Pro Bono Week seeks ‘justice for all’
By Angie Long, The Greenville Advocate
October 29, 2010
Is liberty and justice truly “for all,” or just for those who can afford it in America?
What happens if you end up in court and you can’t afford an attorney? Unless you’ve been arrested in a criminal case, you can’t count on a court-appointed defense.
“In Alabama, defendants are only guaranteed a court-appointed attorney in criminal cases,” says Thomas Methvin, immediate past president of the Alabama State Bar and the speaker at a National Pro Bono Week presentation at the Greenville Area Chamber of Commerce.
If you are involved in a civil case-dealing with an abusive spouse, losing a home in foreclosure, or assistance with adoption, to give some examples-and you’re poor, you’ve got very limited access to justice here in Alabama.”
Methvin, managing shareholder of Beasley Allen Attorneys at Law in Montgomery, said Pro Bono Week was founded in order to raise awareness of the plight of the poor in the state.
“States on average spend $4.1 million providing access to justice for low-income people. Here in Alabama, it’s $300,000. Both Mississippi and Puerto Rico-which isn’t even a state-spend more than that,” Methvin said. “We should be ashamed we’re dead last, frankly.”
This is the second year for Pro Bono Week in the state.
“Last year, we raised $850,000 to help the poor, which is great in a tough economy. We’ve also gotten 1,400 new lawyers across the state to join our voluntary lawyers program and donate their time and expertise to such cases,” Methvin said.
“Our goal is to get more lawyers in Alabama to do more free legal work and to raise funds and awareness of the situation. Many citizens don’t know about this and the fact representation in civil cases is just not guaranteed.”
Both the City of Greenville and Butler County issued proclamations in support of Pro Bono Week locally, Methvin said.
“No one should be shut out of a courthouse because they do not have the money. We need to make sure ‘justice for all’ as mentioned in our pledge of allegiance does actually happen,” Methvin said.
- - -
Local attorney speaks to Decatur Kiwanis about pro bono week
By Evan Belanger, The Decatur Daily
October 29, 2010
While one in four poverty-stricken households encountered legal problems last year, only 16 percent were able to resolve them, local attorney Joe Propst said Wednesday.
Speaking to the Decatur Kiwanis Club, Propst, who also serves on the city School Board and as president of the Morgan County Bar Association, advocated this week’s observance of National Pro Bono Week. Established last year, it recognizes lawyers who provide free legal assistance to those living in poverty.
Propst, who opened his speech with a host of lawyer jokes, said the national economic downturn has created a “justice gap” for more than 900,000 people unable to resolve their legal problems.
“In Alabama, there is a great disparity between the number of lawyers who are available to represent the general population and the number of lawyers available to represent the poor,” he said.
While the Constitution guarantees legal counsel for all criminal cases, it makes no such mandate for civil cases, he said. Despite the need, Alabama ranks 51st in the nation for funding of civil legal services for the poor.
To address the problem, Propst said, the Alabama Bar Association maintains a special foundation to raise money for Legal Services Corporation, a publicly funded group that provides limited legal representation to the poor.
He also said 52 percent of Morgan County’s 104 practicing attorneys participate in the state bar’s Volunteer Lawyers Program, which matches those in need with attorneys who have agreed to take pro bono cases.
Propst encouraged those attending to request their attorneys participate in the program.
“Paying clients have a huge influence on us lawyers,” he said.
- - -
Judging our judges: Supreme Court needs balance – [Editorial]
Oct 27, 2010
A two-decade battle waged by large corporations and social conservatives to win Alabama’s high court is over. The state Supreme Court is almost exclusively in the hands of judges bought and paid for by deep-pocketed interests who prefer a legal system that tips the scale in their favor.
It’s difficult — if not impossible — to prove quid pro quid exchanges between candidate and contributor. Of course, that’s beside the point. Appearances matter; Alabama’s Supreme Court seats have gone to candidates capable of raising millions of dollars, and it defies logic to assume wealthy contributors don’t have a stake in who sits on the bench and how those judges rule.
Besides, contributors aren’t thinking of one case but many when spending what it takes to put on the bench Supreme Court judges who will see things how they want them seen.
Not that we’d want a court system that would automatically side one way or the other. The state needs judges who will weigh the facts and the law. The state needs judges who will rule with wisdom and fairness. The state needs judges with a keen intellect.
How did we come to this checkbook judiciary?
Twenty years ago, Republicans who were tired of a court filled mostly by Democrats invested heavily in races to flip the dominant party, particularly on the state Supreme Court. Cash, and plenty of it, was the cure the Republicans and their business allies used to take control. Trial lawyers and Democrats responded, driving up the cost of running a campaign for the court.
Today, one Democrat, Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, sits with eight Republican justices on the highest court in the state. For that privilege, Bell raised and spent $2.6 million.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the court was known as “tort hell,” a slander meaning Supreme Court justices ruled unfairly in favor of plaintiffs bringing frivolous lawsuits. Republicans can’t use the line much anymore now that the court is widely viewed as anything but a place friendly to civil litigation. Now conservative candidates for the court spend their luxurious campaign war chests on soft-focus ads speaking in vague platitudes about family, faith and conservatism.
How much are those war chests worth? From 2000 until 2009, state Supreme Court candidates raised $40.9 million, according to the Brennan Center, which bills itself as a “non-partisan public policy and law institute.” That figure is twice as high as the No. 2 big-spending state in the nation.
The center found, “Eight of the 10 biggest spenders were business or conservative groups, led by the Business Council of Alabama (No. 2, at $4,633,534) and the Alabama Civil Justice Reform Committee (No. 3, at $2,699,568) … The other two, the Alabama Democratic Party (No. 1, at $5,460,117) and Franklin PAC (No. 8, at $765,250), were heavily underwritten by plaintiffs’ lawyers.”
Both sides in Alabama are playing this bidding war for our courts, and that’s bad.
