Birmingham pro-bono legal group gets grant
By Russell Hubbard, The Birmingham News
September 18, 2012
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama -- The Alabama Civil Justice Foundation has awarded $22,500 to the Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program to increase legal assistance to low-income families.
The money will go to the general operating budget of the Birmingham VLP, which provides free legal assistance to indigent people litigating civil matters. In 2011, the program served more clients than ever, opening 1209 cases and closing 1053 cases. The program began in 1991.
"I am proud the Civil Justice Foundation can support the outstanding work of the Birmingham Volunteer Lawyers Program and other volunteer lawyers around the state," said Birmingham attorney Jeffrey Rickard, president of the ACJF board. "There is a growing need to help those too impoverished to afford a lawyer with their legal problems."
The Birmingham pro bono organizatoin is one of four volunteer lawyer programs awarded $90,000 by ACJF. Others are the Madison County Volunteer Lawyers Program; the Montgomery County Bar Volunteer Lawyers Program; and the South Alabama Volunteer Lawyers Program.
ACJF was created by lawyers in 1993. The grant-making foundation in recent years has focused on promoting equal access to courts and addressing the needs of families and children.
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Budget Cuts to Archives Put History Out of Reach
By KIM SEVERSON, The New York Times
September 27, 2012
MORROW, Ga. — The Georgia Archives, which holds both historical curiosities and virtually every important state government document ever created, is about to become nearly impossible to visit.
In November, a round of government budget cuts will reduce the staff to three, one of them the maintenance man. Thousands of documents that pour in every month are likely to languish because no one will be available to sort through them, archives officials said. People who view accurate and open government records as the bedrock of democracy are outraged.
The move will make Georgia the only state without an archives open to the public on a regular basis. But this closing is simply the most severe symptom of a greater crisis facing permanent government collections in nearly every state, professional archivists say.
An amalgam of recession-driven budget cuts and fast-moving technological changes could result in a black hole of government information whose impact might not be understood for decades.
“When our humor gets black, we talk about this as a period of time that could be the Dark Ages for public records,” said Vicki Walch, the executive director of the Council of State Archivists. “Fifteen years on either side of the year 2000 is very dicey.”
Every state has an archive, which is mandated to hold the official records of government and, by default, the history of the state.
Laws governing which records must be saved and for how long vary from state to state. But all archives offer a trove of information. One can track who met with a governor, trace the history of every state law, find out whether a particular person held a professional license and pore over tax records.
Genealogy is big business for archives, too. As part of a television series, the restaurateur and cookbook author Paula Deen searched for her family history at the Georgia building here and discovered an ancestor who once owned slaves.
The records are often used to settle legal disputes. When two Georgia counties were in a fight over the sales tax revenue from a lucrative Bass Pro shop that straddled their boundaries, they turned to the state archives to settle things.
“The archives are like an insurance policy,” said Richard Pearce-Moses, director of the archival studies program at Clayton State University, which is near the Georgia Archives Building south of Atlanta. “There is a good chance we might never need to know where the county line is, but when we do, we really, really need to know.”
Increasingly, government records are being produced electronically, and agencies use a variety of software to collect and store them. But technology is changing so quickly that few protocols exist on how to gather and protect digital records from tampering. That applies to those once produced on paper as well as new forms of communication, like government Web sites and Facebook pages.
As a result, governments have to decide at what point an electronic birth certificate, for example, will be considered an acceptable legal document.
“A lot of this is untested in court,” said Sarah Koonts, the director of archives and records in North Carolina. “What kind of metadata do we need to have around an electronic record to prove it’s authentic?”
As with paper, preservation is an issue, too. No one knows how today’s technology may hold up and which methods of collection may go the way of the floppy disk, leaving a pile of pixels no one can read in 50 years.
State archivists are scrambling to learn how best to handle digital records just as they are absorbing the largest budget cuts in recent memory.
City and county governments are shrinking, too, so local officials are either not collecting as much information or simply sending what they do collect straight to the state repositories.
The volume of paper records held by state archives jumped to more than 3.9 million linear feet in 2012 from about 2.5 million linear feet in 2006, according to a survey by the Council of State Archivists.
“It would be one thing if the archives could say we are going to quit collecting paper and just collect electrons,” Mr. Pearce-Moses said. “But we are getting more digital content on top of more paper.”
