The following is excerpted from my presidential speech at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the State Bar of Georgia at Myrtle Beach, S.C., and was published in the August 2011 issue of the Georgia Bar Journal. It not focused on my practice as a personal injury and wrongful death trial attorney focused on commercial trucking accidents, but on challenges for the State Bar in the year ahead.
Madame Chief Justice, Chief Judge Ellington, members of the judiciary and the Legislature and Board of Governors, fellow Georgia lawyers and friends, you have given me an honor far beyond anything I possibly could have deserved.
When I hung a shingle at a former blacksmith’s shop in Douglasville 32 years ago, with no windows, no insulation, a borrowed desk, a borrowed typewriter and just enough buckets to put under all the leaks in the roof, nobody would have foreseen this. Neither did I. I didn’t foresee it until just a very short time ago. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
I really want to thank the presidents who have come before me: Lester Tate, Bryan Cavan, Jeff Bramlett, Gerald Edenfield and the last 15 or so before them, with whom I worked less directly. They have been terrific mentors and friends, and I will keep them all on speed dial in the coming year. Anything that we do right—any success that we have in the coming year— is largely due to the groundwork they have laid. We begin this year with a terrific situation in terms of the financial stability of the Bar and in terms of relationships with the Capitol and with the judiciary. So I’m starting out ahead of the game due to their work.
As we look to the coming year, there are three things that I want to focus on: stewardship, calling and love.
About 235 years ago, a bunch of guys—and they were all guys at that time—in knee britches and little funny ponytails, gathered in a cramped, hot, probably smelly room in Philadelphia. They issued a declaration that referred to the inalienable rights endowed by our Creator. Those rights have since been secured by the blood of patriots and ground out and refined by the conflict and labor of generations of Americans striving for a better life for their children and for themselves. Now we are the stewards of that.
I spent years working with my son’s Scout troop. Every time we broke camp we lined up the boys, fingertip to fingertip, and swept the campsite area looking for trash. Inevitably, they would find little bits of debris that had been there probably for years and years, and removed it. We tried to impress upon them the importance of leaving the campsite a little cleaner than they found it. As lawyers and judges, as stewards of this system of law and justice, we need to leave our campsite—the legal system, the legal profession—a little cleaner than we found it, and pass it on to our children and our grandchildren a little better.
There are a number of ways we can approach that. In our brief period of time over the next year, some of the things I want us to focus on in the area of stewardship of the system start with the court system. What do we want the court system to look like in 20 years when most of us—at least I—will hopefully no longer be practicing law, and how do we get from here to there?
We are appointing a Next Generation Courts Commission chaired by Lawton Stephens, a member of this Board who is a Superior Court judge in Athens and a former legislator, to look at those broad questions about the court system. We’re not quite ready to release the list of members of that commission yet because we want to take our time, get it right, and touch all the appropriate bases in the judiciary and elsewhere as we do it. Among other things it will consider: how do we get a statewide e-filing system in the state trial courts comparable in function to what we see in the federal courts? We’ve had a committee chaired by Judge Diane Bessen that’s been working the last couple of years, coming up with a proposed uniform rule that you will hear about today. But next we have to figure out how we are going to build it. How do we fund it? How do we run it? How do we actually do it? That’s one of the things this commission will look at.
Other items will include dealing with case flow management and, frankly, virtually all questions about public policy and the running of the judiciary will be in the scope of this. We’ll be touching base with all the appropriate people in the judicial branch.
Alabama, where I was born, has had for several years an e-filing system in its trial courts. Some of the counties in Alabama now do more extensively what a few of our judges in Georgia are doing, controlling case flow management with early status conferences and scheduling orders. One thing we want to do in the next year is catch up with Alabama. It’s a shameful thing to say in Georgia—that we have to catch up with Alabama— but let’s work on it.
Another thing that we will be working on this year really starts at the Capitol. Gov. Deal, Chief Justice Hunstein, Lt. Gov. Cagle and Speaker Ralston got together at the beginning of the last legislative session to propose a Criminal Justice Reform Council to look at Georgia’s sentencing laws. Lester Tate and I met with the governor, and I said, “Well, Governor, I thought about appointing a Bar committee on that, but you beat me to it. Now I guess I don’t have to.” He turned to us and he said, “No. You go ahead anyway.” And then he put me on the council.
We have a Committee on Criminal Justice Reform chaired by Pat Head, a member of this Board who is also the district attorney of Cobb County and outgoing president of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council. Pat convened the first meeting of that committee this past Tuesday. We had a packed house with prosecutors, judges and defense attorneys beginning to look at the questions dealing with sentencing laws, these mandatory minimum sentences that tie judges’ hands, community-based corrections alternatives and so forth. Seasoned district attorneys made the point that judges need to be able to have the discretion to distinguish between a 17-year-old with two beers and a squirt gun and a 35-year-old with an AK-47, as one example.
Our committee will work very closely in conjunction with the state Council on Criminal Justice Reform and the Pew Center on the States, which is working with state governments around the country on these questions. The focus in criminal justice always has to be on public safety, but we can be both tough on crime and smart on crime, seeking cost effectiveness in this as in every other government program.
