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Legally Speaking


Issue: October, 2008
Author: Rick Lavery

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From the President . . .

The world is flat! Not literally and especially not here in Wyoming. It’s the title of a book by Thomas Friedman. I just finished reading it, and the title represents the concept that technology has changed the world and anyone has the ability to compete. . .anywhere. In other words, the world is quickly becoming a level playing field. Five years ago I would have told you that such a notion had no implications for the members of the Wyoming State Bar. Today, however, I have reason to think that my first inclination was “flat” wrong.

Forty-some years ago, I sat daydreaming in Sister Miriam Jude Agnes Catherine Margaret Agatha Ann’s fourth grade class at Our Lady of Sorrows–Perpetual Pain, Suffering and Guilt Catholic School and dreamed about the future. The race to the moon in full swing, NASA’s transition from the Gemini to Apollo space crafts, jets traveling faster than the speed of sound and pondering travel at the speed of light (at the time I thought light was just on or off). My view was that someday we would all be living like the Jetson’s. Life would be so much easier as we traveled around in our flying luxury space cars, never having to walk without some fancy form of conveyance–a jet pack or conveyor belt, robots for all the heavy lifting and gourmet meals by just adding water. Of course my daydreams always ended with a jolt of reality – rosary beads rattling behind me and the dull thud of the wooden pointer gently (although it didn’t feel so gentle) rapping the top of my head.

The practice of law for today’s Wyoming lawyer is much different than the practice I entered 27 years ago. The future about which I daydreamed is not today’s reality. You might say the changes we have witnessed, and will continue to witness, are just as exciting and amazing. Life didn’t get easier, it got faster. In fact, it’s lightning fast! We live in a digital world. Video, audio, photographs, documents can all be digitized, and thanks to the worldwide web, satellites and fiber optic cable, they can be viewed, heard, read and copied anywhere in the world in just seconds. We are connected, for better or worse, in ways we could not have imagined, even ten years ago.

There is a web-based presentation called “Did You Know/Shift Happens.” Some of you may have seen it, and if you have not, Google it (yes, “Google” is now a verb) and check it out on YouTube. It was produced by Karl Fisch, Scott McLeod and a company called Xplane, for an Arapahoe High School (Centennial, Colorado) faculty meeting. It has made the rounds on the web and has been used in schools across the country to stimulate discussion about how we educate our kids. It has even been updated–“Did You Know II” the sequel. It begins with dramatic demographic facts about the world–the populations of China (1.3 billion) and India (800 million) and then lists a few eye-popping facts about the communication and technology expansion throughout the world. Each segment starts with the question, “Did you know?” For example, did you know there are 1.3 million college graduates in the United States each year? Did you know there are 3.1 and 3.3 million graduates in India and China? One hundred percent of college graduates in India speak English. China will be the largest English speaking country in the world in ten years.

It goes on to technology, pointing out that in 1982 there were 1,000 Internet devices. In 2000, there were 600 million devices! The first commercial text message was sent in 1992. Today, the number of text messages sent and received each day exceeds the population of the planet. My daughter can take some degree of credit for that one. Two hundred and thirty thousand new MySpace users sign up each day. If MySpace were a country, it would be the 8th largest in the world. Three thousand books are published every day. The quantity of technical information in the world is doubling every two years and is expected to speed up to every 72 hours in the next few years. The presentation concludes with the line, “Shift happens.”

The authors’ point is much the same as Thomas Friedman’s. The world is changing at a pace that will challenge our best attempts to educate, learn and stay ahead of the curve. We hear about globalization and outsourcing. When it’s a Dell Call Center, it’s a cheap and effective way to keep our software working for us. When it’s the biggest accounting firms outsourcing the lion’s share of their IRS 1040 tax form preparation to India, it may make us nervous and wonder about our privacy, but it sure makes the cost of that return cheaper and easier to tolerate every April 15th. My friends in the CPA world say that it is a way for them to concentrate on the more complex matters for their clients. Doctors in India can read digital x-rays and other digital imaging, and in so doing, help small hospitals and rural clinics here in the United States where specialists are hard to find. American doctors might argue that the practice of using doctors in India results in a diminished quality of care, but patients might suggest it represents the difference between some care and none at all.

Are lawyers next? Friedman says that anything that can be digitized can be packaged and sold as a commodity. What do we do as lawyers that can’t be digitized? In the not-too-distant future, our trial bar will be working with a completely digital court filing system at all levels of court practice. Someday we will have videoconference court proceedings. You could appear in a Wyoming courtroom with your feet firmly planted in your home in Bangalore, India.

Last year I had the privilege of hearing Tom Lyons and Fred Ury speak to a group of lawyers about globalization, outsourcing and the practice of law. They both practice in Connecticut. They report that there are one million lawyers in India that will work for about $12 an hour. Indian lawyers speak English, they are versed and trained in the common law and the Internet can connect them, not only to us, but directly to our clients. Outsourcing of legal work will result, by some estimates, in the loss of between 30 and 40 thousand lawyer positions in the United States in just the next few years. By 2015 it could be as many as 80,000 lawyers. Check out www.lexadigm.com and www.prismlegal.com for a couple examples of the outsourcing of the legal business in action.

