“Get better at showing the pride we show in what we do and say,” the Chief Justice of the Missouri Supreme Court challenged his colleagues and attorneys this week during a meeting of state judges and attorneys.
Chief Justice Paul Wilson made the comments during a virtual meeting of the Missouri Bar and a face-to-face meeting of the Missouri Justice Conference.
“Among the many lessons we’ve all learned over the past year, it should be clear by now that the COVID virus doesn’t care what we think or believe,” said Wilson. âWe all need to think about managing this risk over the long term. How long? I don’t know, but whatever the future holds, I think the lessons of the past few months will be good for us. “
Prior to the pandemic, Wilson said, many assumed that the court system was like the early missiles of the 1950s and 60s – it was either working at full speed or it was completely shut down.
“However, when the pandemic broke out, shutting down the courts wasn’t an option,” Wilson said. âWe found ways to do what no one thought was possible. We used new technology to remotely perform an unprecedented number of procedures and limited in-person procedures whenever we could. And it worked. Courts had to remain open and accessible, and they did. “
Hundreds of judges and thousands of court staff struggled through new and unfamiliar ways to get their job done with the pandemic, Wilson said.
“While the future is uncertain, it is clear that what worked last year won’t work indefinitely,” said Wilson. âThe reduced operation from 2020 cannot – and must – simply not become permanent. Despite our best efforts, filings (of cases) in 2020 exceeded orders.
âThe size of this backlog and the type of cases involved vary from state to state, but there is no doubt that we have some catching up to do – and when I say ‘we’ I mean both the bank and the bar need to be cleared that backlog, âWilson continued. “We must do this safely and protect the health of litigants, witnesses, jurors, attorneys and court officials.”
Wilson said the pandemic is not the only challenge facing the courts and that the other challenges, if not addressed, “will devastate the judicial system more than COVID ever could”.
“We all need to better show that we know what we’re doing and show that we’re proud of the system,” said Wilson. âLay people believe that each of us is who we are and what the judicial system is like. You can’t blame them.
âTruth either exists and we seek it, or it doesn’t exist. You can’t shout lies and half-truths in the middle of the marketplace (or on Twitter) and expect people not to despise all lawyers or, worse, the judicial system as a whole. “
Wilson told his colleagues what the public in this country knows about lawyers and justice, “that is what we teach them – by word and deed”.
“If lawyers pretend the truth matters all the time, society will be much more likely to believe that their judiciary will care about the truth,” said Wilson. âLawyers have a duty to show people – by what we do and what we say – that the judicial system is fair and worthy of their trust, and it is up to us to show them the rule of law is important. If we don’t, we risk losing both of them. “
The second challenge Wilson discussed was how well the judicial system works – and not. In particular, the lack of access to legal advisers (lawyers).
“Thousands of Missourians are evicted from the economic upheaval caused by the COVID epidemic despite tens of millions of dollars in federal aid to pay their arrears rent,” Wilson said. âWhy is this money hardly being spent? Because not enough tenants know that it is even available. “
Wilson said the district courts do a good job telling eligible tenants how to apply for this money, but they cannot help those who fail to appear in court.
“What people need is representation: a lawyer who can explain their options before an eviction notice is sent,” said Wilson. âThis 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 judicial system we want to have. Do we want a system in which, in an ever-increasing percentage of cases, one or both sides are absent, have no idea what their rights are and no reasonable way to protect them? Or will we find ways of offering representation to all those who cannot afford it, not only in criminal matters but also in the many civil cases where the lack of representation can be as destructive as in criminal proceedings? “
Wilson said the lack of access to adequate legal representation will not go away. It’ll only get worse.
“The solutions – whatever they are – will not be obvious or straightforward, and since this lack of access threatens our justice system, it will be up to all of us to have this conversation,” added Wilson.
The third challenge Wilson noticed was figuring out a way to increase the size and variety of the bar.
“Many baby boomers became lawyers – so many in fact that they represented the largest percentage increase in the bar in history,” said Wilson. “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 bridge the widening gap between the need to represent Missourians and the amount they can afford, but âa future in which the number of practicing lawyers will decline or hardly remains constant, has no chance of solving it â. at all.”
With this in mind, Wilson urged his colleagues to take personal responsibility for recruiting the next generation of lawyers.
“We can’t just focus on undergraduate students because that doesn’t get the job done,” said Wilson. “We need to help children achieve this goal while they are in high school or younger.”
Wilson also reprimanded his colleagues with the words: “Together we have not managed to bring adequate diversity into our profession.”
“The next generation of lawyers must be much more like the six million Missourians they will represent than we are,” added Wilson. âNot just in terms of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but also in terms of socio-economic backgrounds and willingness to live and serve in urban and rural communities. Achieving true diversity is essential to maintaining and building the credibility our profession needs if we are to play a leading role in finding solutions to the tough problems facing our judicial system. “
Wilson believes there is a blueprint for how to meet the challenge of diversity. The Student Law Academy, hosted by the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation, is a summer program that provides underserved urban high school students with information about law and legal careers.
“When you look at their scholars, I think you have the future – and hope – of our profession in mind,” said Wilson. âWe need an army of these children. There is no reason the academy program cannot be replicated across the state to help the children we need for our future. “
In addition to introducing young people to the legal profession, Wilson said they should also focus on attorney wellbeing.
“Our job is stressful, and that stress can eat you up and drive you out of this business if you don’t learn to use it,” said Wilson. âToo often, the young people we recruit don’t stay because they find that practicing the legal profession doesn’t bring the joy or happiness they envisioned.
“For lawyers struggling to find the passion that led them to their profession, it doesn’t help to grumble on Twitter or reach for a second glass of wine,” said Wilson. âInstead, increase the volume of service for your legal career. Go to school and plant the seeds of a legal career in the head of a child who may never have thought of this. Being an attorney offers endless opportunities to serve others. So take it. “