointed as chair of the history and archives committee of the Alabama State Bar for 2009 - 2010.
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Kids need a proper civics education – [Editorial]
The Bakersfield Californian
Aug 08, 2009
Newly retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter thinks American schools should rededicate themselves to teaching civics, and he's absolutely correct.
Souter, who in a rare public appearance last week, sounded an alarm about what he called the "dangerous state of civic knowledge" in this country. Souter said a lack of proper civics education represents a threat to judicial independence.
"We know from survey results that two-thirds of people in the United States cannot even name all three branches of the national government," he said. "This is something to worry about."
We've seen that lack of understanding at work many times in the various reactions to unpopular court decisions. Can we fire them? Vote them out? No, because that would erode the independence that represents one of the most vital attributes of the position.
Souter, who was nominated to the Supreme Court in 1990 by President George Bush and, after nearly two decades on the court, stepped down in June, is now working with a task force in his home state of New Hampshire to bolster civics education in public schools.
Souter properly acknowledges that a people uneducated about government cannot respect the importance of an independent judiciary.
But it goes much deeper than that. An uneducated population cannot fully comprehend the limitations it places on the legislative branch with ill-conceived initiatives, or on the executive branch by holding it responsible for the irresponsible behavior of a polarized legislature.
An uneducated population is susceptible to the propaganda that fills e-mail in-boxes and spews forth from television commercials during election campaigns. An uneducated population doesn't know where to look for the unvarnished facts, and lacks the tools to discern straight talk from persuasion.
Souter's civic-education proposal is a good one. Let's import it to California, and soon.
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Court gives up effort to define what Hawaii lawyers
by Linda Chiem, Pacific Business News
August 7, 2009
After a year and a half of debate, the Hawaii Supreme Court has put off a decision on changing rules that govern what it means to practice law.
The so-called unauthorized practice of law issue, which first came up in January 2008, was a move by the court and the Hawaii State Bar Association to define what constitutes the practice of law so they could protect consumers from unqualified people giving bad legal advice.
Early drafts included such a broad definition that professional groups such as insurers, accountants and providers of legal document services came out in full force opposing any rule change that would muscle them out of work they already do.
Now, Chief Justice Ronald Moon has indicated that the issue is dead.
“In light of the concerns expressed by the attorney general, the many comments received, confusion about the relationship between the proposed regulatory rule and the criminal law, and the lack of a clear enforcement process, the justices have decided to table the proposal with no immediate plans for further consideration,” Moon wrote in a July 2 letter to Hawaii State Bar Association President Rai Saint Chu.
The association, its former president, Jeffrey Sia, and representatives from the various professional groups spent many hours in dozens of meetings drafting a definition that included as many as 18 exceptions that protected the activities of the other professionals.
Hawaii is one of 10 states with no clear definition of the unauthorized practice of law, according to the American Bar Association.
“It’s a disappointment, but I hope it doesn’t die entirely because there was a lot of hard work from everybody put into this and I’m hoping somebody will pick up the banner,” Sia said.
Chu said she can understand the court’s decision to leave the issue alone because of the mass confusion.
“Perhaps they thought the rule we have in place, even if it’s a simple rule, was probably good enough and a little less unwieldy,” she said.
As it dropped one issue, the court raised another one by requiring Hawaii attorneys to take three hours of continuing legal education — known as CLE — every year as a condition of keeping their law licenses. The new rule becomes effective next Jan. 1.
The move is intended to maintain quality and competence among attorneys and puts Hawaii in the company of 41 other states that require continuing education.
But Hawaii’s smaller law firms and solo practitioners worry that the new mandate will get expensive.
Honolulu immigration attorney KahBo Dye-Chiew branched out with her own solo practice in early 2008 after years with Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel. She regularly attends an annual three-day immigration conference sponsored by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which costs $750 plus travel, room and meal expenses.
“If I have to attend those and, on top of that, have to attend ethics CLE courses because those don’t meet the requirements, it will get expensive,” she said.
Only courses and activities approved by the Hawaii State Bar Association or the American Bar Association would qualify as meeting the annual requirement.
Chu said the state association is setting up a committee to determine what type of courses and activities, such as practice-specific conferences and conventions, would qualify as fulfilling that requirement.
But they do plan to keep it affordable, no more than $50 per attorney, for qualified continuing education courses.
The association already has identified a few subjects that qualify. They include legal ethics, law office management, client trust account administration, bias awareness and prevention, access to justice, case and client management, malpractice insurance and prevention and anything related to the Hawaii Rules of Professional Conduct.
Attorneys who don’t meet the requirement by the time they renew their law license each year will be suspended until they do.
The rule also applies to state judges, but federal judges are exempt.
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Do-it-yourself litigators get a hand from state
by Elizabeth Stawicki, Minnesota Public Radio
August 12, 2009
Minneapolis — One of the results of the bad economy is that fewer people can afford lawyers, making Minnesota's virtual self-help program an attractive option for the rising number of people representing themselves in court.
People charged with a crime have the right to an attorney to represent them for free if you cannot afford one, but that's not the case if you are involved in a civil matter, such as filing a lawsuit against your landlord or filing for divorce. Nationally, more than 1 out of every 4 civil cases is filed by a person without an attorney.
Unlike many other states, Minnesota has a statewide virtual Self-Help Center that has more than 400 court forms online. If you have problems filling them out, you can phone the call center, which connects you to a room on the 12th floor of the Hennepin County Government Center. There, three attorneys answer calls.
The self-help center is part of the Minnesota court system, and as a result, the lawyers who work there must stay neutral and cannot give legal advice. They won't represent you in court. They won't handle the case for you. They won't research the law for you. What they can do is help you determine which court form is the correct one for the situation, how to work through the form, and what steps you need to take to get the case in front of a judge.
Self Help Director Susan LeDray says another major job of the center is to help people understand when their cases are too complicated for them to realistically handle on their own.
"For example if you want to sue someone for employment discrimination, we don't have a form for that because what you sue for and how you do it is going to be very specific to your facts," she said. "We can't give you a check-off-the-box or fill-in-the-blank form for something like that."
Minnesota's court system didn't have numbers available on the percentage of people representing themselves in the state's courts. But, the statewide self-help center said that between June of 2008 and June of this year, call volume increased on average 15 percent each month. In the past month, the number of calls has risen by nearly 40 percent. As a result, the center estimates that 20 to 25 callers a day don't get through.
The advent of self-help centers has signaled a change in court philosophy. It used to be that many judges viewed people who represent themselves in court, or "pro se" filers, as problems, often fearing they would file complaints against the judge. Hennepin County Family Court Judge Kevin Burke, who's traveled around the country speaking on the issue, says most judges in Minnesota no longer view pro se filers as problems but as people who've made understandable choices.
"They don't have access to legal aid or they don't want to take their kids' college education and spend it on a lawyer's kids' education when they're going through a divorce," he said. "So that our responsibility as judges is to provide access to justice to people who are represented by attorneys and not represented by attorneys."
One researcher says court self-help centers are part of a trend in some states to be more customer-service oriented, particularly in the age of budget cuts. Richard Zorza coordinates the Self-Represented Litigation Network, which is a group of organizations, ranging from the conference of chief justices to legal aid, that studies how the public uses the courts.
"I think what you're going to see is an understanding that improving access and improving efficiency go together, that this is not a matter of do we run an expensive accessible court or do we run a cheap as it is now court," he said. "And that the vast majority of things that improve access also save money in the long term."
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