Crucial questions for the profession

Issue March 2005 By Kathleen M. O'Donnell

Although lawyers are generally bright people who can grasp complicated information relatively quickly, most attorneys would hire an architect to design their home, have a contractor build their home, use a mechanic to repair their vehicle, have a tax specialist accompany them to an IRS audit and have a doctor treat their children when they are ill. Lawyers and others in society rely on the skills and expertise of various professionals to assist them day in and day out. Most of us would not want to ride in a car if the brakes on that vehicle were repaired by someone who had no technical knowledge of how the brake system works. We also would hesitate to ride an elevator to the top floor of a high-rise building designed by someone who had no training in engineering or design.

Why then have our courts allowed indigent individuals charged with crimes to be arraigned and held without bail when they have had no legal representation? Why is it that 60 percent of litigants with domestic relations cases in Massachusetts Probate and Family Courts are representing themselves in cases where the welfare of what is most precious to them - their children - is at stake? Why is there an attempt to prevent people of ordinary means from hiring lawyers on a contingency fee basis when there is no discussion of limiting corporate access to lawyers charging exorbitant hourly rates?

Has the worth of what we do as lawyers been so marginalized that we are deemed unnecessary? Have our expenses forced us to charge hourly rates that price us out of the market for middle-income people? Or, has lawyer advertising so eroded the importance of what we do that we are deemed superfluous?

These are all important questions that we as a profession must ask and answer if we are going to continue to be able to represent individual clients. In our busy personal and professional lives, we do not have the luxury of spending time contemplating these crucial philosophical issues. Judges and lawyers in the commonwealth have set aside four hours on March 5 to address these issues. Please attend the Bench Bar Forum at the MBA Annual Conference so you can be part of this discussion. The perspective of lawyers from different practice areas, different geographical locations and different backgrounds is necessary to examine these issues fully. I invite you to be part of the beginning of a process to address these issues, which are critical to ensuring access to justice for all.