In South Carolina, where the oldest document in the archives was created in 1671, W. Eric Emerson, the director of archives and history, is trying to hold on. At its peak in the 1980s, his department employed 125 people. Now there are 28. He has had to give up on conservation completely.
“Budgets are being cut and staffs are shrinking at the exact time when we need to be adapting and spending on digital infrastructure,” he said. “If you are in a state that thinks government should be smaller, it’s just far more challenging.”
His fear, like that of other archivists, is that “20 or 30 years from now, this will be a period in which numerous government records were lost.”
It’s more than just adding server space and storing files shipped in from other agencies.
“That’s like taking 200,000 documents, throwing them in a Dumpster and telling a researcher: ‘What you need is in there. Go get it,’ ” he said.
There are some bright spots. Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia has said he will push to restore some financing for the state archives in the coming budget cycle, and new federal grant money is available to train archivists in electronic records.
In August, the Obama administration issued a directive aimed at overhauling the way federal agencies manage and preserve records. Many state archivists hope those protocols will inform their work.
Meanwhile, debates over what to keep and what to throw away continue.
“Is the Twitter feed of Gov. Jan Brewer in Arizona a public record? Yes. No question,” Mr. Pearce-Moses said.
“Whether or not it has to be kept and where to keep it is another question,” he added. “What it really boils down to right now is triage.”
Its organizers plainly hope that these two well-known politicians will encourage a big turnout by the party’s conservative base, which might also help Mitt Romney’s chances in the state and the Republicans’ effort to win control of the State Senate. The Republican mobilization in the anti-retention operation will require a highly visible and forceful campaign on Mr. Wiggins’s behalf.
Like his three defeated former colleagues, Mr. Wiggins has chosen not to raise money or run an active campaign. Politically, that may be unwise, but it is a principled stance. “Campaigns are political,” Mr. Wiggins explained in an opinion piece in The Des Moines Register this month. “They require candidates to count votes and appeal to donors. That system has created a big enough mess in Congress. It has no business in the courts. Judges should be beholden only to the constitution and the law.”
Fortunately, some things have changed in the last two years. Support for same-sex marriage in Iowa and the concerns about equal treatment that drove the court’s 2009 ruling have grown, much as they have elsewhere. The pro-retention forces seem stronger and better organized. On Friday, the Iowa State Bar Association announced its own pro-retention “Yes Iowa Justice Tour” that will shadow the “No Wiggins” tour as part of a larger bar effort “to respond to, and correct, misinformation about Iowa’s judicial system.”
These are encouraging signs, not only for Mr. Wiggins but for fair and impartial justice. Iowa’s system of merit appointment of judges followed by up-or-down retention elections is meant to allow for the removal of corrupt or incompetent judges, not to facilitate partisan manipulation and judicial intimidation. The challenge is to remind voters of that.
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Florida Bar President says political parties should stay out of merit retention
Posted by aaron deslatte, The Orlando Sentinel
September, 25 2012 5:47 PM
TALLAHASSEE — The Tampa lawyer who heads the Florida Bar said Tuesday that political parties of all stripes should stay on the sidelines for this fall’s merit retention vote on three Supreme Court justices that Republicans have formally declared they plan to defeat.
“A fair and impartial judiciary, free from political or special interest influence is the purpose of Florida’s non-partisan merit retention elections for appellate judges. The Florida Bar does not believe any political party – Democratic, Republican or other – should participate in any non-partisan election, particularly for judicial positions,” said Gwynne Young, a state and federal litigation specialist with Carlton Fields.
“Maintaining the integrity and impartiality of Florida’s judges is critical to preserving the principles of democracy on which our country was founded. Non-partisan merit retention elections were established by the people of Florida to ensure that the rule of law, not popular thought or political view, is the basis for all judicial decisions.”
Florida Republicans have been livid with the high court since 2010, when it bounced three legislatively crafted constitutional amendments off the ballot for defective or misleading wording. Some conservatives have never forgotten when the court invalidated then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s “opportunity scholarship” school voucher program in 2006.
The Bar has come under some muffled criticism itself for engaging in an informational campaign to “inform” voters about the merit retention process.
But last week, the RPOF dropped any pretense of non-partisanship in these votes and declared war on the justices, saying its executive committee had voted unanimously to oppose their retention.