The public already distrusts the pay-for-play system of electing judges. A Harris Interactive poll commissioned by the judicial watchdog group Justice at Work found that more than 70 percent of Democrats and more than 70 percent of Republicans said they believe campaign donations influence judicial decisions.
The best prescription would be for the state to scrap partisan elections for the high court and transition to a system that included: races free from political party affiliation, more stringent rules on campaign financing, and an appointment/retention-election system where voters get the chance to leave a judge on the bench or remove him or her. These are tasks for the Legislature and the governor.
For the present, Alabama voters can have a say on the direction of its top court. This page’s advice is to search for a way to better balance the court. The aim is to pursue justice that does not tip the scale one way or the other, but to fill seats with judges who aren’t beholden to one side of the partisan divide.
The To-Do List: Alabama Supreme Court
• Judges should declare their campaigns will no longer accept the PAC money that creates the appearance of checkbook justice.
• Judges should advocate to the other branches of state government to change the partisan, high-stakes elections for top appellate courts.
• Judges should focus on timely processing of the cases before the court.
- - -
Marketers alarmed over ABA ethics study of online client development tools
Karen Sloan, National Law Journal
October 29, 2010
The American Bar Association is examining the ethics of online client development tools such as blogs and Facebook, and some marketers are none too happy about it.
The ABA's Commission on Ethics 20/20 has submitted a paper that discusses potential ethics concerns over Internet-based lawyer advertising. The commission is asking for feedback on whether or not it should pursue further research and regulation of that area over the next two years.
"There is no agenda," said commission co-chair and Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr partner Jamie Gorelick. " The paper is designed to reflect some of the questions that have been posed to us."
But legal marketing consultant Larry Bodine said the paper is the first step down the wrong path for the ABA, which should be concentrating its ethics effort on lawyers who steal from their clients, not lawyers who use Twitter.
"This is how it all starts, he said. "With an innocuous document that says, 'We're just collecting information.' I think the ethics authorities have gotten in way over their head when it comes to lawyer advertising and marketing. They don't understand it."
The Internet is a major way clients find attorneys these days, and regulations that would prompt lawyers to shy away from that arena would only hurt the public, Bodine said. He is rallying other marketers and bloggers to vocally oppose further ABA involvement in online client development.
The paper, which was submitted by the committee's Working Group on the Implications of New Technologies, highlights four specific areas of possible research and regulation: Internet-based client development tools such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter; blogging; pay-per-click advertising; and lawyer Web sites.
Client development tools such as Facebook might create inadvertent lawyer-client relationships or blur the line between personal and professional communications and advertising, it notes.
"Because lawyers frequently use these Web sites and services for both personal and professional reasons, the legal ethics issues in this context are more complicated than they have been for more traditional client development tools," the paper reads. "For example, a lawyer might create a Facebook profile that is accessible to family and prospective clients at the same time."
Lawyers and judges who are "friends" on Facebook may also be ethically problematic, according to the paper.
The paper poses the question of whether or not lawyer-penned blogs constitute advertising and are subject to the applicable rules. The issue is trickier because some blogs mix business and personal issues, while some are strictly law-related and serve a marketing function.
"The commission is considering what, if any, guidance it should offer to lawyers who operate or participate in blogs, discussion boards, and other sites (like JD Supra) when their intent is, at least in part, to develop clients," the paper reads.
JD Supra is a Web site that allows lawyers to post articles or examples of their work product for potential clients to see. JD Supra Chief Executive Officer Aviva Cutler said that transparency is critical when clients are choosing lawyers, and that the company would welcome any clarification from the ABA on how lawyers should use its site.
There are also questions over whether or not "pay-per-click" advertising, in which lawyers pay a third party for directing Internet users to their Web site, constitute an inadmissible payment for recommending the lawyer's services.
Finally, lawyer Web sites themselves may be problematic if they contain false or misleading information, create an inadvertent attorney-client relationship, give legal advice or reveal confidential information and current or former clients.
"In the old days, when advertising was in a paper medium, you could very readily take it and look at the rules and understand what you could and couldn't do," Gorelick said. "Under these new circumstance, the question is, 'What is an advertisement?' "
Bodine thinks the ABA's newfound interest in Internet-based client development will have a major chilling effect on attorneys, however.
"Lawyers are very ginger when it comes to marketing online, and this is just going to frighten the daylights out of them if it becomes an ethics rule," he said.
The commission is seeking comments on the paper by Dec. 15.
- - -
Free legal clinics to aid with general, elder law
By Eric Velasco, Birmingham News
October 20, 2010
Lawyers will provide free legal assistance or general legal issues next week in clinics set in Jefferson County as part of National Pro Bono Week.
The clinics will offer advice on legal issues including elder and family law, bankruptcy and estate planning, according to a release from the Alabama State Bar. “These activities are intended to have a local focus and impact,” said Phil Mitchell, a Decatur lawyer who is chairman of the state bar’s Pro Bono Celebration Task Force.
Pro bono, a shortened version of the Latin phrase, “in the public good” includes free and reduced rate legal help for the poor and disadvantaged, who often have limited access to the justice system.
The state bar estimates that up to 900,000 Alabama residents are caught in what it calls a justice gap – the difference between the overall number of lawyers and those willing to represent the poor. “Lawyers are doing their part to narrow the justice gap by providing pro bono service to help people save their homes from foreclosure, protect their child custody rights, and seek refuge from abuses,” Mitchell said in the news release.
All of the Jefferson County clinics are sponsored by the Cumberland School of Law, Birmingham Bar Pro Bono Committee, and the state bar Pro Bono Task Force. In addition to the clinics, lawyers in each of the state’s 42 judicial circuits will make speeches to local civic and other groups about efforts by Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb’s Access to Commission is seeking improved legislative funding for civil legal services.
“Pro bono services alone will not close the justice gap, but events like National Pro Bono Week help recognize the ongoing service provided by our membership, “Alyce M. Spruell, president of the bar, said in the news release.
