Law Firm Leaders Forum 2017: What is the Legal Profession’s Responsibility to Society at Large?

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NEW YORK — A gathering of leaders throughout the legal ecosystem spoke at length on law firms’ responsibility to contribute to society and the rule of law at the 22nd Annual Law Firm Leaders’ Forum, held in New York last week. In a panel entitled, Law Firms’ Responsibility to Contribute to Society and the Rule of Law, panelist discussed their thoughts on how the legal industry, especially law firms, could contribute to society in a meaningful way and help uphold the rule of law.

Forum Co-Chair Ralph Baxter opened the session with reference to the famous 2014 Harvard Law School Center on the Legal Profession’s report on lawyers’ responsibilities to supporting the system of laws in our country, contributing to the public good, and supporting constitutional democracy. In addition to Baxter, who moderated the discussion, the panel included Jeh Charles Johnson, a partner at Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, and a former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security; Kim Koopersmith, Partner & Chairperson at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld; Bruce MacEwen, President of Adam Smith, Esq.; Andrew M. Perlman, Dean and Professor of Law at Suffolk University Law School, and Chair of the ABA Center for Innovation; and James J. Sandman, president of Legal Services Corporation.


James Sandman, president of the Legal Services Corp.

Sandman explained the dire reality that exists for many litigants in today’s legal system: 86% of the civil legal needs of Americans are not being met as those litigants get no help or insufficient help. Sandman described today’s crisis in the rule of law within the United States as unrepresented people flood courthouses, resulting in one or both parties having no legal representation in 75% of civil cases in state court; further, 90% of tenants in eviction cases represent themselves (while more than 90% of landlords have representation), and more than 90% of domestic violence victims seeking protective orders have no legal representation.

However, noted Sandman, the problem is that the legal system was “created by lawyers for lawyers to navigate it, assuming at every turn the litigants have lawyers.”

“If you go to housing court any day and observe it for just 30 minutes, no objective lawyer could watch it and say that what they are observing is justice,” he added. “If you look at pro se litigants, what you will see is fear, intimidation and anger that the system is stacked against them.”

Baxter observed that “as long as 80% to 90% of moderate-income people do not have access to counsel, we do not have a rule of law in the United States inherently” and changing this situation “is the real responsibility of a law firm leader.”

The problem is that the legal system was “created by lawyers for lawyers to navigate it, assuming at every turn the litigants have lawyers.”

Many panelists agreed, saying that law firms can play a big part in ramping up the volume of pro bono work, due to their resources and capabilities, with leaders in firms able to drive the conversation and set the tone. Akin Gump’s Koopersmith noted that law firms that have many resources and capabilities are uniquely situated to contribute to the public good through pro bono work, and it is up to law firm leaders to encourage that.

In a theme heard throughout the Law Firm Leaders’ Forum in several panels, affecting firm culture could be the key: You can’t create the culture of your law firm but you can help shape it and give it gravitas from your position in the leadership,” Koopersmith said, adding that once she discovered the power of the pen, she began to communicate her own commitment to pro bono work and ensure that people know how valued that work is at the firm. To that end, the firm holds an annual awards ceremony to celebrate pro bono achievements, with anyone who contributed more than 20 hours of pro bono work that year receiving an award, including staff.

Beyond celebrating pro bono work, both Koopersmith and Johnson, of Paul Weiss, described how their firms actually evaluate such work. At Akin Gump, the firm’s pro bono partner submits his views during partner promotion considerations on each candidate’s pro bono engagements. Johnson described how Paul Weiss counts pro bono hours as part of each attorney’s total legal hours worked. Paul Weiss finds the pro bono work complements lawyers’ paid practice by providing associates more training, and additionally serving as both a great recruitment and morale booster for lawyers who attended law school because they want to serve the public interest but now are involved in other practices.

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Law Firm Leaders Forum Co-Chair Ralph Baxter

However, just ramping up pro bono hours or increasing funding to legal aid organizations will not be enough to fully reduce the 86% of civil legal needs not currently met in our system. Sandman said we need solutions more commensurate with the magnitude of the problem and recommended two large systemic changes that lawyers and law firms can drive: i) simplifying the legal system in certain high-volume, high-stakes cases where the majority of litigants are not represented; and ii) getting past the unauthorized practice of law provisions to permit legal professionals other than lawyers (such as paralegals) to at least do a little more to help unrepresented litigants.

Suffolk University’s Perlman agreed. “We must recognize that other people might have answers even when we lawyers don’t,” he said, adding that utilizing other legal professionals already in place at many firms might be the key to really tackling the vast numbers of unrepresented parties. The industry should look to other professionals currently improving the delivery of service in law firms —“legal process managers, process improvement experts, analytics professionals, and legal design experts” — to ensure that attorneys currently working on pro bono matters are using the most efficient tools (such as document automation and assembly tools, Perlman suggested.

He also noted that several firms have started using technologies to offer some initial information and documents directly to the general public, such as the ability to create incorporation documents or protect intellectual property and wonders how that could be re-thought or expanded. “The infrastructure is already in place for the public — why not make this technology available in other areas of essential need?” he asked.