It remains to be seen whether the party will devote any resources to the retention fight — with open House and Senate seats to defend across the map.
BUSINESS SCENE: Local bar, law school classes earn awards
September 16, 2012
The Tuscaloosa Bar Association was one of four local bar associations in the state that recently received a Local Bar Award of Achievement from the Alabama State Bar Association. The Tuscaloosa Bar was cited for 22 projects involving charitable and public service causes.
Criteria for the award included participation in programs benefitting the community; impact that participation has on residents; and the enhancement to the bar’s image in the community.
The Alabama State Bar also awarded its Law Student Award to the University of Alabama School of Law’s classes of 2011, 2012 and 2013 for their work in aiding survivors of the April 27, 2011, tornado.
Students, clinic lawyers, interns and volunteers from the Tuscaloosa Bar assisted those affected by the tornadoes in a wide variety of civil matters.
In the first few weeks after the tornado, student volunteers provided more than 300 hours of free legal services in public clinics and other intake locations, according to the Bar’s citation.
The legal assistance included helping people deal with FEMA, the Small Business Administration and insurers; explaining landlord-tenant issues; obtaining government assistance through programs like food stamps and unemployment compensation; and assisting people with family issues like custody arrangements, child support and visitation rights that had to be modified or revised because of the changes related to the storms.
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On the Move
Birmingham Business Journal
September 14, 2012
Carolyn N. Lam, a Ford Harrison Birmingham-based attorney, has recently been appointed to the Alabama State Bar’s Diversity Committee for 2012-2013. Lam will be responsible for reviewing and recommending several diversity initiatives and determining what programs and outreach are needed for the five law schools within the State.
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New Pro Bono Requirement for NY Lawyers
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN, Associated Press
Sep 19, 2012
New York will require lawyers to perform 50 hours of pro bono work as a condition for getting a license under a rule that will take full effect in 2015, judicial officials said Wednesday.
The requirement, aimed at helping fill the legal needs of New York's poor, will begin to apply next year to first- and second-year law students and can be done anywhere in the U.S. or in a foreign country. Under the rule, adopted last week by the Court of Appeals, the free legal work can also be done in public service for the judiciary or nonprofits.
"There should be no higher aspiration for a lawyer than to work in the public interest, with this new rule going a long way to foster the values of pro bono legal assistance and public service that are so fundamentally rooted in our profession," Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said.
Lippman first announced the program in May and revealed details Wednesday with other judicial officials at New York University's law school in Manhattan. He had appointed an advisory panel that recommended the specific steps, which were approved by the Administrative Board of the New York Courts.
Applicants will have to file an affidavit describing the nature, place, hours and dates of their pro bono work, with a certification from a supervising attorney or judge. It can be done through law school clinics, internships, legal offices that do pro bono work or during employment after graduation.
About 10,000 new lawyers pass the state's bar exam each year. More than 20 law schools nationally require students to do pro bono work, while most others have clinics where students can get that experience.
New York officials said theirs is the first such state licensing requirement in the U.S. It won't apply to practicing attorneys from other states or jurisdictions that have licensing reciprocity with New York.
Several states recommend their lawyers do 50 hours of pro bono work annually, according to the American Bar Association. New York recommends at least 20 hours, though court system spokesman David Bookstaver said that is going up to 50 hours.
"This requirement arose primarily to respond to the crisis in access to justice," the advisory committee, chaired by Judge Victoria Graffeo and attorney Alan Levine, said in a September report.
"More and more people are navigating the complexities of the court system, in New York and around the country, without the assistance of an attorney," the report said. "In New York State alone, millions of such litigants appear in court annually, many of them fighting for the essentials of life — housing, family matters, access to health care and education, and subsistence income. Providers of free legal services for low-income New Yorkers are turning away eligible clients because of lack of resources, having no choice but to leave them to fend for themselves."
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Survey Finds Widespread Doubt About Fairness of Civil Courts
Don Tartaglione, LegalTimes (Washington DC)
September 19, 2012
In a new survey conducted by a leading group of defense attorneys and in-house counsel, more than four out of 10 respondents said they doubted the fairness of civil courts.
All in all, 41 percent of those polled said they harbored such doubts. Just 9 percent said they were very confident that civil court results were "just and fair" — and 16 percent said they had no confidence the results were fair.
