Bar News - February 23, 2007
Commission Calls for Changes to Improve the Legal Profession
By: Dan Wise
A Commission on the Status of the Legal Profession, formed two years ago by Chief Justice John Broderick, has issued a report that lays out a vision for radical change for the legal profession and the justice system it serves in NH. (Visit www.nhbar.org for the complete report, a 43-page PDF.)
The commission, chaired by Pierce Law Dean John Hutson and retired Associate Justice William F. Batchelder, was tasked with two charges: evaluating whether the legal profession is fulfilling its public obligations; and identifying trends and challenges facing the profession, including how to ensure, in the face of a changing landscape, that legal services are available and affordable to all, and that the courts remain accessible.
The Commission built on the work of other recent study groups, such as the Citizens Commission on the State Courts, the Committee on Justice System Needs and Priorities, an ABA report on the civil Gideon concept, and recent member surveys conducted by the NHBA. Subcommittees of the Commission on the Status of the Profession also conducted several focus groups with practitioners from a range of practice settings, and interviewed court personnel and many state and federal judges. The commission split into four-subcommittees to pursue its research and deliberations—law as a profession; the business of law; professional satisfaction; and access to legal services.
The Commission’s key recommendations are:
- Adoption of a civil Gideon right to legal representation for all in certain important civil matters where “basic human needs” are at stake, such as those involving shelter, sustenance, safety, health or parental rights and responsibilities;
- Increased staffing for legal aid programs, including the development of a legal “Americorps” public service program for law school graduates that could reduce large law school debts for volunteers;
- Further integration of NH’s court system by consolidating the administrative and judicial functions of the superior, district, probate and family court systems, including the adoption of consistent procedural rules for all of the trial courts;
- Implementation of a magistrate system to screen cases, thus making more efficient use of judges’ and courtroom time;
- Statewide commitment to pretrial diversion, alternative sentencing and rehabilitation for criminal defendants, and a reversal of the current trend toward mandatory sentencing;
- Study of feasibility and advisability of allowing lawyers to engage in multidisciplinary practices (associating with those from other professions, such as accounting) in New Hampshire.
The report’s executive summary concludes, “It is our hope that these and other recommendations detailed in this report can minimize existing impediments to a balanced, accessible justice system; solidify the profession’s traditional role as problem-solvers, advocates and counselors; and enhance the sense of value, and satisfaction, that have always drawn people to the practice of law.”
The full report contains more detailed descriptions of findings regarding specific areas of the law from practitioners in various areas of practice, both litigation and transactional.
Co-chairs: Hon. William F. Batchelder, retired Associate Justice, NH Supreme Court and John D. Hutson, Dean and President, Pierce Law.
Members: Gina B. Apicelli; Ellen L. Arnold (NHBA Vice President); Elizabeth J. Baker; Robert J. Bartis; Peter G. Beeson; Stephen E. Borofsky; Randall F. Cooper; Dorcas J. Gordon (NHBA Governor, Belknap County); Cathy J. Green; Margaret C.W. Hassan (NH State Senator); Russell F. Hilliard (NHBA ABA Delegate,); Heather E. Krans; Jeannine L. McCoy (NHBA Executive Director); Jack B. Middleton; Andrew M. Mierins (NHBA Governor, Merrimack County); George R. Moore; Diane M. Nicolosi; Elizabeth Paine; Alan L. Reische; Ann M. Rice; Ronald F. Rodgers; L. Jonathan Ross Wilfred L. (Jack) Sanders; Catherine E. Shanelaris; and Gretchen L. Witt (NHBA Governor at Large.)
Findings of the Commission
The commission’s report found that: “Lawyers hold a disparity of views regarding personal satisfaction with the profession and their expectations for the future…[and there is] widespread concern that neither lawyers nor the judicial system are meeting the needs of the public, as evidenced by the growing percentage of litigants appearing pro se.”
Other concerns of the commission include:
- Significant burdens imposed on court system by rising number of pro se litigants;
- Need for greater efficiency in court structure and processes;
- Need for improved technology;
- Impact of non-lawyer professionals on practice;
- Increasing dissatisfaction among lawyers with their professional lives;
- Implications of the staggering law school debt burden;
- Demands of criminal cases on the judicial system
Based upon these concerns, the commission has stated: the “vision we see for the legal profession 10 years from now necessarily entails systemic changes that many would consider radical. Only by promoting changes that will eliminate or minimize some of the current impediments to effective, efficient and accessible practice are lawyers likely to regain their traditional distinction as society’s problem-solvers and counselors, and enhance the feeling of value and satisfaction that originally brought many into the profession.”