- - -
Free legal help
Beverly Tanner, CBS42 (Birmingham)
October 26, 2010
Some local residents are getting a chance to get some free legal work this week. The American Bar, and the Alabama State Bar Association, have designated this: National Pro Bono Celebration Week. Local attorneys are volunteering their services to senior citizens to help get their affairs in order, as well as Lovelady residents in hopes of freeing them of their legal problems. For more on this story, click the video.
- - -
Montgomery County proclaims this week as Pro Bono Week
Ben Flanagan, al.com
October 27, 2010
The Montgomery County Commission presented an official proclamation declaring Oct. 24-30 as Pro Bono Week in Montgomery County.
The resolution was sponsored by Commissioner Ham Wilson Jr. and is part of the state's activities in celebration of National Pro Bono Week, established by the American Bar Association in 2009 to recognize the efforts of lawyers to provide free civil legal assistance to people in poverty.
Pro Bono Week activities in Alabama are sponsored by the Alabama State Bar and its Pro Bono Celebration Task Force, with support of local bar associations statewide.
- - -
Mobile lawyers ham it up with 'Broadway Briefs' fundraiser
October 21, 2010
MOBILE, Ala. -- A group of Mobile’s most theatrical lawyers will hit the stage on Oct. 27 for the second annual “Broadway Briefs: Lawyers Take the Stage” fundraiser, which benefits the Mobile Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Program.
The dinner theater fundraiser is keyed to the American Bar Association’s National Pro Bono month.
“This event helps fund the daily operations of the Mobile Bar Association’s VLP,” said Ariana Moore, the VLP’s associate director. “Because of these attorneys, VLP was able to open 885 cases last year.”
Moore said 725 attorneys, nearly 70 percent of the Mobile Bar Association, participate in the VLP, which provides free legal help to low-income Mobile county residents in a variety of non-criminal matters, including collection issues, family law concerns, and wills and estates.
"We at the Mobile Bar Association are very proud of VLP and the tremendous participation we have,” said attorney Barney March, who will be among the performers.
"Broadway Briefs" is "an opportunity for some natural hams in the Mobile Bar to show off their talents," said Barney March (right, rehearsing with John Campbell). "All of these folks have been active in Mobile theater."
“In many ways, we lead the state with our program, particularly with participation.” “I think I speak for all the cast by saying we enjoy both being on stage and supporting a great program like VLP,” said attorney David Peeler. “This fundraiser helps us raise the money it takes to keep the program going.”
Attorney and seasoned actor Chris Kern helped write this year’s production, which includes light-hearted musical numbers, comedic sketches and dramatic monologues such as “Lawyer Lincoln,” in which Mobile lawyer Bill Watts depicts the 16th president. Kern’s song “Making a Difference” was written to “invite lawyers to help their neighbors by donating legal services and make a difference in someone’s life,” he said.
The band and cast includes lawyers, lawyers’ spouses and others who work in the legal field, including Paula Broadwater, John Campbell, Jeff Deen, Gay Gandy, Jon Green and Gaby Reeves. "The band will consist of lawyer Bobby Frost on drums, lawyer Duncan Crow on guitar and bass guitar, lawyer Mike Box on clarinet, and Cheryl Box, his wife, on flute," Kern said.
“All the pieces in the production somehow touch on a connection to the law in one way or another,” March said. “From my perspective, it’s something a little bit different. It’s an opportunity for some natural hams in the Mobile Bar to show off their talents. All of these folks have been active in Mobile theater.”
The program will be presented as dinner theater with the performance lasting about an hour.
VLP executive director Blakely Davis gave this invitation: “Join us for an evening of fun while we applaud our performers and celebrate the Mobile Volunteer Lawyers for 25 years of commitment and dedication in providing civil legal service to an often forgotten population.”
- - -
A Case of Supply v. Demand - Law schools are manufacturing more lawyers than America needs, and law students aren't happy about it.
By Annie Lowrey, SLATE
Oct. 27, 2010
During the recession, the logic was ubiquitous: The economy is terrible—better to wait it out! It is a three-year fast track to a remunerative, respectable career! It's not just learning a subject—it's learning how to think! Law school, always the safe choice, became a more popular choice. Between 2007 and 2009, the number of LSAT takers climbed 20.5 percent. Law school applications increased in turn.
But now a number of recent or current law students are saying—or screaming—that they made a mistake. They went to law school, they say, and now they're underemployed or jobless, in debt, and three years older. And statistics show that the evidence is more than anecdotal.
One Boston College Law School third-year—miraculously, still anonymous—begged for his tuition back in exchange for a promise to drop out without a degree, in an open letter to his dean published earlier this month. "This will benefit both of us," he argues. "On the one hand, I will be free to return to the teaching career I left to come here. I'll be able to provide for my family without the crushing weight of my law school loans. On the other hand, this will help BC Law go up in the rankings, since you will not have to report my unemployment at graduation to US News. This will present no loss to me, only gain: in today's job market, a J.D. seems to be more of a liability than an asset."
He is one of dozens of law students who have gone public, very public, to chastise the schools they elected to attend for leaving them older and poorer. One popular medium is the "scamblog," where indebted, unemployed attorneys accuse law schools of being little better than tuition-sucking diploma mills. (Sample blog title: Shilling Me Softly.) The author of one popular, if histrionic, such blog describes his law school as a Ponzi scheme.
Others have taken, perhaps inevitably, to the courts. Kenneth Desornes, for instance, named his law school in his bankruptcy filing. He asks the school to "[a]dmit that your business knew or should have known that Plaintiff would be in no position to repay those loans."
The students might be litigious—no surprise there—and overwrought. But they've got a point. The demand for lawyers has fallen off a cliff, both due to the short-term crisis of the recession and long-term changes to the industry, and is only starting to rebound. The lawyers that do have jobs are making less than they used to. At the same time, universities seeking revenue have tacked on law schools, minting more lawyers every year.
