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Bar News - February 22, 2008


Rule 170 Volunteers and Small-firm Lawyers Honored

By:

 

The 2008 Midyear Meeting took place on Friday, Feb. 15, one day after the Bar News went to press. Find more information and photos  in the next issue of Bar News.
 

Two groups of attorneys were recognized by NHBA President Eleanor Dahar at the 2008 NHBA Midyear Meeting Honors & Awards luncheon this year.

                  

The Distinguished Service to the Public Award was presented to the hundreds of attorneys who annually have served the justice system and the public by participating as volunteers in the Rule 170 alternative dispute resolution program.

    

The Vickie M. Bunnell Award for Community Service was presented to the “Unrecognized” or solo and small-firm attorneys of New Hampshire for their significant impact on the towns and cities and state where they live.

    

 (See Dahar’s President’s Perspective on these awards.)

 

Distinguished Service to the Public – Rule 170 Volunteers

 

NHBA President Eleanor Dahar this year presented the 2008 Distinguished Service to the Public Award to the hundreds of attorneys who, for the last 15 years, have volunteered two, three, four or more days a year to serve as mediators or neutral evaluators of civil cases in the Superior Court.

           

The Rule 170 program became operational in 1992 as an attempt to stem the rising tide of cases and the growing backlogs of cases in the superior courts. Bar members responded to the courts’ call for help by volunteering in significant numbers to participate. Not only were the lawyers volunteering their time to serve as mediators, but they also paid tuition and sacrificed even more billable time to take a three-day mediation training course to be eligible for service in the Rule 170 alternative dispute resolution program.

           

As many as 300 attorneys were certified to serve and many of these attorneys – some of the most experienced in the state – would devote several work-days each year to serving as mediators or neutral evaluators. It is an oft-repeated story that attorneys representing clients at mediation relate, that most of the time their clients are astonished to find out that the attorney-mediator who has been working so hard to help them resolve their case has been donating his or her time.

           

Rule 170 is a program that succeeded in its initial objective to help the courts.

           

Rule 170 was so successful at moving cases along that soon the backlog began to be cleared and by the late 1990s, the NH Superior Court was recognized as number one in the country (in a study by the National Center for State Courts) for the speed of its dispositions – helped in large part by the unsung efforts of the many volunteers in the Rule 170 program.

           

Those volunteers also gained personal satisfaction – knowing that they were being of service to the court system, and by some counts, racking up settlement rates of 60 percent of the cases mediated, helping the litigants feel more in control of their cases by helping them arrive at the resolutions themselves; producing earlier settlements that saved the parties and the court time, money, and the stress of a trial.

           

The Rule 170 program has been retooled to enable the advantages of alternative dispute resolution to be available to all civil litigants, in every county, and its voluntary component will be supplemented by mediators available to the parties willing to pay at market rates for their services, thus enhancing the supply of mediation services available.

           

Dahar said that at this time of transition, and in recognition of 15 years of service, that it would be fitting to provide special recognition of the hundreds of NH attorneys who have so freely given of their time and skills to serve our justice system with the Distinguished Service to the Public Award.

 



The late Vickie M. Bunnell of Colebrook was the inspiration for an award honoring the community service of small-firm attorneys

Bunnell Award – to “Unrecognized’ Small-firm, Solo Attorneys

 

The award for community service, limited in eligibility to attorneys from firms of five attorneys or less, is named for the late Vickie Bunnell, one of four North Country residents who died in an August 1997 shooting spree by Carl Drega, a mentally unbalanced man who had a grievance with the town of Colebrook. Bunnell was one of Drega’s intended victims since she was a town official as well as a part-time district court judge.

           

Dahar decided that instead of recognizing a single individual this year, the Bunnell award should be presented to all of the solo and small-firm attorneys in the state. Presentation of the award to this entire group would provide an opportunity to elevate the awareness of the civic and community involvement of attorneys in solo and small-firms. Solo and small-firm attorneys are the backbone of the association – nearly 1,800 attorneys practice in that setting in the state, accounting for about 55 percent of the total active-status membership.

           

Vickie Bunnell, a solo attorney in Colebrook who did a fair amount of court-appointed GAL work and estate work, was one of them. Slight in stature, gentle in her manner, someone who brought her dog to work – Bunnell did not fit the lawyer stereotype seen on TV, but she fit what we know to be the common profile of the NH small-firm attorney. She was enmeshed in the fabric of her community; she was a leader whose knowledge and judgment was prized and respected. She was a part-time district court judge, a selectman, a member of Kiwanis.

           

Similarly, the 1,800 attorneys who practice in the small offices on every Main Street or tucked in the woods on the back roads of New Hampshire, also tend to be long-time residents who are deeply involved, relied upon, and valued in their communities. Defying the stereotype of the “money-grubbing lawyer,” their incomes are modest – the 2004 economic survey found that median income for solos in New Hampshire was between $45,000 to $60,000, and for those in small firms (5 lawyers or less) it was $45,000 to $75,000 per year. 

           

Recently, the NHBA circulated a brief survey to the solo and small firm attorneys, asking about the nature of their community service. More than 250 responded in the first three days (a response rate of almost 20 percent) and related that:

           

  • Nearly 75 percent have lived in the same community where they live now 10 years or more;
  • 70 percent participate in nonprofit governance or fundraising – serving as board members, or fundraising for local state or national nonprofits;
  • 41 percent are involved in youth volunteering, including sports, or school-related activities as a coaches or officials, or in the PTO;
  • 39 percent work with social services programs or groups such as fraternal organizations, soup kitchens, or other hands-on volunteering to help low-income or other vulnerable groups;
  • 37 percent play a role in their town or city or state government, such as moderator, selectman, zoning board member or as a state legislator.

 

A significant number – 1 in 4 of the respondents – provided answers in categories we didn’t provide, such as church volunteering, arts activities, small business or economic development groups, museums, condo associations, local bar associations, hiking trail construction, disaster relief work, political volunteering – this list truly goes on and on....

           

And these Bar members related that, perhaps because of their education and judgments, and the respect they garner in their communities, they often find themselves in leadership positions in their volunteer activities. Two-thirds of the survey respondents said they had held leadership positions in volunteer activities in the past two years.

           

Attesting to the importance that attorneys play, particularly in smaller communities, one resident commented in an article following the death of Vickie Bunnell, “Up here in the North Country, when we have professional people, we really can’t spare them. Everybody up here wears so many hats.”

           

The Bunnell Award is an attempt to provide at least a small measure of recognition to the many “unrecognized” and “unsung” heroes of the New Hampshire Bar who contribute so much to their communities.

 

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