Chief Justices challenge state legal professionals to re-engage in their service

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“Show better the pride we feel in what we do and say,” the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court told his fellow judges and lawyers this week at a meeting of judges and lawyers at the State.

Chief Justice Paul Wilson made the comments during a virtual meeting of the Missouri Bar and an in-person meeting of the Missouri Judicial Conference.

“Of the many lessons we have all learned over the past year, it should be clear by now that the COVID virus doesn’t care what we think or believe,” Wilson said. “We all need to think about managing this risk for the long term. How long? I don’t know, but no matter what the future holds, I think the lessons of the last few months will be very useful to us.

Before the pandemic, Wilson said, many thought the justice system was like the first rockets of the 1950s and 1960s – it was running at full speed or was completely shut down.

“When the pandemic struck, however, disabling the courts was not an option,” Wilson said. “We found ways to do what no one thought we could. We have taken advantage of new technologies to conduct an unprecedented number of procedures remotely and limited in-person procedures whenever possible. And it worked. The courts needed to be kept open and accessible, and they did.

Hundreds of judges and thousands of court workers have struggled to find new and unknown ways to do their jobs with the pandemic, Wilson said.

“While the future is uncertain, it is clear that what has worked over the past year will not work indefinitely,” Wilson said. “The scaled-down operations of 2020 simply cannot – and should not – become permanent. Despite our best efforts, the (case) filings in 2020 exceeded the provisions.

“The size of this backlog and the types of cases involved vary by state, but there is no doubt that we have some catching up to do – and when I say ‘we’ I mean it will take both the bench and the bar to clear this backlog, “Wilson continued.” We must do it safely, protecting the health of litigants, witnesses, jurors, lawyers and court staff. “

Wilson said the pandemic is not the only challenge facing the courts and that the other challenges, if not resolved, “will wreak more havoc on the justice system than COVID ever could.”

“We all need to do a better job of showing that we know what we do is valuable and that we are proud of the system,” Wilson said. “The laity believe that each of us is what we all are and that the justice system is. You can’t blame them.

“Either the truth exists and we are striving to reach it, or it does not. You can’t shout lies and half-truths in the middle of Town Square (or on Twitter) and expect people not to attribute this kind of disregard for the truth to all lawyers or, worse, to the justice system as a whole.

Wilson told his colleagues that what the public knows about lawyers and the justice system in this country “is what we teach them – in word and in deed.”

“If lawyers act like the truth all the time matters, then society is much more likely to believe that their legal system cares about the truth as well,” Wilson said. “Lawyers have a duty to show people – by what we do and what we say – that the justice system is fair and worthy of their trust, and it’s up to us to show them that the rule of law matters. If we don’t, we risk losing them both.

The second challenge Wilson spoke of was how well the justice system works – and doesn’t -. In particular, the lack of access to counsel (lawyers).

“Thousands of Missourians are threatened with eviction due to the economic upheavals caused by the COVID epidemic, even as tens of millions of dollars in federal aid are allocated to pay their outstanding rent,” Wilson said. “Why is much of this money unspent? Because few tenants know that it is even available.

Wilson said the circuit courts do a good job of telling eligible tenants who show up how to ask for that money, but they can’t help those who don’t show up in court.

“What people need is representation: a lawyer who can explain their options before an eviction notice is sent,” Wilson said. “This is a clear example of why we – as a society – need to talk about the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of justice system we want to have. Do we want a system in which an ever-increasing percentage of cases do not have one or both parties represented, with no idea of ​​their rights and no meaningful means of protecting them? Or will we find ways to provide representation to all those who cannot afford it, not only in criminal cases but also in the many civil cases where lack of representation can be just as destructive as in a single case? criminal? “

Wilson said the lack of access to adequate legal representation is not going to go away. It’s just going to get worse.

“The solutions – whatever they are – will not be obvious or straightforward and, because this lack of access threatens our justice system, it will be up to all of us to lead this conversation,” Wilson added.

The third challenge Wilson faced was to find a way to increase the size and diversity of the bar.

“A lot of baby boomers have gone on to become lawyers – so much, in fact, that they were the biggest percentage increase in bar size in history,” Wilson said. “This group is now retiring and this loss comes at a time when we need more lawyers, not less.”

Wilson acknowledged that there are no easy answers to closing the ever-growing gap between the amount of representation Missourians need and the amount they can afford, but “a future where the sheer numbers of practicing lawyers is shrinking or barely holding up has no chance of solving it. at all.”

With that in mind, Wilson challenged his colleagues to take personal responsibility for recruiting the next generation of lawyers.

“We can’t just focus on undergraduates because that won’t do the job,” Wilson said. “We need to help kids set this goal while they’re in high school or even younger. “

Wilson also berated his colleagues, saying “collectively we have failed to bring adequate diversity to our profession.”

“The next generation of lawyers must look a lot more like the 6 million Missourians they will represent than us,” Wilson added. “Not only in terms of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but also in terms of socio-economic background and willingness to live and serve both urban and rural communities. Achieving true diversity is essential to maintain and strengthen the credibility our profession needs if we are to play a leading role in finding solutions to the difficult problems facing our justice system.

Wilson believes there is a model for how they can meet the challenge of diversity. The Student Law Academy, organized by the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation, is a summer program that provides information about law and legal careers to underserved urban high school students.

“When you look at their academics, I think you look at the future – and the hope – of our profession,” Wilson said. “We need an army of these children. There is no reason the academy program cannot be replicated statewide, helping the children we need for our future.

In addition to bringing young people into the legal profession, Wilson said they should also focus on the welfare of lawyers.

“Our profession is stressful, and that stress can eat away at you and drive you out of this business if you don’t learn how to manage it,” Wilson said. “Too often, the young people we recruit do not stay because they find that practicing law does not produce the joy or happiness they imagined.

“For legal professionals who are struggling to find the passion that brought them into the profession, blasting on Twitter or having a second glass of wine won’t help,” Wilson said. “Instead, increase the service volume of your legal career. Go to a school and plant the seeds of a legal career in the mind of a child who may never have had the idea. Being a lawyer offers endless possibilities to serve others. So take them.


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