Category Archives: Lawyers

Advertisement for myself: The Aging of Professionals and What Can Be Done to Stop It

Herewith is essentially a press release to account for where I am and what I am doing.

Ed Winslow to present at World Conference of Lawyers and Accountants in Vienna

Brooks Pierce partner Ed Winslow has been invited to speak at the 2017 World Conference of the Geneva Group International (GGI) taking place from Oct. 19-22 in Vienna, Austria. GGI is a worldwide alliance of independent law, audit, tax, accounting, and professional advisory firms, ranked among the largest such organizations in the world with 566 member firms in 123 countries.  Winslow’s topic is “The Aging of Lawyers and What Can Be Done to Stop It.”

Following his presentation, Winslow will lead a panel discussion of lawyers and accountants from France, Germany, Washington, DC and Wichita, Kansas in which the panelists will address progressive management practices of professional services firms responding to the retirement of the Baby Boom Generation, including succession planning, creative roles for senior professionals, and alternatives to complete retirement.

Winslow, former managing partner of Brooks Pierce, has practiced law for over 40 years, with a focus on litigation, corporate law, and banking and financial services. He is the current chair of the board of trustees for the North Carolina State Bar Plan for Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts and was the first North Carolina attorney appointed to the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Interest on Lawyers’ Trust Accounts. He is also chair of the board of trustees for Guilford College and a past member of the board of governors of the North Carolina Bar Association. He served as general counsel for the North Carolina Bankers Association for several decades.

 

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NC legal system — invest or divest?

In the past year the North Carolina legislature enacted cuts or reductions (or proposed to) in the following, which might be characterized as the infrastructure of North Carolina’s legal system.

The number of trial court judges (emergency judges)

               The number of appellate judges

The budget (therefore staff) of the Department of Justice

Funds (therefore staff) for Legal Aid of North Carolina (formerly taken from filing fees)

Funds for the UNC Law School

Dues (paid by lawyers) that fund the North Carolina State Bar.

In periods leading to this year, North Carolina’s population has grown and its economy has grown. Commerce has picked up and unemployment has dropped. The State has pursued a policy of promoting trade and business investment in North Carolina by companies outside the state and outside the United States.

Unless North Carolina’s legal system was overfunded in the past, the conclusion might be reached that more, not fewer, resources are needed to maintain what we’ve got.

The American justice system is credited as a core element of the economic and cultural success of the United States. Enforcement of obligations (commercial and other) —predictably, impartially, efficiently and effectively — is a big part of what made America great.

And, actually, we are at a time when improvements are needed.

Closing the loop on legal aid, not in a good way

The budget finally adopted by North Carolina’s General Assembly entirely eliminates funding for the State’s legal aid agencies ($1.7 million).

Until now, that amount had been generated by taking $1.50 from every court fee and distributing it to Legal Aid of North Carolina, Legal Services of Southern Piedmont and Pisgah Legal Services, which provide legal services to poor people in North Carolina.

The point has been made here that as many as a third of North Carolina citizens qualify for legal aid. Sixty percent of Legal Aid of North Carolina’s clients earn less than $15,000 a year.

Those people, like the rest of us, must have access to the legal system, even if they can’t afford it, where

  • They are victims of domestic violence
  • They don’t get child support
  • They need to create guardianships for their grandchildren
  • They get ripped off by scammers of the elderly
  • They get fouled up applying for legislated benefits, including veterans benefits

and in a great range of other cases.

This is not a partisan issue.

21st Century society is complex. It cannot move without legal process. Everyone must use the system. And everybody needs access to legal services when they do.

Legal aid helps people get a hearing. It does not engage in politics. It does not pursue social change. And it does not target interest groups.

We all need the legal system to work at a minimal level for everybody who’s involved with it. Otherwise, over time bigger problems will develop.

For the General Assembly to stop a small portion of court fees from going to fund legal aid is bad for everyone, not just poor people.

The legislature made a mistake.

