by Robert L. Jeffs
To represent lawyers in the State of Utah and to serve the public and the legal profession by promoting justice, professional excellence, civility, ethics, respect for and understanding of the law.
As President of the Bar, I have reflected on the Bars Mission almost daily. I dont know which of our Bar leaders had the foresight to pen those words, but I think it captures the essence of the goal I hope we all individually and collectively strive to achieve.
By the time you read this message, my term as President of the Utah State Bar will be coming to a close. I can honestly report to you that I have thoroughly enjoyed serving the Bar and its members. Having experienced Bar staff and dedicated Commissioners to work with makes the job of Bar President manageable. That is not to say I didnt get my share of irritating calls from the public complaining about the questionable pedigree of their lawyer or berating me about the injustice of the justice system and demanding that as Bar President, I need to change the law, remove a judge, or disbar their opposing counsel. I also received my share of calls or e-mails from myopic Bar members who believe the Bar is nothing more than a pestilence, that the Bars Mission is misguided. Instead, they advocate that the Bar should not promote ethics, professionalism, or service to the public. But those calls come with the territory. Nevertheless, I suspect my wife and law partners will appreciate more than I that my term is up. Soon I will turn the reins over to the able leadership of Rod Snow and Lori Nelson.
Like many of the members of the Utah State Bar, I was drawn to the profession not by the prospect of wealth or status, but by a desire to serve society and the public. Of course, I had the advantage of coming from a family of attorneys, so I knew first hand that the practice of law is not a road to riches. In a recent meeting I attended with leaders from the Montana Bar they related to me that median income for attorneys in Montana is between $50,000 and $70,000 and starting salaries average about $36,000. I suspect the economic realities for the attorneys of Utah are not much different. For most of us, the practice of law presents an opportunity to make a modest income while providing a valuable service to the community. As Bar President, I have had the chance to see the myriad hours of service provided to the public and the profession by our members. The service we provide can take many forms, such as traditional pro bono representation, service on committees and sections, as well as service on municipal or state government. I want to thank all of the members who volunteer their time either in Bar service, governmental office, or pro bono service.
The conference I referred to earlier included a report by the ABAs World Justice Project. Part of the work done by the World Justice Project included an assessment of the access to justice in many of the nations of the world. Some of those findings were very disturbing, showing that the United States is not the leader as I would have expected. The U.S. judicial system is still a model for other nations. Unfortunately, the United States ranks last of the eleven nations in its income group in access to civil justice.
In prior messages and when I have had the bully pulpit as Bar President, I have tried to focus the attention of our members on the dangers of a judicial system that the public feels is too expensive and too confusing to access. It is not just the lowest economic tier of our society that feels they cannot obtain legal representation. Increasingly it is the middle class, the foundation of our society, that cannot afford our services. Recognizing the importance of trying to address the affordability of legal services, the Bar Commission has been working on the design of a Modest Means program for the delivery of discounted legal services.
The Bar Commission obtained valuable feedback from its survey regarding the proposed Modest Means program. The program should be operational very soon. The program will marry the desire of our members to serve with the needs of lawyers to broaden their practice by providing discounted legal services. The Modest Means program will provide an option to an under-served economic group who earn too much to receive free legal services through one of the traditional pro bono programs, but do not earn enough to pay for legal services at our regular rates. The potential benefits of the program include reducing the press of pro se litigants that clog the courts, exposing a broader spectrum of the public to the benefits of legal services, reducing the frustration of members of the public that may feel they are unable to avail themselves of the judicial system, and providing unemployed or under-employed attorneys with a supplement to their regular practice revenues.
As attorneys we are uniquely suited to provide service and leadership to the community. Our training, experience, and ability to carefully analyze problems to formulate solutions can benefit every level of government. We have too few members of the Bar who sit on City councils or Planning Commissions, too few members serve as Senators or Representatives in the state legislature. While I recognize that few Bar members are able to devote the significant time commitment it takes to serve as a state legislator, there are plenty of other opportunities. As many of you know, Utah relies on a local and state caucus system for choosing candidates. With the Republican party enjoying significant political control, many elections are determined through the voting of the delegates rather than at a primary or general election. Bar members should become active in the local and state caucus process. As a delegate, you have the opportunity to have some positive influence in the shaping of the face of our State. In addition, a delegate is in a better position to communicate concerns about pending legislation to his or her respective representative.
I claim no power to divine the future. I believe that in the future, Bar members will likely see proposed legislation attempting to re-define the practice of law, taxing legal services, or affecting the publics access to justice. Attorneys have always played a pivotal role in shaping our national and local politics. Utah will benefit from increased participation of lawyers in this process to lend their wisdom and expertise in working for legislation that supports rather than detracts from the Rule of Law.
Thank you for the privilege of serving you as Bar President.