To be sure, American lawyers are taking full advantage of the digital world as well. Many Wyoming lawyers have scaled back so they don’t have the overhead of a legal assistant or secretary. The next step is to be an e-law firm, a firm without an office. All of the business between client and counsel is conducted electronically – videoconference, telephone, text, e-mail, fax, etc. Today, legal services and products are offered on the Internet, and the quality of the products is improving all the time. You have probably heard some of Robert Shapiro’s LegalZoom.com (www.legalzoom.com) television advertisements. If you haven’t, look at his web site. These products are getting more and more sophisticated with more online personal consumer contact and attention to the consumer’s wants and needs. There’s also, www.legaladvice.com, www.elawforum.com, www.legalpath.com, www.completecase.com, www.titleBPO.com, and www.cybersettle.com, to name a few.

Ury and Lyons predict that eventually we will be competing head to head, right here in Wyoming, with lawyers from around the world. Further, they opine that one day the proposed General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), currently being negotiated by the member states of the World Trade Association, will not only include the practice of law, but make it difficult, if not impossible, for individual states to regulate the practice of law by foreign lawyers, practicing law in their states, without violating Federal Trade Commission Rules. Fortunately, that kind of rule making takes a while and with any luck, my time with the Board of Officers and Commissioners of the Wyoming State Bar will have been long past.

So how do Wyoming lawyers stay ahead of the curve? The whole idea of globalization and free trade presupposes that the practice of law is just like any other service industry business – a service that can be packaged and traded like a commodity. It fails to recognize the unique and important role we play as lawyers and judges. We represent justice for our citizens and the rule of law in our society. If we don’t exert our influence and defend our role in a just society, then I think we are witnessing the beginning of that paradigm shift where we will be just another service provider in a globalized corporate world government.

ABA President Tommy Wells lists four core values that he believes that all lawyers share – access to justice, independence, diversity and the rule of law. We share those values here in Wyoming. This year, standing proudly on the shoulders of our predecessors, the Wyoming State Bar will work to assure that justice is truly for all, continue to educate the public, especially the state’s school age population, defend the unassailable requirement that our profession, and especially our judiciary, remain independent, and finally attend to the health of our membership both individually and collectively.

As always, the devil is in the details and while this month’s column is nearing my editor’s tolerance for pain and wordiness, I wanted to touch on a few items that are part of our strategic plan. I will continue the dialogue in the coming months. You will be hearing more about the efforts to create a legitimate and sustaining legal service delivery system for poor and indigent residents of our state. On September 17, 2008, the Board of Judicial Policy and Administration accepted the Bar’s Legal Aid Services Committee’s recommendation that a task force, under the co-leadership of the Wyoming State Bar and the Wyoming Supreme Court, be formed with the goal of formulating a detailed and concrete action plan for creating a Wyoming Access to Justice Commission. The Legal Aid Services Committee and especially Judge Tim Day, Justice Jim Burke and Leigh Anne Manlove deserve our thanks for moving this effort forward. Thanks also go out to the Supreme Court for its willingness to take a lead role in this effort. IOLTA, independent fund raising, pro-bono services and legal services all have an important role to play, and the creation of this commission can be the linchpin to emphasize, facilitate and coordinate our efforts.

High school mock trial and the Legal Minute are on our public education agenda for this year. If you have an interest in the mock trial, the Bar office has this year’s competition materials and schedule. Find a teacher, team up and get a team going in your local community. The health and well being of our members is also a front and center issue for the bar commission. We hope to secure a viable health care insurance solution for our members, and I look forward to communicating more of the details as we progress.

Finally, independence is a concept that is often ignored or forgotten by our members but it is the meat and potatoes of what the Wyoming State Bar does. The Bar commission and staff will continue the high level management of the admission, continuing education, rule making and disciplinary functions that the Supreme Court has delegated to us in a manner that is transparent, fair and instills public confidence. For our Courts, I think that we can all agree that fair and impartial justice results from an independent judiciary. Our merit selection process is a key component. The Modified Missouri Plan is as good as it gets. We will continue to defend it whenever it comes under attack.

After the Banquet at the Annual Meeting in Cheyenne, Justice Scalia made a point to tell Sharon Wilkinson in his inimitable no-nonsense fashion that we have a “tight-knit group” – judges and lawyers alike. He’s right. It is our greatest strength and the reason that we will remain relevant, important and successful in a global economy. A digital image will never replace the human touch – that face-to-face conversation, a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a word of encouragement and a simple nod. Our humanity and civility sets us apart from our digitized counterparts. If we don’t lose sight of this one critical element, rest assured, we will always be ahead of the curve.

I am honored to serve as your president this coming year. Please feel free to contact me at (307) 444-4200 or e-mail me at rlavery@evanstonlaw.com with any comments or questions you have regarding the current state of the Wyoming State Bar.

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