Respondents also concluded that they would much rather have their cases heard by juries than judges.
According to the poll, released September 12 by DRI—The Voice of the Defense Bar, even though people view judges as being fairer than juries, 64 percent said they would prefer a jury trial to a bench trial.
The poll found that 69 percent of respondents said judges mostly base their decisions on facts and the law rather than personal opinion. But respondents were split on whether juries make decisions based on facts and the law or personal opinion.
Many respondents openly admitted that their personal biases would affect their decisions as jurors. That included almost 6 in 10 who said they would favor individuals in cases against insurance, oil or financial companies. In a similar vein, about two out of three respondents said they thought class action suits made corporations more responsible.
Langer Research Associates of New York conducted the study for DRI from August 15-19. The results were based on 1,020 phone interviews.
John Kouris, DRI's executive director, said the poll indicated that "a surprisingly large number of Americans are not confident in civil justice system…[I was] surprised that so many people showed a lack of confidence."
Kouris noted that his group undertook the poll "with the understanding that we were going to publish results whether we as an organization agreed with findings or not."
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Alito says Supreme Court misunderstood by media
By Michelle R. Smith, Associated Press
Sept. 14 2012
BRISTOL, R.I. — U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. expressed frustration Friday at what he said were inaccuracies in the media about the court and its decisions, saying it's difficult to sit by when opinions are misinterpreted.
"Sometimes it's inadvertent, and sometimes opinions are spun, just like everything else. ... They're reduced to a slogan that you put on a bumper sticker, and that's very frustrating," he told an audience of students, judges and others at Roger Williams University School of Law.
Alito cited the Citizens United ruling, which freed corporations and labor unions of most limits on political spending, saying it involved a complex area of elections law and application of First Amendment law.
"Campaign finance is very complicated, so it's easy to get it wrong, and sometimes people get it wrong inadvertently," he said.
Still, he said it's not a good idea to fire back at those who misunderstand a ruling.
"We speak through our opinions," he said, adding, "we can't engage in a back-and-forth with people."
Alito famously shook his head and mouthed the words, "Not true," during President Barack Obama's 2010 State of the Union address to Congress, when he criticized the Citizens United ruling.
Alito said he was surprised when he joined the court to find his work much more public than his prior duties on the U.S. Court of Appeals, where he said he was accustomed to a degree of anonymity. There's much more media scrutiny of the Supreme Court, he said.
"They read things into the questions," he said.
He also remarked that some of his colleagues had gone on shows such as Charlie Rose and "The Daily Show."
"This is the closest I get," he said of his comments at the university.
Alito related a story told by a visiting justice from the Supreme Court of Canada who said that in his country, reporters are briefed on new court rulings inside a locked room.
"I thought this was a wonderful idea. Why don't we implement this in the United States? Until I found out that at the end of the process they actually unlock the door and they let them out," he joked.
Alito also said justices on the court occasionally change their mind after casting their vote in a decision. He said about once a term, the outcome of a case changes during the opinion writing process.
"It's not a change of position by the opinion-writing judge, but it's a change of position by others on the court. When you read the majority opinion and you read the dissent, and you say, 'Well, the dissent actually seems to be correct,' and then a vote can change. That does happen," he said.
When asked about the violent protests spreading in the Muslim world over an anti-Islam film, Alito would not comment directly on the First Amendment issues surrounding the video and said he had not seen it. But he touched on the difference between American laws on freedom of expression and those of many other countries, such as Germany and Canada, which he said limit those rights in accordance with the needs of a Democratic society.
"Our law is very speech protective, much more so than most of the rest of the advanced democracies," Alito said.
Alito joined the court in 2006 after being appointed by President George W. Bush.
Friday's event was open to Roger Williams law students and alumni, as well as some public officials and a handful of media. Roger Williams is the state's only law school. In recent years it has hosted Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Antonin Scalia.
Alabama State Bar Lawyer Assistance Program gets new director
By Eric Velasco, The Birmingham News
September 10, 2012
MONTGOMERY, Alabama -- A Montgomery counselor experienced in treating professionals with substance abuse problems has been named director of the Alabama State Bar Lawyer Assistance Program, the state bar announced.
Robert B. Thornhill will oversee the 27-year-old program that provides assistance to lawyers with drug, alcohol, gambling or depression problems, as well as suicide prevention and other mental health issues.