That is very closely related to indigent defense, which the Bar has been working on for years and years. Past President Bryan Cavan has graciously agreed to chair the Indigent Defense Committee as we move forward this next year. During the last session of the Legislature, with Rep. Rich Golick taking the leadership, progress was made on the governance aspect of that. It may not be perfect, but perfect is the enemy of the good and it’s better than it could be. And this next year I expect that our effort will go forward with trying to secure a reliable income stream for funding indigent defense, and Bryan is the person that needs to be there for that continuity.
Another issue that is closely related to that is the Juvenile Code. You will hear a report on that today and the endorsement of that legislation will be on your agenda in August. That has been a labor of love for a number of years, starting with a project of the Young Lawyers Division, and going forward with Georgia Appleseed and JUSTGeorgia to come up with that legislation. It will be out for a comment period this summer and I encourage you to look at it closely, to ask anyone in your circuit who works closely with the juvenile justice system to examine it, flyspeck it, let us know if there is anything that needs to be fixed before we vote on whether to endorse it in August.
Another part of stewardship is judicial evaluation. We’ve seen in the last couple of years some problems with a very small percentage of judges, and our Statewide Judicial Evaluation Committee will continue to work closely with Gov. Deal’s Judicial Nominating Commission to screen applicants for judgeships.
Legislation is an area in which we are very active. Lester was down at the Capitol practically full time during the last session, dealing with the House and Senate Judiciary Committees and leadership. He was really in the trenches and finally got the Evidence Code passed after more than 20 years of effort by the Bar. Working closely with Rep. Wendell Willard, Sen. Bill Hamrick and others, Lester carried the ball over the goal line. Our Advisory Committee on Legislation this year will be chaired by Chuck Clay, a former Republican state senator from Marietta. The vice chair will be Nick Moraitakis, my classmate and a former Democratic state representative from DeKalb County. We’ve got an awful lot of good people engaged in that work.
Sandy Bair, a member of this Board and a former teacher, will chair the Law-Related Education Committee, a descendant of the program that she was involved with as a teacher that got her interested in law. Hank Fellows will chair the Committee on Judicial Procedure that will look at some of the nitty-gritty details of how we actually get stuff done in court. Tony DelCampo will chair a committee on court interpreters to try to expand and improve upon the availability of interpreters in the less common languages. It’s fairly easy to get a Spanish interpreter, but when you start looking for one in Mende or Bangla or Urdu— which are in our population in the metro-Atlanta area and in other places—it gets a lot harder, so we’ll have a very diverse committee working on that.
Chris Phelps will continue with the Finance Committee. Frank Strickland will chair the Programs Committee to look at the costeffectiveness of some of the things we have in our budget and try to bend that cost curve down going forward. Bob Persons, a member of this Board—in another aspect of stewardship—will chair a committee on risk management and disaster preparedness. Pat O’Connor, one of the most experienced and wise members of this Board, will chair the Long Range Planning Committee to look at some of the long-term trends in the legal profession that face us all and how that affects both the profession in Georgia and the way the organized bar reacts to it. We have issues in our profession of outsourcing internationally, of commoditization of legal services, and increasing pro se legal work, and Pat’s committee will look at those issues in depth.
The second theme is “calling.” When we’re working in the muddy trenches of the law, it’s kind of hard to envision what we’re doing as a high calling for service, but it is and it should be. Not all of us can find an aspect of calling in the law as pure as Ben Mitcham of Gray, a member of this Board who is about to leave for a year in Haiti working with reconstruction down there; or Tom Rawlings from Sandersville, who is now working with the International Justice Mission on combating sex slavery in Guatemala. Not many of us find a calling that pure, but we can bloom where we are planted and find our calling—our high calling— in our own workplace, in our own environment, our own community.
A lot of lawyers find their calling in a small town. That’s where I thought I would be, but somehow I wound up in Atlanta. Patrick Millsaps of Camilla will chair a new Main Street Lawyers Committee to provide guidance and mentoring for lawyers who want to go build their lives and careers in smaller communities around Georgia. Thomas Herman of Macon will chair the Local and Voluntary Bar Committee; one of the things that they will work on is developing a Bar Leadership Institute to help equip new officers of local bars.
The Law Practice Management Program Committee, chaired by Sally Akins from Savannah, will work on some new tools and new training materials, a lot of which we hope will be online. Our website will include resources to help lawyers who aren’t going to take a day off from work to go to a law practice management seminar but can watch the program online and get that training. The Member Benefits Committee will be chaired by John Kennedy of Macon, and they’re going to do a great job in expanding our menu of member benefits.
