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Bar News - May 20, 2015

Bench-Bar Conference Opens Dialogue


Report to Make Recommendations

Cathy Shanelaris and NHBA President Lisa Wellman-Ally chat during the Bench Bar Conference in Concord.

Gordon MacDonald talks about the increase in self-represented litigants in the court system. Panelists US District Court Judge Joseph Laplante, Circuit Court Judge James Leary, and Circuit Court Administrator Paula Hurley look on.
At the Bench-Bar Conference held in late March in Concord, lawyers, judges and court personnel came together to discuss professional relationships, access to justice and other issues that often take a backseat to the courthouse grind of motions, orders and dockets. The conference, the first such gathering held in 16 years, was a project of the NHBA’s Committee on Cooperation with the Courts.

Connections were made and ideas conceived. Pet peeves were aired. Lists were scribbled on oversized paper.

But now what?

The work of consolidating and analyzing the ideas and feedback from the conference has begun, and a report with recommendations for next steps has been drafted and sent to the conference steering committee for comment.

Jennifer Parent, a partner at McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, co-chairs the steering committee with Katherine Hanna, a shareholder at Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green. Parent, chair of the Committee on Cooperation with the Courts, is on sabbatical for a few months, but the work to finalize the report will continue during her absence. The final version is expected to go before the NHBA Board of Governors for review and acceptance in the fall.

Kate Hanna, who chaired one of the first Bench-Bar conferences in the late 1990s, commented: “The very simple concept of convening New Hampshire lawyers and judges in an atmosphere in which they can let their hair down and get to know each other as human beings is well worth the effort.”

According to Denice Destefano, assistant executive director of the NHBA, the board will likely refer the report or portions of it back to the Committee on Cooperation with the Courts to determine how best to act on the recommendations. Some of those recommendations may then be rolled out to a test group of bar members over the next year or so.

Many of the roughly 100 attendees at the conference said it was worthwhile and should be a regular event, held every few years, and include representatives from every sector of the bar. Here’s a sampling of other ideas and comments received at the conference:

  • “The bar is witnessing a devaluing of its traditional role by virtue of the bench’s efforts to accommodate self-represented parties and to adopt simplified procedures and easier-to­understand nomenclature. Likewise, the bar has diminished its traditional role by pricing itself out of the budgets of middle-class people who have legal problems they want solved. Lawyers must adapt to preserve their critical role in shaping and preserving the rule of law.”
  • “Convene a relatively small group of judges and lawyers with a desire and reputation for creative thinking to come up with specific proposals for law offices and the courts to advance the cause of access to justice, with a special emphasis on those solutions that will not require the appropriation of large sums of money.”
  • “It’s a vicious cycle the bar finds itself in, beginning before law school, where the aspiring law school applicant has an incomplete picture of the practice of law, then law school, where the ivory-tower instincts of academia spurn broad programs in clinical instruction and charge students exorbitant tuitions. But as the law becomes demystified, lawyers need to find their value-add, or else people will avoid using their services.”
  • “I would like to see a continued dialogue (which I thought was productive) about whether we should be doing more to make the legal process accessible to self-represented parties or whether we should make obtaining legal counsel more affordable.”
  • “I think the drawing together of bench and bar leadership was significant and impressive. There was a commonality among most of the attendees in the agreement that our times have changed and we can either accept and adapt to those changes or try to hang on to old and failed processes.”
  • “The conference presented an opportunity to start a discussion on a variety of topics. I was able to meet some people to discuss real problems that I am having with respect to limited representations in my practice area. I felt very lucky as a young lawyer to have the opportunity to be in the room and hear senior attorneys and judges share their candid opinions about the challenges we face.”

Parent and Hanna have said they hope to see these bench-bar conferences happen more frequently in the years to come.

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