"The practice of law imposes a great deal of stress on practicing attorneys," said Phillip W. McCallum, state bar president. "Lawyers carry the burdens of our society on their shoulders and sometimes are reluctant to seek help for themselves."
Thornhill's duties include developing educational outreach programs for lawyers, judges and their families, and recruiting and training volunteer lawyers for the program.
Thornhill was a clinical coordinator of the Alabama Physician Health Program, working with doctors and veterinarians facing substance abuse or other mental health issues.
The graduate of Troy University in Montgomery also was a primary and adolescent counselor with Bradford Health Services.
Thornhill is a licensed professional counselor, certified alcohol and drug abuse professional, and a master's level addiction professional.
He has served on the Alabama Alcohol and Drug Abuse Association board, including one term as secretary. He is a member of the Alabama Counseling Association and the Alabama Mental Health Counselors Association.
"The Lawyers Assistance program continues to be a point of need and emphasis for the state bar," McCallum said in a release. "Robert brings skills and professionalism which will enable us to continue our work for addiction treatment assistance and other mental health issues within the legal community."
Thornhill also is a musician, performing with his sons as the Thornhill Trio.
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Judge: US civil trials at risk without budget deal
By MARK SHERMAN, Associated Press
Sep. 11 2012
WASHINGTON (AP) — Federal civil jury trials in the United States probably would grind to a halt if Congress fails to reach a budget deal and $600 billion in automatic spending cuts kick in next year, a leading federal judge said Tuesday.
The federal judiciary's share of the cuts would be more than $500 million if Congress does not reach a budget deal by year's end to prevent some $1.2 trillion in spending cuts and tax increases from kicking in next year, Chief Judge David Sentelle of the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia said. Economists fear that spending cuts and tax increases of that magnitude would produce a shock that could send the economy off what they've called a "fiscal cliff."
"Civil jury trials would probably have to be suspended due to a lack of funding," Sentelle said, following a meeting at the Supreme Court of the Judicial Conference, the judiciary's policy-making arm led by Chief Justice John Roberts.
The reason civil jury trials would be suspended is for lack of money to pay jurors, but civil trials before judges without juries probably could continue.
The probation system and payment for defense lawyers also could be thrown into disarray, Sentelle said.
Already over-burdened "border courts will be hurt the worst," he said.
The judiciary is developing contingency plans to deal with severe budget cutbacks, he said. Those might include closing some entrances to courthouses to save money on security personnel.
In a modest cost-cutting move expected to save $1 million a year in rent, the conference also announced that six court facilities in the South will close over the next few years and that more courthouses probably would meet the same fate.
"We ain't done yet," said Sentelle, chairman of the conference's executive committee.
Among the courthouses targeted for closing is the one in Meridian, Miss., the site of significant events in the civil rights movement. Trials for Ku Klux Klansmen implicated in the 1964 deaths of three civil right workers were held in the 1933 building, and James H. Meredith filed his lawsuit there in 1961 to integrate the University of Mississippi.
The other court facilities to be closed are in Gadsen, Ala.; Pikeville, Ky.; Wilkesboro, N.C.; Beaufort, S.C.; and Amarillo, Texas, the Judicial Conference said. In Pikeville, only leased space for federal bankruptcy court is affected, the district's clerk said. Bankruptcy court will continue in Pikeville's federal courthouse, which will remain open.
None of the facilities to be closed has a judge who is based there. Instead, judges travel from larger cities to those courthouses as needed.
The six were chosen from among 60 courthouses in 29 states. There are 674 federal courthouses around the country.
The facilities will close over the next several years.
The Beaufort facility was ranked first and the Meridian facility fifth on a list of courthouses being considered for closing, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press in March. But the other four ranked no higher than 22nd.
Sentelle said the list was winnowed over the past few months to eliminate courthouses initially considered for closing.
He pointed to one candidate, in Bryson City, N.C., which is near an Indian reservation. While most criminal matters are handled in state courts, the federal system deals with crimes committed on Indian lands.
In other cases, Sentelle said local "political muscle causes courthouses to remain that ought to be closed."
State bar names Thornhill director of assistance program
Written by Scott Johnson, The Montgomery Advertiser
September 5, 2012
The Alabama State Bar has named Robert B. Thornhill of Montgomery to director of its Lawyer Assistance Program.