That has caused some concern among lawyers who think the accrediting organization, the American Bar Association, is doing the profession a disservice by approving so many new schools. (Contrast that with medical schools. They come with much higher startup costs and tend not to be money-makers. Relatively few students get medical degrees every year, and demand far outstrips supply.)
The job market for lawyers is terrible, full stop—and that hits young lawyers, without professional track records and in need of training, worst. Though the National Association for Law Placement, an industry nonprofit group, reports that employment for the class of 2009 was 88.3 percent, about a quarter of those jobs were temporary gigs, without the salaries needed by most new lawyers to pay off crushing debts. Another 10 percent were part-time. And thousands of jobs were actually fellowships or grants provided by the new lawyers' law schools.
The big firms that make up about 28 percent of recent grads' employment slashed their associate programs in 2009 and 2010, rescinding offers to thousands and deferring the start dates of thousands more. Worse, the profession as a whole shrunk: The number of people employed in legal services hit an all-time high of 1.196 million in June 2007. It currently stands at 1.103 million. That means the number of law jobs has dwindled by about 7.8 percent. In comparison, the total number of jobs has fallen about 5.4 percent over the same period.
At the same time, the law schools—the supply side of the equation—have not stopped growing. Law schools awarded 43,588 J.D.s last year, up 11.5 percent since 2000, though there was technically negative demand for lawyers. And the American Bar Association's list of approved law schools now numbers 200, an increase of 9 percent in the last decade. Those newer law schools have a much shakier track record of helping new lawyers get work, but they don't necessarily cost less than their older, more established counterparts.
But what of those high salaries for the lawyers who do get jobs? After all, big law schools report that the average graduate is still making in the high five figures for entry-level work. The problem is those statistics are what lawyers might call hearsay. For one, law schools report their own salary-at-graduation data to organizations like NALP and magazines like U.S. News and World Report, collecting it from student surveys. But, NALP notes, there is an obvious bias problem. Students don't bother telling their law school what they are making unless they are making a lot. So the figure is probably too high, and either way is not a scientific measure.
Another point is that prospective law students usually look at average pay at graduation. But the average hides substantial inequality: There are the jobs at white-shoe firms that pay about $160,000 per year to recent graduates, and then there are the rest of jobs, which generally pay between $45,000 and $60,000. Almost no salaries are near the median or the average. They are clustered at the bottom, with fewer high earners, many of whom come from a handful of super-elite law schools, up at the top. That means that most students do not meet the break-even salary—the starting salary that would make law school tuition a good investment, estimated at around $65,000.
Students simply "cannot earn enough income after graduation to support the debt they incur," wrote Richard Matasar, the dean of New York Law School, in 2005. "Even those making the highest salaries find that the debt that they have accumulated while in school may tax them for years."
Still, the harsh realities of being a young lawyer have not stopped thousands from enrolling in law school during the recession. Veritas Prep, a graduate school admissions consulting firm, found in a recent survey that four in five prospective applicants still plan to apply to law school even if "a significant number of law school graduates were unable to find jobs in their desired fields." Only 4 percent were dissuaded.
So does that just mean a continued oversupply of lawyers, dragging down their own median salaries and dealing with their heavy debt burdens while a few lucky associates make it to the corporate big leagues? Not necessarily.
David McGowan of University of San Diego and Bernard Burk of the Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford argue that trend cannot continue. Prospective students will recognize that law school can be a bad deal, and one way or another is not a sure thing. Applications will slowly drop off. The marquee law schools will be fine. But some of the newer, lower-ranked law schools will end up shutting down—meaning fewer lawyers, and the vindication, if not the employment, of all of those scam-blog authors.
- - -
Law school hopefuls undaunted by dim prospects
Karen Sloan, National Law Journal
October 21, 2010
Advocates for more transparency about law school cost and employment prospects welcomed recent news that the American Bar Association is examining the issue. However, a new survey of prospective law students indicates that better information would do little to stem the tide of law school applications — which hit an all-time high last year.
Veritas, a law school admissions consulting firm, polled 112 prospective law school applicants in June and July, and 81% said they would still apply even if "a significant number of law school graduates were unable to find jobs in their desired fields." Only 4% said they would not apply to law school under that circumstance.
At the same time, more than half the survey respondents — 63% — were concerned about finding a job after law school, and 70% said they were worried about finding a position in the field of their particular interest.
"I think there could be one of two things that are leading factors in explaining this paradox," said Veritas Chief Executive Officer Chad Troutwine. "It could be the idea that there is still a perceived value in the legal education one gets law school. That's different from why people go to business school, which is to increase their chance of financial success."
Alternatively, prospective law students could be suffering from that well-known American affliction of overconfidence — "Hey, that's somebody else's problem, not mine," he said.
According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), 88% of the class of 2009 had found employment nine months after graduation. However, 25% of those positions were temporary. The employment rate was lower than in previous years, while the percentage of temporary jobs was higher, NALP reported.
The grim employment news for recent law graduates does seem to be making an impression on would-be lawyers, however. In addition to worrying about landing a job, prospective students seem to understand that landing a $160,000 starting job at a major law firm is harder than ever. Only 11% of the survey respondents expected to earn more than $145,000 out of law school. Another 29% expected to earn between $100,000 and $145,000, while the remaining 44% expected to earn between $75,000 to $100,000.
Still, those expectations don't jive with reality: The latest new lawyer salary data from NALP show that 34% of reported salaries fell between $40,000 and $65,000 for the class of 2009.
Would-be law students seem to understand that earning a juris doctor isn't cheap. Of those polled by Veritas, 37% said expected to take on more than $100,000 in debt. Earlier this year, the Law School Survey of Student Engagement spearheaded by Indiana University found that 29% of law students expected to graduate with upwards of $120,000 in loans.
"When you're young and confident about your prospects, taking on a modest amount of debt is acceptable," Troutwine said.
