Lawyer bashing may be a popular spectator sport but at least one attorney is not taking it anymore.
‘I’ve gotten tired of the negative focus that lawyers sometimes have,’ says Forest J. Bowman, a law professor at the University of West Virginia in Morganton. ‘I really believe we have to take pride in who and what we are and our great heritage. If we lawyers don’t take pride on our work and its worth, nobody else will, and we all suffer for that.’
Bowman will deliver a speech, ‘What’s Right With Our Profession,’ June 21 at the North Carolina Bar Association annual meeting in Asheville.
‘We’ve taken a bad hit from the public and to some extent the media, and perhaps an unfair one,’ he says. ‘Because of that, lawyers think less of themselves. We have to stop dwelling on that and understand that what we do is part and parcel of what Western civilization has been all about.’
Bowman says lawyers have been largely responsible for the development of freedom in the Western world. He points to a list of accomplishments by lawyers that have shaped modern society.
‘The American Revolution was largely conceived and carried out by lawyers,’ he says. ‘All the great documents in Western civilization were crafted by lawyers. The great bulk of business in this country gets done in the courtroom and we are the people that make that work.
The legal profession gets a bad rap because it’s largely misunderstood by the general population, Bowman says.
‘I don’t believe what lawyers do and why we do it can be grasped by people who don’t live inside the system,’ he says. ‘And the average person on the street doesn’t understand how we can represent guilty people, how we can represent a real scumbag or a polluter.’
Bowman says he is not wearing blinders when he paints his picture of lawyers.
‘I teach ethics,’ he says. ‘I’ve seen the dark side of the profession. But the fact is that despite the bad rap and bad lawyers, nobody does a better job of trying to keep the profession clean than we do.’
Bowman sees these positive developments in the law profession:
Pro bono work. ‘We have taken the lead in seeing that poor people get representation, and not just in criminal matters,’ he says. ‘With federal legal services money drying up, lawyers continue to fund and individually carry out the responsibilities of providing legal services to the poor.’
Continuing legal education. ‘We’re upping our standards,’ Bowman says. ‘We now require continuing legal education in the vast majority of states. And in a great many states there’s an ethics component to that. There’s an old saying ‘You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.’ But at least we’re leading him to water. We’re exposing people to ethics.’
Ethical issues. The legal community constantly assesses its ethical footing, making changes when needed, Bowman says. He points to the new ABA rules on ethics that are now being promulgated around the country.
‘We continue to adopt new ethics rules,’ he says. ‘These new rules deal with updating the profession in terms of fees ‘ what’s fair and how you set them and explain them to the client.’
Civic responsibility. Lawyers play an active public role in their communities, sitting on boards, commissions and committees and councils, Bowman says.
‘Some of that is self-serving but nevertheless we do it,’ he says. ‘There’s a willingness to take part. The business of negotiation is what the government is all about and that’s what we’re trained in.
What Needs Work
Bowman says there are several areas that need attention. Among them:
Lawyer discipline. ‘We need to stay constantly on top of our disciplinary process. As we get more lawyers, it takes more and more time to work through a violation to a sanction. That’s something we need to watch. Here in West Virginia, we’re trying to make things smoother and faster, while at the same time protecting the lawyers involved.’
Lawyer advertising. Some people view lawyer advertising with alarm. Bowman is not one of them.
‘The public is pretty sharp about watching advertising.’ he says. ‘If I do skywriting, the public won’t be fooled into thinking I’m a great lawyer for that reason. But we need a way to let the public know I’m here. That’s something we have to deal with.’
Changing demographics. The profession needs to be more sensitive to shifts in the racial and gender makeup of the legal profession, Bowman says. ‘It’s not a white male profession anymore, and that’s a healthy development. And to the extent we’re keeping any people out of the profession, we have to stop it.’
Fees and billable hours. ‘We have to constantly watch the fee situation and consciously look at how we establish and justify our fee,’ Bowman says. ‘At one time we charged what a matter was worth. Then we went to the billable hours to really let the client know what we had done. Now the ABA has come out with a new idea, value billing.’
He says lawyers should be able to adjust their fees by weighing several factors, not just the hours spent.
‘You have to decide what a matter’s worth, how much time it’s taking, whose time it’s taking, and so on,’ he says. ‘It seems to me if I can do a computerized will and tailor make it in two hours, compared to 15 hours before, if my billable hour is $50 an hour but the will is worth $500 to you, I ought to be able to charge $500. Labor saving doesn’t mean I have to lose money. At the same time, I should be able to consider that I haven’t spent much time doing it.
No Golden Days
Bowman urges lawyers to stop lamenting the glory days of the profession.
‘It’s so easy to say, ‘Boy, back in the old days it was more fun to be a lawyer.’ I hear how law is just a business now, not just a profession. That’s rose-colored glasses. There never was a golden age of the law where all the men were brave and all the ladies fair.
‘We need to say, ‘look, despite the problems, there is a great deal is right with our profession.’ We have to remind ourselves what we’re doing is really very critical, very important, and we’ve been the catalyst for great deeds in the past. What we’re doing now is critical to how we get through this century and into the next one,’ he says.