The program provides assistance to legal professionals for problems associated with drugs, alcohol, gambling, suicide prevention, depression and other mental health issues.
State Bar President Phillip W. McCallum said the program is vital because practicing law is stressful, and lawyers are sometimes reluctant to seek help for themselves.
Thornhill graduated from Troy University Montgomery with an undergraduate degree in psychology and a graduate degree in counseling and human development.
Thornhill’s responsibilities will include educational outreach and confidential assistance to lawyers, law students and their families.
Thornhill also has served as clinical coordinator of the Alabama Physicians Health Program, which serves doctors and veterinarians with mental health or substance abuse issues.
He is a well-known local musician and has performed in Montgomery for many years, sometimes accompanied by his sons, John T. and Robert W.
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Federal court cameras unused - Test involving several cities has had no participants here
Kathy Lynn Gray, The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, OH)
September 4, 2012
A three-year experiment to allow cameras in federal courtrooms nationwide is a bust so far in Columbus.
No trials have been video-recorded here, and none is scheduled.
“No one is interested in having their cases videoed,” said a somewhat exasperated U.S. District Judge Gregory L. Frost, one of three Columbus judges who volunteered to participate.
Frost was on a national subcommittee deciding that a pilot program could help determine whether cameras help or hurt justice.
He’s not for or against cameras in the courtroom, but he thinks the idea deserves to be tried and is heading up the effort in Columbus. Cameras are permitted in most Franklin County courts but historically have been banned in nearly all federal courtrooms.
Congress pushed unsuccessfully over the years to allow them. That pressure prompted the national subcommittee to try the pilot, which started last summer with judges in 14 district courts.
The subcommittee decided that judges could offer to record proceedings in civil cases only — no criminal cases — if both sides agreed. Cameras would be stationary and operated by court employees. Recordings would be posted on a website after being reviewed by the judge.
A year later, eight of the 14 courts have recorded proceedings. In the Northern District of Ohio, Judge Donald C. Nugent has presided over five trials that have been recorded in Cleveland.
“Everyone was happy to do it,” said Nugent, a federal judge for 17 years. “My feedback has been good.” He explains the video option to both sides before a trial starts, and each signs an approval form, he said.
Cameras are built into the walls of one courtroom, so any trial being recorded is held there, Nugent said. A staff member operates the cameras, and the judge can turn them off and on.
Nugent is the first to admit that the videos aren’t exactly action-packed. So far, the recorded trials have been disputes over employment or patents — the drier side of federal court.
As far as he knows, none of the videos has been used by news media, which usually are more interested in criminal cases.
Judge Solomon Oliver Jr., the chief judge of the Northern District of Ohio, sees the videos as a valuable way for citizens to see how courts work. Law students, too, could benefit, he said.
A student group putting on the play Twelve Angry Men did watch the videos to learn courtroom procedures, Nugent said.
In the Southern District courts, judges Edmund A. Sargus Jr. and Michael H. Watson are participating in the pilot with Frost.
Sargus said some people oppose the cameras, arguing that lawyers might grandstand and judges might allow the publicity surrounding a video to affect their decisions. On the other hand, some defendants and plaintiffs might want their story told publicly, Sargus said.
Frost said he, Sargus and Watson will try to come up with a procedure that attorneys and their clients will agree to.
Right now, litigants have to opt in for the recordings to be made. In at least one district, Kansas, litigants are told that the proceedings will be recorded unless they opt out. Twelve trials have been recorded, the most of any district.
“I’m still hoping we can get something going,” Frost said.
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Dothan makes list of top 5 cities where lawyers make the most money
By Amber Acker, al.com
August 23, 2012
DOTHAN, Alabama -- Alabama lawyers wanting to bring in the cash flow don't have to look too far. Business Insider recently named Dothan as one of the five U.S. cities where lawyers make the most money.
The report says attorneys in Dothan, which is ranked number five on the list, earn a median salary of $170,390. That's $57,630 more than what the average lawyer makes.
While the list doesn't give a reason for why Dothan lawyers have such higher salaries, it does point out that The National Trial Lawyers, a prominent legal trade group, is based in the city.
