Category Archives: Lawyers

“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.

ABA studies the future; Axiom opens an office: hires lawyers in Charlotte

cat-in-tieThe American Bar Association recently released its Report on the Future of Legal Services in the United States. Not long afterward, the ABA House of Delegates refused to approve outside investment in law firms. The ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services contemplates state-by-state examinations of the issue, to be followed by local decisions state by state.

Last week, Axiom, a provider of “legal solutions” and “leader in the business of law,” announced opening an office in Charlotte.

Axiom is not a law firm. It is a business. It employs lawyers. It delivers legal services. It is an “alternative to the traditional law firm” — “more flexible, elastic, and commercially-minded”.

Axiom has begun hiring lawyers for Charlotte. It is hiring “elite talent that wants to practice in the Axiom mode.” And “looking at every practice area.

So, there’s them that studies and them that does.

 

Video interview with NC Chief Justice on future of legal services

future-legal-services-hero_jpg_imagep_980x179-2-png-imagep-980x179North Carolina Chief Justice Mark Martin represented the judiciary on the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services whose report was published earlier this year, and so Chief Justice Martin was interviewed recently by Ralph Baxter, Chairman of Thomson Reuters’ Legal Executive Institute, who asked the Chief  (i) about broadening the scope of those who can participate in delivery of legal services (that is, who beyond licensed lawyers can provide legal services?); and (ii) about opening the door for non-lawyer investment in the business of legal services (can law firms issue stock?). Chief Justice Martin described the process by which such changes could come.

New proposals can come either through the ABA or directly at the state level. The ABA’s House of Delegates has already refused to approve outside investment in law firms. Even so, the Commission recommends that the states continue to consider the issue.

“So [non-lawyer investment in law firms is] one of those things that might happen,” Ralph Baxter observed to the Chief Justice in the video interview. The Chief’s response, a nonverbal chuckle, is the very model of making a noise without making a comment. Judicial and judicious. Worth the price of the (free) video.

 

Window into NC lawyers in the 19th Century, Kemp P. Battle’s memories

Kemp Plummer Battle

Kemp Plummer Battle

At the second-hand bookstore in the Raleigh-Durham airport the other day, I came across a copy of Memories of an Old-Time Tar Heel, the compendium of Kemp Plummer Battle’s memories and anecdotes. Himself a lawyer (also a railroad president, university president, Edgecombe County farmer, and more), so were his father, William Horn Battle, and others in his family.

So Battle’s memories include many a lawyer story. Those stories are windows into the North Carolina Bar in the mid-nineteenth century. Below is a good one that shows lawyers and also Battle’s densely-packed style.

Judge Thomas Ruffin, the younger, had probably the ability of his father. In his younger days, he was not a hard student of legal principles, although he gave his whole mind to the trial of his cases. Indeed, so eager was he for victory that there were accusations of sharp practice. But I personally had no evidence of this. On the contrary, when thrown intimately with him for a day or two once, I was struck by his high-toned principles. I remarked to one of the best of men, his law partner Judge Dillard, “Ruffin is a lawyer who can be relied on for utter fairness.” Dillard smilingly said, “He is a rascal like the rest of us.” He meant only that in the hot excitement of trials he might take positions which non-lawyers might think not strictly fair. But it should be remembered that lawyers giving their minds to the cause of their clients, studying mainly the arguments for their side, necessarily become biased. It is impossible for them to act as impartial judges. This is illustrated by what Judge James C. MacRae told me about a trial over which he presided. A certain lawyer made a speech advocating a construction of the law which did not meet the judge’s approval and he said, “Surely you do not claim that to the be the law?” “Well, Judge, I can’t say that I do, but I did not know how it would strike your Honor.”

Come to think of it, this practice may have survived the 19th Century.

More on the rise of robots, lawyers advised to get some emotions

robot2Here’s another article predicting that robots and artificial intelligence are getting ready to replace lawyers. Japanese scholar Hiroshi Ishiguro is the principal source.

Two highlights from this piece:

  • Robots are 5 to 10 years away from being able to do what lawyers do. “It’s easy to write a computer program for a lawyer.”
  • People trust robots more than lawyers. They are more comfortable talking to robots.

People simply like robots better than they do lawyers. And the clear implication is that robots have better ethics than lawyers do. It’s not only lawyers. Ishiguro says that in the future “about half of comedians are going to be robots.” (About half?)

Lawyers are advised to develop capacities for creativity, human connections, and emotion. Emotion, connection, creativity.

Or, get a hammer.

And, see Martin Ford, Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future, and of course, Richard and Daniel Susskind, The Future of the Professions, How Technology Will Transform the Work of Experts.

I hope law schools and bar associations are looking at the implications of these issues for those just entering the profession.Ten years from now is when it will really start to matter.