|President's Page||The West Virginia Lawyer||September 1999
by Darrell W. (Dan) Ringer
"Whom do you trust?"
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too . . ..
Rewards and Fairies(1910)
I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and, doggone it, people like me.
Get to know me!
I very clearly remember my first official meeting as a member of the West Virginia State Bar's Board of Governors, in July 1994, in a small conference room at Snowshoe. I was one of several new Board members, all of us eager to get to know each other, and to learn about the work of our organization. During the next three years we did both. I would be hard pressed to identify a more professionally rewarding activity than service on the Board of Governors. I've never heard anyone suggest that they were happy to see their three year term end. In fact, several members have run for a second term after a few years (there is a one term limit). Membership is frequently referred to (in jest) as "the best kept secret in the practice of law." It is a terrific experience.
But what I remember most is the complaint that was intensively discussed at that first meeting - "No one understands us. We need to get more information out about who lawyers are and what we do." This was not a new concern then, it has not gone away, and it is not easy to respond to it.
People fear and resent lawyers. Why shouldn't they. They see us as speaking in a nearly secret language in courts in which they cannot effectively participate except in our company. A lot of the people who do go to court end up losing things they consider pretty important, like money, family, or freedom. And they usually have to pay some fairly hefty fees and expenses for the experience. Further, we often do a pretty lousy job of explaining what is going on and why these things happen.
It's not that we don't try to explain it. Sometimes the process is inexplicable. Usually it's simply hard to explain to people why they can't have or do what they sincerely believe is their right to have or do. Our clients usually just want to be taken seriously and treated fairly. I've never had a prospective client ask me to help them take advantage of someone, or get away with something. Those things happen, I suppose, but it's the other lawyer's client that is trying to put something over on someone, not mine. (I suspect we can all say that!)
So is it surprising that people don't trust lawyers or the system in which we work?
Concern over this problem exists at all levels. This past May, Chief Justice Starcher invited me, along with State Bar immediate Past President Elliot Hicks, State Senator Brooks McCabe, Supreme Court Administrator Jamie Albert, and West Virginia Public Broadcasting's Beth Voorhis to travel to Washington, D.C., for the National Conference on Public Trust and Confidence in the Justice System. The conference was sponsored by the A.B.A., the Conference of Chief Justices and the League of Women Voters, among others. The heavy hitters were there, including U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, and former New York Governor Mario Cuomo. Rhetoric flowed, and the discussions were of a very high level.
But when all was said and done, there wasn't much suggested beyond what was heard in that room at Snowshoe - Someone should do something. We should do something. What can we do?
What was new, at least to me, was the acknowledgment that it starts with you, and me, and us! If people don't trust us, it's our fault. It's up to us to demonstrate that we are worthy of trust.
Most people like and trust their own lawyer - they like the lawyers they know. It's the other lawyer, and lawyers in general that they distrust - they don't trust lawyers they don't know. So, it is up to us to make sure that everyone knows us.
It is our responsibility to be a presence in our communities. We must be visible. Participate. Behave as if you're running for office. Well, maybe not running for office. People tend to spot those folks, and politicians don't do any better than lawyers in polls measuring public trust. But you know what I mean. Let's be involved, visible, helpful people.
Your State Bar is working on at least a part of the problem. Beginning about the end of September or first part of October. You can find the exact date and time on the web at the State Bar's announcements page, in cooperation with West Virginia Public Television, and with significant financial assistance from ALPS Insurance, and the Mountain State Bar, the Defense Trial Counsel of West Virginia, the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association, the West Virginia Bar Foundation and the West Virginia Bar Association, your State Bar is beginning a television season of half-hour discussions on significant areas and issues of law. Drawing the topics from the headlines and the guests from our membership we will, once a week, assemble a panel of working lawyers, not "pundits," to discuss the problems of real people, and the efforts of real lawyers. If you get a call asking for suggestions, or for your participation as a guest, please say yes.
Because the show will air on West Virginia Public Television we will have access to nearly every home in West Virginia and significant portions of all of the surrounding states. It is a rare opportunity. As you might expect such things do not come easily or cheaply. Discussions concerning the program have taken nearly six years, and fund raising most of the last two. We need the financial participation of the various bars, legal vendors and individual firms and attorneys. If you, your company or your firm would like to sign-on as a financial participant in this endeavor, please send your contribution to the West Virginia Bar Foundation, and indicate that it is for the State Bar television production. If you would like more information on contributing, please contact the State Bar.
Because of the nature of the program, West Virginia Public Television executives have stated that the show could run indefinitely, with approximately 26 new shows per year (that's a full season). Whether it runs more than one season depends on you, on me, on us and our commitment, financial and otherwise. When I meet with bar leaders from other states and cities they are amazed that we have this opportunity to produce a legal topics program with no agenda other than to allow our residents to see and hear how lawyers think and talk, openly and candidly.
We have the opportunity. We have the ability. Do we have the desire? If not us, who? If not now, when?