 

A note of concern about pending proposals to cut funding for major NC legal institutions

MidLaw has learned with concern that the General Assembly is considering cutting the North Carolina State Bar’s revenues to a fraction of their current level and also reducing the appropriation for the UNC Law School dramatically.

MidLaw believes these proposals would be harmful, not only to two key legal institutions but, in the long run, also to the administration of justice in North Carolina and to our economy generally.

If North Carolina is to succeed in national and global economic competition – which is what we must do to create jobs here – then North Carolina’s businesses and its justice system must be served by well-prepared lawyers operating in an effective system. Commerce will not come right if our justice system is not up to par.

The legal profession and broader legal industry are currently undergoing dramatic changes. These include the rise of national and global law firms, competition from Internet and off-shore services providers, and disruptive new technologies. Potentially all of these may be good things, but North Carolina must keep up no matter how things go. We must provide a credible local justice system to support a growing economy. This requires well-trained lawyers, a highly functioning oversight agency, and well-resourced courts and processes.

Proposals to cut State Bar revenues and take funds away from the Law School risk long-term damage to our ability to compete and build North Carolina’s economy.

“Who daddied this thing?” — NC’s system for oversight of legal services, where it came from, why, how & quo vadis?

Big questions are in play just now about the practice of law.  What is law practice? Who can do it? How should it be regulated?

Increasingly urgently, how can legal services be delivered to low wealth populations, to people who find themselves embroiled in legal processes about fundamental life issues and who cannot afford lawyers? How are they to resolve issues of child custody, divorce, spousal abuse, veterans rights and health care?

Across the country, lawyers essentially regulate themselves. The agencies that oversee legal services are composed of lawyers elected by lawyers. Some suggest that this creates built-in resistance to change.

Where did this system come from?

The system we have now was established in the 1930s. At the time, everyone generally agreed that persons who deliver legal services ought to have some verified level of knowledge about the law and should be subject to some oversight. A primary goal was to create an orderly system to facilitate national commerce. But the work required to set up and run the system looked so boring that nobody wanted to do it except the lawyers themselves.

In Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent It for a Complex Global Economy, Gillian Hadfield writes:

No one … was much interested in thinking about such dry and arcane subjects as the uniformity of standards in commercial paper or the problems created by different standards for pleading a complaint. Nor did many care about the educational requirements for those who desire to earn a living from thinking about such things. No one other than lawyers, and elite lawyers at that, was eager to wade into these waters in the early twentieth century.

So, the American Bar Association and state bar associations took the lead. They established the system we have now: of bar examinations, law school accreditation, policing of unauthorized practice, and disciplinary standards.

The system they created has worked marvelously. The American justice system is a distinctive American resource that underpins a complex, creative economy and has fostered vast prosperity, quite apart from its core political function as mediator between government prerogatives and individual rights.

North Carolina was part and parcel of the national process. Former State Bar president, John McMillan has written a superb article that tells the story. The Long Road to Founding the North Carolina State Bar

After its leaders attended ABA meetings, the North Carolina Bar Association brought a proposal to the General Assembly that mirrored what was being done in other states. It would create the State Bar in which membership by lawyers and annual dues to operate the agency are mandatory. The State Bar would oversee legal services delivery. In words drawn from the Bar Association’s records of 1932 but that ring true today, John McMillan recounts that J.W. Pless Jr. warned that the Bar Association should not expect easy passage at the General Assembly. He said, “We don’t know what success we will have with the legislature. We have never had much.”

Pless was right. Lawyers in the General Assembly immediately suspected the Bar Association of elitism. Its proposal was “hotly contested,” “spirited,” and personal. John McMillan points to an exchange between a legislator and the spokesman for the Bar Association that was reported at the time by The Raleigh News and Observer:

“Who daddied this thing?” demanded the Senator.

“The North Carolina Bar Association at its meeting last year in Asheville,” replied Mr. Bailey.

“I’ll tell you that it passed by a very small majority and over protest,” asserted Senator Kirkpatrick.

“That is not true,” said Mr. Bailey.

“You aren’t calling me what I ain’t, are you?” queried the senator, his face turning crimson.