Location was the most important factor to prospective law students when choosing a school, followed by prestige and ranking and career placement rates. Affordability was an important factor for 54% of those polled.
Twenty-four percent of the survey respondents wanted to work as a public interest attorney, while another 21% wanted to work in for a major firm.
Only 3% aspired to a non-legal position.
- - -
Would You Like Fries With That Lawsuit?
By DEBRA BOGSTIE, WVIT-TV (Hartford, CT)
Oct 21, 2010
You won't be able to get fries with your order, but you can use the drive-thru at Manchester's newest law office.
The Kocian Law Group opened for business this week inside a renovated building on Middle Turnpike West. You'd never know the building once housed a former Kenny Rogers Roasters, except for the drive-thru window on the side of it. And, the personal injury and malpractice specialists plan to put that drive-thru to good use.
"We have drive-thrus for ATMs and we have that customer convenience. Why not a law firm?" attorney Nick Kocian asked.
Kocian wanted to make things convenient for customers to easily drop off and pick up documents. He has been told this is the first drive-thru legal service in Connecticut and possibly the country.
"We represent a lot of injured people," Kocian said. "If you have somebody who's in a wheelchair or somebody who's hurt, it's convenient."
He also has several clients who visit the firm once a week to pick up workers compensation checks.
A paralegal operates the window, hands out documents and answers questions.
"They really love it. It's convenient for them," said Rosa Castillo, one of the firm's paralegals.
But, don't mistake the quick and convenient drive-thru for a firm that's short on giving customers attention.
Consultations and meetings with attorneys take place inside.
"If there's some advice or things like that that people may have about what to do with their papers, that will, of course, be afforded to them," said Kocian.
Besides the drive thru, they're also open nights and weekends. It's a menu offering legal service with a spin.
"It's really something that law firms should have done a long time ago," said Kocian.
- - -
Attorneys observe Pro Bono week
The Brewton Standard
October 20, 2010
Members of the Escambia County Bar Association will be recognizing a statewide event known as Pro Bono Week.
As part of the recognition in Brewton the Association will hold a free legal aid clinic for residents in the area. The clinic will be held Oct. 27 and 28 from 8 a.m. to noon and again from 1 to 5 p.m. on both days. The clinic will be held on the second floor of the Escambia County Courthouse on Belleville Avenue.
Brewton Mayor Ted Jennings along with attorney John Jernigan, signed a proclamation Monday announcing the week of recognition from Oct. 24 through 30.
According to information from Jernigan, the clinic will offer advice in the areas of domestic matters, probate, real estate, including mortgage foreclosure and eviction and collections as well as other non-fee generating areas.
Anyone seeking advice on the various subjects featured during the two-day clinic event is invited to attend during the set hours.
The proclamation information include facts that show one in every four Alabamians living in poverty last year experienced legal problems with the majority of the civil problems being consumer issues such as creditor harassment, utility non-payment and bankruptcy issues; health issues including Medicaid, government insurance and nursing home; family law issues including divorce, child support or custody, abuse; employment issues including unemployment benefits, pensions and lost job; and housing issues including unsatisfactory repairs, foreclosure, eviction or poor living conditions.
The legal aid clinics offered by members of the Escambia County Bar Association is just one of many service projects to be held throughout the State of Alabama helping lawyers and law students make volunteer connections with legal aid organizations serving Alabama.
The signed proclamation urges Brewton residents to recognize the contributions of the legal community helping those most in need throughout the area.
For additional information on Pro Bono Week, contact any local member of the Escambia County Bar Association.
- - -
Morgan Bar to help provide free legal service to residents
By Sheryl Marsh, Decatur Daily
October 17, 2010
For the second year, attorneys in Morgan County will provide free civil legal services for residents who cannot afford an attorney.
The County Commission approved a proclamation Tuesday designating Oct. 24-30 Pro Bono Week in the county. Pro bono means without cost.
The Alabama State Bar Pro Bono Celebration Task Force is sponsoring the statewide event. Decatur Attorney Phil Mitchell, chairman of the task force, addressed the commission during a work session Tuesday.
Mitchell said 51 percent of the Morgan Bar has volunteered to provide free legal services in civil matters.
He said this will also be a time to recruit and train more volunteers from the legal community. Statewide, 4,400 attorneys have volunteered, Mitchell said.
Poverty, legal problems
Mitchell said current data show 940,000 people in the state live in poverty. Children make up 300,000 of that number. One in every four of the adults in the statistic experiences legal problems, Mitchell said.
He said research shows that 12.5 percent of Morgan County residents live in poverty.
Mitchell said most of the civil matters are consumer, health, family law, employment and housing issues.
- - -
ABA May Join Push for Law School Transparency
Karen Sloan, National Law Journal
Pleas for more transparency about the cost of law school and the odds of finding a job after graduation have not fallen on deaf ears at the American Bar Association.
President Steve Zack told a gathering of law school deans and professors last week that the organization is considering requiring law schools to disclose cost and employment statistics to all accepted law school applicants. The effort, dubbed "Truth in Law School Education," is still in the planning phase, but Zack hopes the ABA's Young Lawyers Division will consider the proposal in February.
Meanwhile, the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar questionnaire committee -- which determines what appears on the annual questionnaire that law schools must fill out -- is examining what salary and employment questions should be included and how that information should be made public.
Similarly, a subcommittee of the group reviewing the ABA's law school accreditation standards has been formed to look specifically at standard 509, which covers the consumer information law schools must collect and disclose.
"A lot of attention has been focused on employment data, and our subcommittee will be proposing much more rigorous requirements," said David Yellen, dean of Loyola University Chicago School of Law and chairman of the standard 509 subcommittee. "The current standard is very general -- you could even call it vague. People have been comparing apples to oranges because schools report what they want."
