Asked & Answered: Janet Welch on the Future of Legal Services in Michigan

 By Steve Thorpe

Legal News
 
More than 50 leaders of Michigan’s legal community, including the president of the State Bar of Michigan, the president of the American Bar Association and the chief justice of the Michigan Supreme Court, convened recently to discuss the future of legal services in Michigan. Also attending were law school deans and past presidents of the ABA and the State Bar, the directors of Michigan’s attorney discipline agencies, the Michigan State Bar Foundation and the Institute for Continuing Legal Education. Janet Welch is executive director of the State Bar of Michigan.
Thorpe: Tell us about the gathering and its goals. 
Welch: The name of the forum was “The Future of Legal Services: Changes and Challenges in the Delivery of Legal Services.” Michigan is poised to be a leader because the major institutions responsible for the quality of legal services in Michigan – the Michigan Supreme Court, the State Bar of Michigan, the Michigan State Bar Foundation, the Attorney Grievance Commission, the Attorney Discipline Board, and the Institute for Continuing Legal Education – have all been or are emerging as national leaders on many of the critical issues affecting the delivery of legal services in the 21st century. On top of that, Michigan’s law schools collectively present a composite picture of the challenges and opportunities facing legal education today. The goal of the day was to put together leading thinkers from all of these institutions and begin to formulate a blueprint for the future.
In our plenary session, we heard the president of the American Bar Association, William Hubbard, speak of why the legal profession is at an “inflection point.” Despite attorneys’ very generous pro bono efforts and financial contributions to access to justice for the poor, Hubbard said that 80 percent of people who are poor, and many others of moderate means, do not get the civil legal assistance they need, and the United States ranks just 27th in the civil justice category among 99 countries in the World Justice Project’s 2014 Rule of Law index. Justice Bridget McCormack followed with an optimistic note, underscoring the progress Michigan has made using technology to promote greater accountability within Michigan’s court system, including the use of pioneering mobile apps to make interactions with the court more convenient. Seven experts then offered a lightning round describing the major issues in four categories: 
• The Future for Today’s and Tomorrow’s Lawyers, led by Paula Littlewood, Washington State Bar Association, and Candace Crowley, State Bar of Michigan
• Public Access to the Courts/Access to Justice, led by Linda Rexer, Michigan State Bar Foundation, and Prof. Daniel Linna, Jr., MSU College of Law
• Economic Viability of Today’s Law Firm Model, led by Prof. Renee Newman Knake, MSU College of Law
• The Changing Demographics and Economics of the Profession, led by Dennis W. Archer, Dickinson Wright PLLC, and Anne Vrooman, State Bar of Michigan.
From these topics the forum attendees chose the most important issues and then brainstormed ideas and strategies for tackling those issues. Among the top challenges identified by those at the forum were using technology and innovation to increase efficiencies and value in the legal system, creating an ethical and quality system so that self-represented people can get help from a lawyer where and when needed, bridging the gap between law school and legal practice, and regulating and supporting the legal services delivery system in a way that allows more people and businesses to have access. Some of the many innovations reported by the work groups included developing more online apps like a mobile app being used to resolve traffic tickets, adopting a broader limited scope “unbundled” representation rule, creating more certificate of specialty practice area programs and considering the limited licensing of non-lawyers to provide legal services in certain practice areas.
Chief Justice Robert P. Young, Jr., the forum’s lunchtime speaker, emphasized the Supreme Court’s commitment to driving Michigan’s court system to improve service to the public, and recognized the State Bar for helping to spur change through its 2011 Judicial Crossroads Task Force Report. 
“When it comes to Crossroads, our message is simple: promises made, promises kept,” Chief Justice Young said. 
The Chief Justice challenged attendees to focus on the problem of newly licensed attorneys being insufficiently ready to serve clients, particularly as solo practitioners, a challenge SBM President Thomas C. Rombach hopes to begin to answer through a newly formed SBM Law School to Practice Committee. 
Thorpe: You have been quoted saying “New technologies combined with economic and demographic changes are transforming the marketplace for legal services.” What are some of these technologies?
Welch: In my view, the biggest driver for change right now is the rise of the Internet as the foremost tool the public uses to research legal issues, decide whether to contact a lawyer and figure out which lawyer to choose. The Internet opens up new opportunities for lawyers to market their services and their value more effectively, but it also presents big risks to both the public and the profession. At the same time, there are new cost-saving apps arriving every day to make lawyers’ work more efficient and effective, the acquisition of legal services more informed and interaction with lawyers, courts and the justice system more convenient. There is astonishing software available for time management, discovery, trial management and billing – there is hardly a process in the delivery of legal services for which helpful technology is not already available. The choices can be intimidating and bewildering. Bar associations need to learn how to help lawyers navigate this new world ethically and successfully.
Thorpe: Tell us about the State Bar’s new 21st Century Lawyer committee.
Welch: President Rombach conceived of this new entity as a vehicle for envisioning how the State Bar should tackle the urgent new job of helping our members navigate the emerging legal marketplace and then provide advice to the State Bar leadership on strategies and direction. Its co-chairs, Past Presidents Julie Fershtman and Bruce Courtade, both have active practices and both pushed the State Bar to improve the Bar’s practice-oriented services to our members and thus increase our value to the public. There is no work more urgent, and I commend President Rombach for his leadership in this initiative and for recruiting Julie and Bruce to co-chair it.
Thorpe: How does the work of the state bar on this topic dovetail with similar efforts at the national level?
Welch: The State Bar’s forum was coordinated with the American Bar Association’s Commission on the Future of Legal Services, formed under ABA President William Hubbard. The Commission’s reporter is Prof. Renee Knake, co-director of Michigan State University College of Law’s Kelley Institute of Ethics and the Legal Profession. The Commission is encouraging grass roots meetings around the country, and will study the results to formulate its recommendations to the ABA.
Thorpe: The State Bar of Michigan Judicial Crossroads Task Force issued a report in 2011 that suggested some changes currently underway to streamline and modernize Michigan’s court system. Would you describe those for us?
Welch: As Chief Justice Young observed at the forum, the work of the Future of Legal Services Forum and the Judicial Crossroads Task Force are connected in important ways. The Task Force’s 2011 report contributed to a number of the transformational and cost-saving changes now underway in Michigan’s court system. Included among these reforms:
• Three out of four Michigan counties have concurrent jurisdiction plans to make better use of resources and improve efficiency; • A needs-based, phased elimination of 40 judgeships is expected to save the state $167 million; • 174 problem-solving courts (mental health, drug and sobriety) are reaching 97 percent of Michigan’s population, dramatically reducing recidivism; • Court accountability has measurably increased: the performance of every Michigan court is measured and the results on timeliness and clearance rates are posted online; • The state is implementing new language access court rules that provide much greater access to justice for the growing number of people who have limited English proficiency. The forum has opened a new chapter in the work started by the Task Force, focusing on how the profession can better serve the legal needs of the public.
Thorpe: What’s next for the effort?
Welch: The conversation will continue more intensely within the Board of Commissioners, the State Bar Representative Assembly and the 21st Century Practice work. We hope that the forum’s attendees will take the questions, ideas and enthusiasm generated within the forum back into the legal community so that Michigan can continue to be at the forefront of shaping the future of the delivery of legal services.

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