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Missouri chief justice addresses judges, lawyers during 2021 hybrid annual meeting

Vol. 77, No. 6 / Nov. - Dec. 2021

Hon. Paul C. Wilson

Good afternoon.

A year ago, then-Chief Justice Draper spoke to you in an unprecedented virtual format. Like many of you, I assumed that would be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Obviously, that did not work out, so here we all are again.

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, it doesn’t care what we want or need, and it doesn’t care how tired we are of taking precautions and fighting back.

The finish line we all hoped for is nowhere in sight, and there may not be one. Instead, it looks like we all need to think about managing this risk over the long term. How long? I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. But no matter what the future holds, I think the lessons over the last many months will serve us well.

Before the pandemic, many assumed the court system was like the early rockets in the 1950s and ’60s – it either operated at full speed or it was off, completely. When the pandemic hit, however, turning off the courts was not an option. So we found ways to do what no one thought we could … Just like NASA, we found ways to throttle back without shutting down.

Like the engineers working on the Apollo program, we took advantage of new technologies. We found ways to conduct an unprecedented number of proceedings remotely and limited in-person proceedings whenever we could. And it worked. Courts had to remain open and accessible, and they did.

I think it’s important to stop for a minute and recognize this achievement did not just happen. Technology helped, but the essential ingredient – as always – was people. Hundreds of judges and thousands of court staff struggled through new and unfamiliar ways to do their jobs. But there’s very little our court system does – or can do – without you, the members of The Missouri Bar. Without your willingness, patience, and perseverance, the courts could not have made it through the last year. So, from all of us to all of you, please believe me when I say: Thank you.

Even though the future is uncertain, it is clear that what worked over the past year will not work indefinitely. The reduced operations of 2020 simply cannot – and must not – become permanent. Despite our best efforts, filings in 2020 outpaced dispositions. The size of this backlog and the types of cases involved vary around the state, but there is no doubt we have some catching up to do. And when I say “we,” I mean it will take both the bench and the bar to clear this backlog. We need to do it safely – protecting the health of litigants, witnesses, jurors, lawyers, and court staff – but we have to do it. And it will take all of us, working together, to get it done.

Yet the pandemic is not the only challenge we face. It’s not even the biggest. There are others that, if left unaddressed, will wreak more havoc on the justice system and the rule of law than COVID ever could. I want to talk to you today about three of these: credibility, access, and diversity.

First, what we do as lawyers matters. What we say matters. But how [we] do what we do and how we say what we say sometimes matters even more. I believe the justice system in this country works. It is the gold standard around the world. And the reason it works is you. Attorneys are the engine that drives justice in this country.

I am immensely proud of our justice system and the role attorneys play in it. We all should be. I believe what we do has value, not just to individual clients in individual cases, but to all of society all of the time. And I hope you believe that, too.

But here is the challenge I put to you today: All of us need to do a better job of showing we know what we do has value and showing we are proud of the system to which we’ve dedicated our professional lives.

Being a lawyer is not something you do only some of the time. It’s something you areall the time. It doesn’t punch a clock, it doesn’t take personal days, and it doesn’t end at five on Fridays. Everything each of us does, professionally or personally, reflects on the rest of us … and on the system itself. Lay people believe the way each of us is is the way we all are, and the way the justice system is.

You can’t blame them. Either truth exists and we strive toward it, or it doesn’t. You cannot shout lies and halftruths in the middle of the town square (or on Twitter) and expect people not to attribute that kind of contempt for the truth to all lawyers or, worse, to the justice system as a whole.

What the public knows about lawyers and justice in this country is what we teach them – by word and deed. Everything we do, everything we say, and the way we do what we do and say what we say, shapes the public’s perception of our entire profession and the system we all serve. If lawyers act like truth matters all the time, then society is far more likely to believe their justice system cares about truth as well. If lawyers treat everyone (including each other) fairly and with respect all the time, society is far more likely to believe that the justice system does the same.

The preamble to the Rules of Professional Conduct lays this out very clearly. It states: “A lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.”