For example, schools have to disclose to the ABA what percentage of their graduates are employed nine months after graduation. They don't have to disclose whether students have part-time jobs, full-time jobs, jobs paid for by their law school or jobs that don't require a J.D., Yellen said. Much of his information is already collected by the National Association for Law Placement, and should be required and disclosed by the ABA, he said.
The subcommittee on standard 509 is still in the early stages, however, and likely won't have its recommendations until some time in 2011.
The Truth in Law School Education resolution could come sooner, said David Wolfe, the chairman of the ABA's Young Lawyers Division. Presuming it passes its first test before the young lawyers division, the House of Delegates would consider the resolution in August.
"It's still in the works, but it will link the requirement to disclose employment and cost information with accreditation," he said. "You would get that information with your letter of acceptance to a law school. We want people to go to law school with their eyes open."
It is cause for concern that the number of law school applications is higher than ever at a time when law firms are shedding jobs, Zack said. He attributes some of that disconnect to applicants who lack an accurate sense of what lawyers do or how much they earn.
"What's out there right know is 'Boston Legal' or 'L.A. Law,'" he said. "There's a total lack of awareness out there. They hear these astronomical salaries which reflect just the top 3 percent of students who go to the top 10 law firms."
Law schools have an incentive to present data in the best possible light, since law schools are "huge profit centers" on college campuses, Zack said.
Both Wolfe and Zack acknowledged that simply requiring law schools to disclose data already collected by the ABA would not address concerns that those statistics are misleading and skewed to begin with.
"I think some of the numbers are cooked. To play the U.S. News & World Report game, law schools are creating jobs for graduates so they can say they are employed when they really aren't," Zack said. "Still, [prospective students] will know enough to ask more questions."
The questionnaire committee plans to hold a hearing on the employment and salary issue on Dec. 13 in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Students, career placement officers and others may submit comments in writing, said Chairman Art Gaudio, who is the dean of Western New England College School of Law.
"What we're trying o do is find out what the issues are and where we can improve," he said.
Kyle McEntee, a co-founder of Law School Transparency, a nonprofit based in Tennessee that pushes for better employment and salary information from law schools, said it's appropriate for the ABA to take the lead on this issue.
"This is the ABA's job," he said. "They're a regulatory body. This is exactly what they should be doing, and we're thrilled that they're taking this up. What we're doing right now isn't good enough."
However, McEntee said, it wouldn't do much good if the ABA simply required disclosure of the same limited data it already collects.
Law School Transparency has asked all 200 ABA-accredited law schools to commit to providing it with far more detailed employment and salary data. Thus far, only one school -- Ave Maria School of Law in Naples, Fla. -- has agreed to do so.
"Students deserve more consistent and accurate data," Yellen said.
- - -
SUPREME COURT NOTEBOOK: State of Union no-show
By MARK SHERMAN, The Associated Press
October 16, 2010
WASHINGTON -- When Supreme Court justices enter the House of Representatives in their black robes for the president's next State of the Union address, Samuel Alito does not plan to be among them.
The justice said the annual speech to Congress has become very political and awkward for the justices, who he says are expected to sit "like the proverbial potted plant."
Of course, Alito did not remain impassive at the most recent State of the Union speech by President Barack Obama. He reacted to Obama's unusual rebuke of the court for its decision in a campaign finance case by shaking his head and mouthing the words "not true."
The 60-year-old justice, an appointee of President George W. Bush, acknowledged with a smile that his colleagues "who are more disciplined refrain from manifesting any emotion or opinion whatsoever."
Alito, answering questions following a speech Wednesday at the conservative Manhattan Institute in New York, also said, "Presidents will fake you out." The institute provided an online video link to Alito's talk and question-and-answer session.
The president will begin a sentence with an invocation of the country's greatness, Alito said. If justices don't jump up and applaud, "you look very unpatriotic," he said.
But, Alito continued, then the president may finish the thought by adding "because we're conducting a surge in Iraq or because we're enacting health care reform." Justices aren't supposed to react to statements about policy or politics.
The better course, Alito said, is to follow the example of more experienced justices like Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and the recently retired John Paul Stevens. None has attended in several years.
"So I doubt that I will be there in January," Alito said.
At least one justice, Stephen Breyer, has said he was not bothered by Obama's criticism and believes justices should attend so that viewers can see the three branches of government represented in the same room.
Free legal advice clinics set this month
By Michelle Mann, The Enterprise Ledger
October 14, 2010
Pro bono is a Latin term meaning “for the public good’ and Coffee County Bar Association President Shannon Clark said that’s the goal of two legal aid clinics planned in Enterprise and Elba this month.
Clark told Coffee County commissioners the Advice and Counsel Clinics are being held in conjunction with National Pro Bono Week.
There is no charge to attend the clinics and they are open to the public, Clark said. The first clinic is Oct. 26 from 5 p.m. until 7 p.m. at the Elba Public Library.
In Enterprise, the clinic is at 5 p.m. at the Enterprise Recreation Center. Advance appointments are not required.
Lawyers will be available for general consultation on civil issues and will prepare advanced health care directives, powers of attorney and simple wills on site, she said.
Attorneys nationwide participate in Pro Bono Week, she said, as an effort to help their communities. It’s the second year the Alabama Bar Association has participated.
Nearly 20 percent of the Coffee County legal community donates time in free legal services each year, Clark said. “But a huge unmet need for legal assistance remains for the disadvantaged in our area.”
In proclaiming Oct. 24 through Oct. 30 Pro Bono Week in Coffee County, Commission Chairman Jim Thompson said there are less than 55 paid legal aid lawyers to serve the more than 422,1119 low-income households in the state.
Pro Bono Week is designed to educate the public about the extensive work Alabama lawyers are doing in donating their time to improve the lives of vulnerable members of their communities, Thompson said “It will assist people who greatly need legal assistance, but cannot afford to pay for that help.”
“We felt like this was a way to assist the community without cost and to provide access to civil legal justice that is fundamental and our ethical responsibility as attorneys,” Clark said.
