Attorney rates, court system funding, the higher number of litigants choosing to represent themselves, decreasing civic knowledge and the increasing lack of civility are trends that threaten the American legal profession.
Throw globalization, outsourcing and technology into the mix, and the next century is a bit unclear.
The University of Montana School of Law celebrated its centennial this week with a host of events, including a panel discussion on Friday that examined lawyers' roles over the next 100 years.
The panel featured some of the leading legal professionals in the country, including American Bar Association president Bill Robinson; Montana's ABA delegate, Bob Carlson of Butte; Montana Supreme Court Justice Patricia Cotter; Washington D.C.-based attorney Robert Bennett; state Rep. Michele Reinhart, D-Missoula, and third-year law student; UM regents professor and former law school dean Martin Burke; and 2008 UM law school graduate Erica Grinde, who practices in Missoula.
Panel members drew from the lessons of John Adams, one of America's first prominent attorneys and a founding father, and expressed hope that those same principles will guide the next generation of attorneys.
Corporate investors, public ignorance about the legal profession and campaign finance create pressures on the legal profession. Remembering the foundation of the legal profession - to ensure all individual rights are protected - helps lawyers maintain the proper focus amidst these pressures and others yet to arise, panel members said.
Community involvement by legal professionals helped shape our country and communities, the lawyers noted. It's essential that educators continue to encourage and stress to future generations of lawyers their responsibility to use their expertise to give back.
"This is the hallmark of our profession," Robinson said.
"Don't let the legal profession be captured by business principles, but rather, by moral principles," added Carlson.
Through involvement and philanthropy, lawyers can begin to educate the public about civics and the legal system in general. Civics has not been sufficiently taught and understood by the past two generations, Robinson said. There are people, he said, who think the three branches of government include Republicans, Democrats and independents.
Some are more likely to know the judges on "American Idol" than the members of the U.S. Supreme Court, including the chief justice, he said. Without that understanding, it's hard for a constitutional democracy to function effectively.
In addition, the diversity of media influences people's perception of the legal system. Lawmakers try to pass unconstitutional laws and don't understand the role of the judiciary and the meaning of shared powers. That can be dangerous, said Reinhart, who said she witnessed that firsthand at the 2011 Montana Legislature, when she read the Supremacy Clause on floor of the House of Representatives.
One of the greatest threats to the legal system is access and affordability, Bennett said. People can't afford to hire counsel. That, in part, is leading to more pro se litigants, which creates challenges for the judicial system, Cotter said.
The picture is further complicated by the heavy debts students acquire in law school. New lawyers are forced to get jobs at big firms rather than public interest jobs in order to pay back enormous loans.
Providing legal expertise at cheaper rates may lead to outsourcing, which has both pros and cons. Plus, with increased globalization, clients have the opportunity to seek advice elsewhere, which enhances the competition among firms and also affects rates. How globalization will ultimately affect the legal system is unknown.
"How it will play out only a prophet would know," Robinson said.
There are ways to encourage young lawyers into lower-paying public interest jobs. Some large firms invest in young lawyers who work on smaller, public service cases as a philanthropic endeavor.
There are strides being made to address the ever-increasing changes in the profession, but the panel stressed the need to maintain a strong sense of the founding principles in the years to come.
By Chelsi Moy, 523-5260, firstname.lastname@example.org
Source: The Missoulian