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Bar Journal - June 1, 2000

Legal Profession in Trouble, Says Arizona Chief Judge


Reprinted by permission from Bar Leader, Fall 1999, Volume 24, Number 2. Copyright © 2000 by the American Bar Association. All rights reserved.

"I believe my profession is in worse trouble now than in its history. If we donít make major changes, the public will tell us where to go."

This ominous message came from Arizona Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas Zlaket, who spoke recently before the National Conference of Bar Presidents. Part pep talk, part consciousness-raising speech, part reality check, Zlaket minced few words in stating his view about the need for change in the legal profession and how bar association leaders must advocate for it.

While reviewing the long-held public perceptions that lawyers are unaffordable, unscrupulous and only care about money, Zlaket pulled statistics from public opinion polls to confirm the publicís dim view of the profession and the justice system. The public views the justice system as being too slow, hostile, contentious and expensive; favoring the rich and majority; and being unfair to minorities and the poor, he says.

"Whatever we do, we do to ourselves. People arenít going to tolerate this profession anymore. Most people cannot afford your services. You have priced services out of the league of most people," Zlaket says.

As an example, Zlaket states that he never thinks about having a Rolls Royce or a yacht because he cannot afford these pricey luxuries. The public feels the same way about legal services. "People donít think about what they cannot afford. American people will let this profession go without a whimper," he warns.

The fact that Arizona residents have embraced the Maricopa County Superior Courts' self-service centers that help them produce court-ready documents for such matters as divorce, name changes and landlord-tenant disputes demonstrates the need for affordable options to the services of lawyers, Zlaket says. Since they were introduced in 1995, approximately 50,000 people use the courtís walk-in self-service centers each year.

"It goes to the relevance of our legal profession," he observes. "Most of us can get along without a lawyer."

A growing number of pro se litigants are coming into courts, but courts are geared toward lawyers, not average citizens wishing to handle their legal problems efficiently themselves.

"We must make courthouses adaptable to those people who do not want to deal with you or cannot afford you," Zlaket says.

Zlaketís remarks touched on issues raised at the National Conference on Public Trust and Confidence in the Justice System, held in May in Washington, D.C. The conference brought together leaders from state and federal courts, the bar, media and citizens groups to discuss the issue of public trust in the justice system. The event was co-sponsored by the American Bar Association, Conference of Chief Justices, League of Women Voters of the United States and Conference of State Court Administrators. He co-chaired the conferenceís planning committee. A draft of a National Action Plan resulted from the conference (, which is being circulated for comment this fall. The final action plan may be available by Dec. 1.

Since the national conference, Zlaket, himself a former president of the State Bar of Arizona, told the bar presidents that conference participants seek to "institutionalize a mechanism to bolster public confidence," and they cannot sustain momentum without bar presidentsí leadership.

Three components of the legal profession must shoulder the blame for the lack of public confidence and trust, he continues. They are law professors, lawyers and judges. The lack of public trust can be attributed, in part, to culture and lawyersí distrust of one another. "I confirmed everything in writing during any last 15 years of practice. Thereís a good reason why the public doesnít trust us, we donít trust ourselves," Zlaket says.

Still, he conceded that many of his colleagues in the Conference of Chief Justices are "in denial" on the issue of the potential irrelevance of lawyers. But the issues raised at the National Conference on Public Trust and Confidence in May served as a reality check for judges, as well as lawyers and bar association leaders. A cultural change by lawyers is necessary to redefine what it means to be an advocate. "Rambo" litigation tactics must end, he says.

"We have suggested that the better lawyer is the junk-yard dog lawyer. The other culprit is the media. Judge Judy is not the kind of judge Iíd like to be associated with. People think thatís what lawyers are all about. Most people are getting education about the third branch of government through TV," he says.

Zlaket suggested that the ABAís and barsí recent focus on the issue of multidisciplinary practice, the number one topic discussed at the ABAís annual meeting, was misplaced. Calling it a "tiny issue," he offered, "You need to let the House of Delegates know thereís a much bigger issue here, itís not MDP. {Public confidence] is much more serious than the small encroachments [from MDP]."


The Author

Faye A. Silas is Editor of Bar Leader magazine. Bar Leader is a bimonthly news magazine that reports on and analyzes issues of importance to state and local bar association leaders. It is published by the American Bar Association Division for Bar Services. Silas is also a former reporter with the ABA Journal.



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