- - -
Citizen of Year named
The Northport Gazette
October 7, 2010
The 2010 Northport Citizen of the Year Banquet and awards program was held on the evening of October 5 at Five Points Baptist Church to honor those who have contributed to the betterment of Northport during the last year.
Keynote speaker was Alyce Spruell, a member of the law firm of Spruell & Powell, LLC, who was recently named president of the Alabama State Bar—the first woman to head the 132-year-old organization.
- - -
Alabama Supreme Court candidate launches website critical of big money in judicial races
Brendan Kirby, Mobile Press-Register
October 14, 2010
A Democratic lawyer trying to unseat Alabama Supreme Court Justice Mike Bolin has launched a website lamenting the influence of big money in the state’s judicial races.
The website links to campaign finance reports and dozens of articles and editorials dealing with the state’s high court. Tom Edwards said he hopes the site helps alert folks to the massive amounts of special interest money that fuels judicial campaigns.
“This is the reason I ran,” he said. “A lot of people weren’t aware of all the things that have been written about our court — and they were amazed.”
Bolin’s campaign spokesman, Scott Stone, dismissed Edwards’ website as a routine campaign tactic.
“I don’t think it’s really a big deal,” he said. “I think it’s an attempt to divert attention from the fact that he has no judicial experience. Justice Bolin has 22 years of judicial experience.”
Stone also said that the people who know Bolin know that he is not bought and paid for by special interests, despite campaign donations.
“Justice Bolin doesn’t keep score,” he said. “We like to use the analogy of an umpire. He calls balls and strikes.”
The role of money in judicial campaigns has increasingly drawn the ire of good-government advocates. But Edwards, who practices law in Montgomery, takes criticism of the current system further than most candidates for judge.
Even if individual justices have integrity, he said, their rulings are bound to be questioned given the fact that they raise tens of thousands of dollars from corporate interests.
“We’ve allowed a system to be created that justice is somehow (thought to be) corrupt,” he said. “And that is wrong.”
The solution, Edwards said, is to ban the practice of donors hiding contributions by passing money through a string of political action committees in a way that makes it difficult to trace the original source of campaign money to the candidate.
Edwards said he also would place limits on campaign contributions and make judicial elections nonpartisan.
The website is divided into five main issues — money, ethics, investigations, special interests and recusals. It features articles on restrictive rules for filing complaints against justices. Other articles describe disputes over justices who have refused to recuse themselves from cases where they have a past professional connection.
The website also links to articles and editorials dealing with the court’s controversial decision to reverse large damage awards against ExxonMobil and pharmaceutical companies in civil fraud cases brought by the state.
Jess Brown, a political science professor at Athens State University in Jacksonville, said Edwards’ website seems startling because the state’s legal elite often is reticent to take on the issue.
“Part of the problem in Alabama is that more lawyers won’t do it,” he said.
Edwards said he is trying to spread word of the website through legal circles and on Facebook. He included his own campaign finance reform plan and clearly identifies his campaign on the site.
“I wanted this to be transparent,” he said. “I didn’t want this to be a sneaky deal.”
- - -
Again, it’s open season on lawyers – [Op-ed]
By Lester Tate, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
October 5, 2010
With about a month remaining before the Nov. 2 general election, our television airwaves and mailboxes are filling up with campaign ads, and it won’t be long before our phones are ringing off the hook with “robo calls” on behalf of one candidate after another.
In addition to being in the thick of an election year, those of us in the legal profession also know it’s also open season on lawyers. With each election cycle, it has become increasingly in vogue for some politicians to disparage lawyers in their campaign messaging. I suppose it is not as plausible to blame the world’s ills on other unpopular groups, such as used car salesmen.
Oddly, these attacks have increased even as the policymaking influence of the legal profession has sharply declined. The number of lawyers in the Georgia General Assembly has dwindled to an all-time low of 38, or about 16 percent of the combined 236 members of the Senate and House of Representatives. That number will possibly be reduced even further by the time the 2010 election is over.
The national percentage of lawyers serving in state legislatures has also declined to about 15 percent. Yet lawyers somehow remain an easy target for those seeking political power.
Texas Trial Lawyers Association President Tex Quesada of Dallas said recently, “As a general rule, the trial lawyers are attorneys who are representing small businesses or families who have claims against insurance companies, or Wall Street bankers, or oil refineries.” They “tend to make powerful enemies among very powerful groups.” By the same token, when lawyers who defend the same insurance companies, Wall Street bankers or oil refineries run for office, they are open to criticism for siding with the powerful and against the average citizen.
Not one American would give up our Sixth Amendment right to counsel, but lawyers who have represented criminal defendants are especially vulnerable to smear campaigns. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, while running for office in 2006, was accused by his opponent of being “soft on crime” because he had once represented a criminal seeking parole. Patrick responded, “I have on occasion represented the unsavory defendant. And you better be glad somebody does because that’s what puts the justice in the justice system.” There are two sides to this coin as well, because prosecuting attorneys who hold or seek elected positions often have to defend their records when a certain case is singled out for political exploitation.
And so it is that an entire profession is attacked, despite the fact that it is the very same profession that articulated our American way of life in the form of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address. The attacks continue, despite the fact that the 2000 U.S. presidential election was settled peacefully in a courtroom, when it would have been contested violently in the streets in many countries without our common law tradition.
The cause of justice is undermined every time a candidate launches an attack on lawyers simply for political gain. Particularly abhorrent are the attacks that come from candidates who are lawyers themselves. A lawyer who attacks our profession is, at best, a hypocrite and, at worst, an outright charlatan.
Regardless of the angle of attack, politicizing how our justice system works in an effort to win votes is wrong. It has often been said that it is easy to hate lawyers until you need one. Likewise, it is apparently easy for many politicians to bad-mouth lawyers — except, of course, when they are asking us for campaign contributions.