San Jose, Calif., was awarded the top spot on the list. The report attributes the high salaries of lawyers in the Silicon Valley to the city's 6,600 technology companies.
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Legal DIY websites are no match for a pro - They provide services for a fraction of what you’d pay a lawyer
Consumer Reports magazine
For a fraction of what you’d pay a lawyer, websites such as LegalZoom, Nolo, and Rocket Lawyer can help you create your own will, power of attorney, and other important legal documents. But can they really save you a visit to a lawyer?
We recently evaluated those three services. Using their online worksheets or downloads, we created a will, a car bill of sale for a seller, a home lease for a small landlord, and a promissory note. We then asked three law professors—Gerry W. Beyer of Texas Tech University School of Law, who specializes in estates and trusts; Richard K. Neumann of Hofstra University, a contract specialist; and Norman Silber, an expert in consumer and commercial law at Hofstra and Yale—to review in a blind test the processes and resulting documents.
The verdict. Using any of the three services is generally better than drafting the documents yourself without legal training or not having them at all. But unless your needs are simple—say, you want to leave your entire estate to your spouse—none of the will-writing products is likely to entirely meet your needs. And in some cases, the other documents aren’t specific enough or contain language that could lead to “an unintended result,” in Silber’s words.
A test of wills
Rocket Lawyer provides online, guided interviews for all four of the drafted documents. LegalZoom similarly steers users through will and lease questionnaires, and offers static instructions for the other documents. Nolo’s will-writing software, Quicken WillMaker Plus (available as a Windows-only download and CD-ROM), includes an interactive interview. Nolo’s other documents are downloaded forms with static instructions.
Beyer found WillMaker Plus to be the best of the three—competent, though far from ideal, for drawing up a simple will. Rocket Lawyer also makes a good simple will. But Beyer advises consulting a lawyer for more complex situations.
In some cases, the services aren’t very flexible. WillMaker Plus, for instance, won’t let a child’s trust go beyond age 35, though the law puts no upper age limits on when a trust must dissolve. In other instances, they are too flexible; after we finished the Rocket Lawyer interview, the program allowed us to edit the completed will. LegalZoom let us put anything we liked in the special-directives section, the part of the will where you can include issues not addressed in the interview. Both features could lead a user to add clauses that contradict other parts of the will.
Our reviewers weren’t completely satisfied with the other documents, though they preferred Rocket Lawyer’s and LegalZoom’s materials to Nolo’s. The lack of a federal lead-paint disclosure in the Nolo fixed-term lease instructions is a black mark, Neumann says. (Nolo told us it sells other, less “bare bones” leases that include or link to the disclosure.)
Need to lawyer up?
The Rocket Lawyer and LegalZoom documents didn’t always appear tailored to our jurisdiction, Westchester County, N.Y. The LegalZoom lease advises conflicting parties to “go to the presiding judge of the county,” an office that doesn’t exist.
Silber calls Nolo’s promissory note instructions and glossary “perfunctory.” Rocket Lawyer’s promissory note and interview are “the best of a fair-to-average bunch,” he says.
Bottom line. The sites offer basic legal advice that might help save you money spent on a lawyer. If you use them for document prep, at minimum get all needed signatures to preserve your rights and prevent disputes, Silber says.
But many consumers are better off consulting a lawyer. The websites let you search for one and provide such information as education, background, and licenses. LegalZoom’s subscription legal service (see box below) includes customer reviews of lawyers, and Rocket Lawyer’s details pricing. We recommend checking with your state bar association for any disciplinary actions.
Websites offer legal forms and more
LegalZoom: Advantage Standard plan: $8 a month. Access to downloadable legal documents and instructions; members get a 10 percent discount on interview-based forms (such as wills). Legal Advantage Plus plan ($15 for one month, $40.50 for three months, and $72 for six months) adds 30-minute consultations on separate legal topics with a lawyer licensed in your state. Wills, sold separately, start at $69.
Nolo: At nolo.com, Quicken WillMaker Plus 2012 costs $43 as a download and $52 as a CD-ROM. Other downloadable forms and instructions generally range from $8 to $21. Free info and lawyer database.
Rocket Lawyer: Basic Legal Plan: free for one week, then $20 monthly or $120 annually. Access to documents and instructions, and other legal information. After three months, you get 30-minute consultations with a lawyer licensed in your state for each new legal topic.
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