“I may call you what you are,” Mr. Bailey shot back.

The two were declared out of order.

Upon learning that lawyers would be required to pay State Bar dues of $4 a year, another legislator pronounced that “anything you want me to join that costs over $1, I don’t want it unless I can eat it or wear it.” Dues were cut to $3 a year.

Opponents suspected elitism from the start:

Mr. Grant … charged that the bill was concocted at the Asheville convention last summer and that the convention was attended only by railroad lawyers who rode there on passes while the poor lawyers were unable to stir from home.

But the bill passed and the State Bar was created.

Today, North Carolina, led by Chief Justice Mark Martin, is a national leader in scrutinizing the system and studying the future of legal services. Many of the old questions are back. Perhaps some of the old spirits are back, too.

A theme that’s surely back is the importance to North Carolina’s economy of keeping the State’s legal services delivery processes efficient and aligned with the national system.

 

 

Supreme Court nominee says cost of access to justice broke, needs fixing

Judge Neil Gorsuch, said last year

In the American civil justice system many important legal rights go unvindicated, serious losses remain uncompensated, and those called on to defend their conduct are often forced to spend altogether too much.

“Legal services in the United States are so expensive,” he says, “that the United States ranks near the bottom of developed nations when it comes to access to counsel in civil cases.” 100 Judicature 46 (Autumn 2016).

Judge Gorsuch says we need to fix this. We need to change.

Looking beyond the possibility of increased public financing, which in 2016 he thought might be challenging, he suggested three ways to fix things:

  1. Permit delivery of more legal services by persons not licensed as lawyers, to include stock ownership of law firms and other alternative business structures.
  2. Change the rules of civil procedure to require early trials and mandate automatic disclosure of evidence.
  3. Shorten law school training and liken it more to trade schooling.

A change, the Judge says, would do you good.

Midsize law firms showing vigor

A glass building in downtown Greensboro,North Carolina. Notice the reflection on the glass.

An outfit that calls itself “MidLaw” and extols the virtues of midsize law firms probably has an obligation to call attention to January 12’s Georgetown Law Thomson Reuters “2017 Report on the State of the Legal Market” wherein it is reported (pages 13 and 14) that

midsize firms saw a consistent upward trend in demand growth and fees worked, as well as an improvement in productivity from the beginning to the end of the [last 3 years]. … One possible interpretation of these results is that clients, while still directing some types of work to high-end, fairly specialized, premium firms (like the AmLaw 50) are increasingly willing to move substantially down market to smaller firms (midsize firms) in order to achieve significant price savings.

For purposes of discussion, MidLaw is going to be large-minded about these references to what is “high-end” and what is “down market.” We could have found more directionally accurate terms.

Much in the 18-page report confirms what you’ve heard here at MidLaw for years in multiple posts.

 

Holiday special: low rates for legal research and document review if you act now!

Xmas still life - red balls, tinsel with blurred red Christmas lights bokeh background

Holiday prices on selected services. Order now!

Did MidLaw recently say that “non-lawyer competitors are thriving based on the proposition that much that law firms do is not the practice of law”?

Well, you can get holiday pricing with that.

MidLaw received an email message that same day (subject: “Christmas Blast”) from somebody in India who offered an “end of the year special.” Special low rates, good only until December 31, for

  • Legal research
  • Summarizing medical records, depositions and trial transcripts
  • Indexing, proofreading & cite-checking of legal documents
  • Preparing case chronologies
  • Review of legal documents
  • Preparation of discovery requests & responses
  • Contract review and abstraction
  • Drafting of summons & complaints
  • Doing redactions, and applying bate-stamps on legal documents
  • Data entry, form fill-ups, template based drafting
  • Making entries on accounting systems.

I am serious. This offer came from a firm that is “not a law firm and neither provides legal advice nor practices law.”

Cut-rate legal research and document review. But you must act now!

How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news.

Law firms are surrounded. We must circle the wagons. But around what?