None of us know how long we have. We all know lawyers who drop dead in their 70s or 80s while still working, but I’ve known people in their 20s and 30s to whom that’s happened. They hadn’t planned on it. A guy with whom I shared a desk in the district attorney’s office back in the 1970s hydroplaned into a tree when he was 29 on the way to court one morning. Now, when lawyers die or become disabled in the middle of their practice, as solos particularly or in small firms, and they haven’t made arrangements for what happens to their clients and to their practice, it is a problem for their estates and it is a problem for the Bar. Our General Counsel’s Office has to go out and recruit people to be receivers, and it’s a mess. We’ve had an Aging Lawyers Committee for a while that hasn’t really gotten this done. We’re going to call this the Continuity of Practice Committee, and it will be chaired by Craig Stafford from Hinesville, who has already hit the ground running. He has taken planning guides developed in the New York and North Carolina bars with which lawyers can simply take the forms, fill in the blanks, do a buddy system— you drop dead, I’ll take care of your clients, I drop dead, you take care of my clients—so that we can have some planning for continuity of taking care of clients and practices.
A lot of lawyers these days are pursuing callings other than the traditional practice of law. Damon Elmore, who is a member of this Board, will chair a Committee on Nontraditional Legal Careers that will include lawyers who work in business, consulting, academia, as a riverkeeper and so forth. They will look at ways the Bar can remain relevant to those lawyers who are in something other than traditional law practice, and their experiences in those fields can in turn benefit our profession.
Part of our calling and part of our stewardship is to protect the public from the predators in our midst. There’s not much we can do about legal advertising in the large sense. We can’t prohibit very much at all under the constitutional issues explained in a number of federal court decisions, but we can have disclosure and disclaimers requirements that are relevant to consumer choice. We will have a Fair Market Practices Committee that will look at those issues in conjunction with the Disciplinary Rules Committee to try to develop some reasonable, rational disclosure and disclaimer requirements that would be bulletproof in court.
The third theme is “love.” There are very few occupations that offer as much varied opportunity for service to people who are hurting as the law. People in main street practices don’t lack for opportunities to help people on a pro bono or “low bono” basis. They come in off the street, you help them, and don’t get paid or don’t get paid much. People in a corporate environment or a big firm in a skyscraper may have to look a little harder for those opportunities. Our Access to Justice Committee will continue to be chaired by Tim Floyd at Mercer Law School, who will work closely with Mike Monahan on staff at the Bar office. One thing that they will do is very shortly develop a one-stop shop for pro bono opportunities in Georgia so somebody can just go straight from the home page of the Bar’s website and find an array of pro bono opportunities around the state. It’s a small step and one we can do fairly easily.
The Georgia Legal Services Program was originally a creature of this Bar some 40 years ago. Georgia Legal Services works at the bleeding edge, dealing with Georgians who are at the bottom of the economic ladder. In this economy, as the needs have grown to deal with issues that most lawyers aren’t going to take willingly because they don’t get paid for it, the funding has gone down and it continues to go down. You have, at your tables, forms to fill out to start an automatic monthly donation to Georgia Legal Services. I ask you to join me in donating to Georgia Legal Services, on a painless monthly basis, to urge others in your communities and in your circuits to join in that, and to give until it feels good—not until it hurts, but until it feels good.
We have a Lawyer Assistance Program that deals in substance abuse and mental health issues in the profession. Some of the scariest statistics I’ve run across include a study at Johns Hopkins that studied 104 occupations for rates of clinical depression. Guess who’s No. 1? We are. There’s a study from the ABA that studied alcohol abuse in the legal profession. They found that 13 percent of all lawyers were consuming an average of six or more alcoholic drinks per day. We’re not talking about a party every now and then, folks; we’re talking about every day. That’s a lot. I’ve had friends who I wish I had gotten into a program instead of being an enabler, before it was too late to save them and their careers. So I urge you that if you see lawyers who are on that slippery slope, contact the program and try to get them into it.
Finally, there is a new program that we’ll be starting this year that will be chaired by Judge Bill Rumer from Columbus that we’re borrowing from the Louisiana Bar, called SOLACE (Support of Lawyers/Legal Personnel—All Concern Encouraged). It was started by U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey in New Orleans. Basically, what the SOLACE program does in Louisiana is when a member of the Bar or their law office staffs or the court staffs have a medical crisis in their family, this committee looks for something small and practical that can be done of meaningful assistance. I’ve been on their listserve for the past year. Most of the requests I see are where some family in the legal community needs a place to stay near a cancer treatment center or a transplant center on the other side of the country for a month, or something of that nature. One was for help in adapting a garage apartment for a law student who had become a quadriplegic.
One time they had a request that went out at 11 a.m. on e-mail from Judge Zainey, where a member of the Louisiana Bar had a catastrophic injury or illness in South Africa and did not have MedEvac coverage. By 1 p.m. that afternoon, they had a response from a doctor who had received it, forwarded from his brother-in-law who was a lawyer. This doctor was also a pilot and he said, two hours after the request had gone out, “I’ll take my plane to Africa and I’ll bring him home.” I hope that this experiment will enable us to begin to cultivate more of a caring and loving community within the legal profession and the legal community in Georgia.
So: stewardship, calling, love. I hope that working together in these areas—most of which I’m delegating and saying, “Y’all go do it”—will help us to begin to work toward a more transcendent view of our lives and our professions as lawyers.
And remember that our worst mistakes are mathematical in that we miscalculate the brevity of life and the length of eternity.
God bless you all.