That’s a polite way of saying lawyers have a duty to show people – by what we do and what we say – that the justice system is fair and worthy of their confidence, and it’s up to us to show them that the rule of law matters. If we don’t do this – if we fail in this singular duty – we risk losing them both.

Our justice system is fair because the people believe it is – and the rule of law matters in this country because they believe it does. The instant those beliefs disappear, so too will those principles. And, if the public no longer believes in them, it will be because we lawyers let it happen. It will be because we allowed some people – including, to my great shame, some lawyers – to erode the public’s confidence in justice and the rule of law. Now is the time we need to build up our credibility – and, with it, the public’s confidence – and we simply cannot afford for any of us to do or say anything to diminish it.

The second challenge I want to talk about today has to do with how well our system is – and is not – working. The same preamble I quoted from a moment ago emphasizes one of the most serious problems threatening that system. It states: “A lawyer should be mindful of the deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance.

This lack of access to counsel is a direct – and growing – threat to our justice system and the public’s confidence in the rule of law … and every one of us knows it. Examples abound, but let me highlight one for you today that is ongoing and particularly heartbreaking.

Thousands and thousands of Missourians are facing eviction right now as a result of the economic upheaval caused by the COVID epidemic. Many will be evicted even though there are tens of millions of dollars of federal aid allocated to Missouri to pay their back-due rent. Why is this money going largely unspent? Because not enough tenants know it is even available.

Our circuit courts are doing a good job of telling eligible renters who appear how to apply for this money, but we cannot help those who do not show up. We try, but do you really think a frightened tenant is going to parse through an eviction notice and discover that, this time, the government is ready and willing to pay back-due rent for many of those facing eviction? Not hardly. The help the courts offer comes far too late.

What people need is representation: a lawyer who can explain their options before an eviction notice is sent, thereby preventing hundreds or even thousands of evictions that may not need to occur.

I am enormously grateful to Legal Services because, whenever there is trouble, they are the first ones into the breach. And they are working hard on this issue, too. But, like the courts, they can only help those who appear. They simply do not have the resources to do what’s needed, which is to proactively take representation to the people who need it before the eviction action is filed.

This 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 justice system we want to have. Do we want a system in which an ever-increasing percentage of cases has one or both sides unrepresented, with no idea what their rights are and no meaningful way to protect them? Or, are we going to find ways to provide representation for all those who cannot afford it, not only in criminal cases, but also in the many civil cases where the lack of representation can be every bit as destructive as in a criminal case? 

The lack of access to adequate legal representation is not going to go away. It’s just going to get worse. The solutions – whatever they turn out to be – will not be obvious or simple. So it’s a discussion worth having. And, because this lack of access threatens our system of justice, it will be up to all of us to lead that conversation.

And that brings me to the last challenge I want to talk about. To be taken seriously on the need for creating greater access to legal representation, we need to protect and enhance the credibility of our profession. But to solve that problem, we are going to need to find a way to increase both the size and the diversity of the bar.

The Greatest Generation went to war, saved the world, came home, built America’s middle class into the envy of world, and sent their kids to college. Many of those Baby Boomers became lawyers. So many, in fact, that they constituted history’s largest percentage increase in the size of the bar. Well, they are now retiring, and that loss comes at a time when we need more lawyers, not fewer. There are no easy answers to bridging the ever-increasing gap between the amount of representation Missourians need and the amount they can afford, but a future where the number of actively practicing lawyers drops or barely holds steady has no chance of solving it at all.

So, starting today, I’m asking every one of you to take personal responsibility for recruiting the next generation of lawyers – to put that on your daily to-do list and follow through. And we cannot concentrate solely on undergraduate college kids. That’s not going to get the job done. We need to help kids set this goal while they are in high school or even younger.

But understand this: As critically important as recruiting new lawyers is, the future of our profession and the credibility we need to improve justice and protect the rule of law depends even more on who those new lawyers are. Collectively, we have failed to bring adequate diversity to our profession. The next generation of lawyers needs to look a whole lot more like the 6 million Missourians they’ll represent than we do … not only in terms of race and ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation, but also in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds and a willingness to live in and serve both urban and rural communities. Achieving real diversity is essential to maintaining and enhancing the credibility our profession needs if we are to play a leading role in finding solutions to the difficult problems our justice system faces.