165hThe Financial Times recently published a very good, short article about legal technology: “Artificial intelligence disrupting the business of law.” It drives home the point that law firms are surrounded by new technologies, by alternative providers, by accounting firms providing legal services, and more. Big Law is under attack and it is beginning to fight back by investing in big technology.

MidLaw can never do that. Mid-size firms must look to third party providers to bring technology solutions.

But that’s fine. It frees mid-size firms to focus on their particular competencies, their core clients, and their home markets.

What does a mid-size firm do uniquely well? What is its focus? Get clear about that. There is a different answer for every firm. Context matters. Identity matters. Competence matters. Ethos matters.

The counter-intuitive next step after finding focus is to go beyond it. After you know who you are, the next step is to ask what goes with that? How do you grow it? What else can you be? What other services are natural expansions of core competencies?

And here is a key: growth beyond core competencies may not be limited to services that require a law license. The definition of the “practice of law” has limited relevance to the growth of a law practice. Do not allow the fact that you are a law firm delude you into the belief that you are limited to delivering legal services. Non-lawyer competitors are thriving based on the proposition that much that law firms do is not the practice of law.

Context matters:

  • who are you?
  • what are you good at?
  • what are you uniquely good at?
  • who are your clients?
  • what services can you provide to them, whether the practice of law or not?
  • what markets do you reach, can you reach?

The definition of the phrase “law firm” is shifting, shaking, and shrinking. Potential clients don’t see law firms as alternatives that all do about the same thing. And they don’t much care what the legal definition of  “the practice of law” may be.

Blockchain for dummies: more transformation, more change

duck-chainBlockchain is coming. It will radically transform commerce. And the economy. And the practice of law. It’s another one of those things.

So what is blockchain? What is it going to change?

Start with this: blockchain is not a technology that blocks chains (of data). Instead, it assembles blocks (of data) into chains. Start there.

Blockchain is also called “distributed ledger technology.” In effect, it promises an internet-accessible registry system. Data is recorded electronically. And, instead of having one central official “place” where it resides, the data is “distributed” among all participants or potential users. Participants “agree” electronically about the validity of relevant information.

The resulting “distributed ledger” is analogous to land registration, such as that authorized in North Carolina, only it is digital and it goes much further. All the components of ownership, or an agreement, or a transaction, including enforcement, can be linked, block by block, into an inalterable, decentralized, automated digital chain — a ledger — that is Internet accessible.

  1. There is no need for a government or other central registry to record anything because the distributed ledger does that, making the data universally accessible among participants. And the technology can make recorded data unchangeable.
  2. There is no limit to what kinds of ownership or value or transactions can be recorded in a blockchain because the parties themselves make those choices electronically and the technology accommodates the data.
  3. In effect, the technology enables a universally accessible decentralized registry whose validity cannot be forged, and whose terms cannot be altered. And it can be made  “smart,” which is to say, capable of executing agreed actions with certainty.

This has the potential for “radical transformation” of commerce. Ownership, agreements, and transactions can be digitized. The processes of authentication, verification, validation, recording title, and executing transfers upon counter-performance, can be blocked, chained and automated.

Currently, functions such as these are heavily dependent on assurances from lawyers: opinions and certifications.

But with the technology that is coming, lawyers will no longer be needed for those functions. Blockchains will provide them. Lawyers will be replaced by 1’s and 0’s.

Blockchains though will recast the role of lawyers.

North Carolina lawyer Nina Kilbride says that while lawyers will no longer be administrators of commerce; they will become instead its engineers. (That began this summer, she says.)  The future role of lawyers, she says, is not to administer and validate processes, but to design the digital processes (blockchain structures) best suited to automate particular commercial objectives.

Good places to start to understand this are

North Carolina appears to be right at the center of blockchain’s emergence, with Nina Kilbride and Monax, the Raleigh company she’s associated with. At least, that’s the evidence of the recent North Carolina Bar Association program on the subject (“What Lawyers Should Know about Blockchain Today”).

This has the feel of that moment in 1839 when Caswell County’s Stephen Slade awoke from his slumber and discovered the process for flue-curing tobacco.

People get ready, there’s a chain a-coming.