S. Lester Tate III of Cartersville is president of the State Bar of Georgia.
- - -
TN attorneys say they fear retribution if they file complaints against judges
By Brandon Gee, THE TENNESSEAN
October 6, 2010
State lawmakers learned Tuesday that attorneys are afraid to complain about some Tennessee judges, fearing retaliation from the judicial system. They also heard stories about judges refusing to step down from cases even though those judges had conflicts of interest.
The revelations stunned state Sen. Dewayne Bunch, R-Cleveland, who is chairman of a committee that is studying Tennessee's system for investigating complaints against judges and disciplining judges.
"They shock my conscience," he said. "It causes reasonable people to question the court system. … It leads me to conclude that some members of the judiciary have no respect for the Court of the Judiciary."
The Court of the Judiciary is a 16-member panel of judges appointed by the Tennessee Supreme Court that hears complaints and decides the proper punishment — if any — for judges. Critics have called for more transparency in how judicial complaints are resolved. Most of its records and deliberations are kept secret unless formal charges are pursued.
Witnesses testified Tuesday that complaints are not being filed at all, in some cases, because of fear.
Middle Tennessee attorneys Connie Reguli and Jim Roberts said they had been retaliated against for asking a judge to step down on different cases.
"We know who the honest judges are. We know who the dishonest judges are. We're deathly afraid of being retaliated against," Roberts said. "This is a persistent problem. Lawyers don't want to file motions to recuse."
Roberts and Reguli said retaliation took the form of their cases being dismissed, accusations of civil contempt and complaints filed against them with the Board of Professional Responsibility — the body that disciplines lawyers in Tennessee.
Court of the Judiciary Presiding Judge Don Ash said most of the issues raised Tuesday were unproven allegations, and he said he is confident most judges behave. He also expressed confidence in the Court of the Judiciary to correct those who don't.
Ash said recusal is a problem that the state's legal community is looking into, but he does not believe Tennessee has a systemic problem of judicial retaliation.
"If we do, I would hope people are filing complaints," Ash said.
But Reguli said retaliation has a chilling effect on lawyers who don't want to stick their necks out for one client only to have a future client punished.
"You can't stand up," she said. "You can't fearlessly represent your clients."
Many witnesses testified that without a lawyer to help guide a complaint through the Court of the Judiciary, it would most likely get dismissed. Ash said he believes the court's complaint form is simple enough for laypeople but said he is open to looking at ways to improve it, such as listing ethics rules for judges on the form so citizens can cite specific concerns.
90 percent dismissed
Of the hundreds of complaints the court receives against judges each year, more than 90 percent are dismissed. Of 344 complaints received last year, only one resulted in a public reprimand, according to the court's most recent annual report.
Legislation that would have substantially opened the court stalled in committee last year but may be resurrected in the next session.
Critics also said the court doesn't have the teeth it needs to change behavior. The court often takes private disciplinary action. When a public reprimand is deemed necessary, a letter summarizing violations and discipline is released to the public.
"That's not very scary," said Janice Johnson, a Nashville activist for judicial reform.
Solutions put forth included making more discipline public and giving the court the power to assess civil penalties such as monetary fines. Currently, when the court suspends a judge, that judge still gets paid because the state Constitution prevents judges' salaries from being altered mid-term.
"We are opening ourselves to grave and intentional miscarriages of justice," said Christopher Savoy, a Williamson County man who is suing Judge James Martin for lifting a restraining order against his ex-wife, who fled with their children to Japan. "All they do is write letters. They're not going to get my kids back."
Court officials defended the private sanctions.
"We wouldn't do that in a real serious case. … Private reprimands allow a judge to at least have an opportunity to amend their behavior without serious political consequence,'' said Timothy Dicenza, disciplinary counsel for the court. Bunch said the study committee plans to reconvene in a few weeks to discuss potential remedies, which could include legislative action. Ash said Court of the Judiciary members also plan to meet before the end of the year to discuss improvements.
- - -
Missouri changes the way appeals court judges will be selected
By MARK MORRIS, The Kansas City Star
September 30, 2010
Missouri’s chief justice on Thursday announced three changes to the way the state selects its appeals judges and judges serving in its largest counties.
Speaking at the Missouri Bar’s annual meeting in Columbia, Justice William Ray Price Jr. said the changes are designed to bring more transparency to the state’s nonpartisan court plan. The new features also are aimed at deflating efforts to introduce big-money judicial elections for appellate and urban circuit court seats.
“In fact, a Harris poll released this September found that more than 70 percent of Americans, both Democrats and Republicans, believed that campaign contributions have a significant impact on courtroom decisions,” Price said. “Big money in judicial elections is a scandal.”
Under the “Missouri Plan,” the nonpartisan Appellate Judicial Commission selects a panel of three lawyers for vacant judgeships. The governor interviews the candidates and selects one for the vacancy.
The changes announced Thursday will:
•Open the commission’s interviews of candidates to the public.
•Make public the number of votes received by the three successful nominees.
•Allow the public to nominate candidates for judgeships.
“These are significant and meaningful changes,” Price said. “They have not been made lightly. They have been made to strengthen the finest judicial selection plan in the country.”
A small but vocal group in Jefferson City has criticized the state’s judicial process for years as dominated by the interests of lawyers and unaccountable to the public.
Better Courts for Missouri spokesman James Harris said Thursday that the changes were in line with the group’s recommendations but didn’t go far enough.
The group will continue pursuing efforts at large-scale reform, he said, perhaps including an effort to replace the Missouri Plan with direct election of all state judges.
Previous attempts to abolish or reform the selection process in the legislature and by initiative petition have failed.
More than 30 other states use some version of the judicial selection plan, which started in some Missouri courts in 1940. Originally, the plan applied to judges of the Supreme Court, appeals courts, and courts in Jackson County and St. Louis.
In the 1970s, the plan extended to judges in Clay, Platte and St. Louis counties. Greene County adopted the plan in 2008.
- - -