Of course, getting into and through law school isn’t easy, nor is paying for it. But we all know it can be done as long as the person has the desire and the commitment to becoming a lawyer. It’s igniting that dream in the person that is so difficult. It’s hard enough to do it with kids who have every advantage and any number of family or friends who are lawyers to act as role models and mentors. It’s even harder to take a kid who doesn’t know any lawyers, who lacks the advantages of race and class and geography, and who cannot even imagine a career in the law, and then convince that kid that, “Yes, you can be a lawyer.” But those are the very kids we need.

Fortunately, I saw a blueprint for this work recently, and I was blown away by it. Last June, I spoke to a group of young people who had just completed the Student Law Academy. The academy is put on by the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation, with the support of the KCMBA, and dozens of lawyers and judges from all around the KC area. It’s a summer program that provides meaningful information about the law and legal careers to underserved urban high school students who would not otherwise have had any reason to ever consider becoming a lawyer. Go to their website, KCMBF.org, and look for “Student Law Academy” under “Programs.” Seriously, hit pause and do it now! I’ll wait here.

When you look at the 2021 scholars, I think you’re looking at the future – and the hope – of our profession. We need an army of these kids. There’s no reason the academy program can’t be replicated around the state, helping the kids we need for our future understand that, “Yes, you can be a lawyer.” If we can awaken in these kids the desire, the dream, to be a lawyer, they will bring incredible energy and vision to the practice of law. Not only will they ensure the future of our profession, they will be uniquely positioned to improve our justice system and defend the rule of law.

But getting young people into the profession is only half the battle. Missouri Bar President John Gunn has spent this last year focusing on lawyer wellness, an incredibly important topic. Our profession is stressful, and that stress can eat you up and run you out of this business if you do not learn to manage it. Too often, the young people we recruit to this profession don’t stay because they find the practice of law doesn’t produce the joy or the happiness they envisioned it would. That problem has to be fixed if we are ever going to achieve a larger, more diverse bar.

To be sure, better stress management can fight these lawyering blues, but it’s not a cure. Fortunately, there is a cure, and I talked about it with the young people at the Student Law Academy. I told them Dr. Albert Schweitzer once spoke about this cure to a group of students who were not much older than them. He said: I don’t know what your professional paths will be. But I do know this. The only ones amongst you who will be happy are those who have sought out and found ways to serve.

Doc Schweitzer nailed it. Happiness is always and only about service. Not money. Not power. Not prestige … Service. And being a lawyer is entirely about service.

So, if you are not as happy as you want to be, if you are feeling cynical and struggling to find the passion that brought you into this profession, ranting on Twitter or reaching for a second glass of wine won’t help. Instead, turn up the service volume on your legal career. Call Legal Services and ask about their volunteer attorney program. Go to a school and plant the seed of a legal career in the mind of a kid to whom that idea might never have occurred. Being a lawyer presents endless opportunities to serve others … take them.

If you do, if you make a conscious decision to dedicate your professional life to service, I promise you the practice of law will sustain you and make you happy. And, to me, that’s a life worth living.

So I’ll close today where I closed with those Student Law Academy scholars this summer, with a quote from George Bernard Shaw. He talked about happiness and service better than I – or even Dr. Schweitzer – ever could. Shaw said:

This is the true joy in life, being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no “brief candle” to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.

Shaw didn’t know it, but he was talking about lawyers – he was talking about you. Let the law be the spark that lights the torch of service you will carry throughout your life until – thoroughly used up – it’s your turn to pass that torch to future generations. Commit yourself to a life of service, and the pursuit of happiness will take care of itself.

I want all of us to get better at showing the pride we feel in what we do and say. I look forward to working with you to build a bigger and more diverse bar. And I hope each of you is blessed with a lifetime of service.

Thank you.

1 This address was delivered virtually Sept. 23, 2021, during the hybrid Annual Meeting of The Missouri Bar and in person at the Judicial Conference of Missouri.