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Pipelines and public confidence

Vol. 79, No. 6 / Nov. - Dec. 2023

Megan Phillips-2023

Megan Phillips, Missouri Bar president

Visit any high school classroom and it starts the same way.  

Who here believes in fairness? All hands shoot up. Who is good at arguing? Same. Who likes to solve problems? Hands. Who likes to help people? Hands. Ok, well, so far, you’re all future lawyers. Now, who feels passionate about human rights? Hands. Who likes science and technology? Hands. Who wants to start a business? Work for a business? Protect children? Resolve disputes? Right wrongs? Serve your community?  

Great news! You’re all lawyers! 

Because no matter where your strengths and interests lie, there’s a place for you in the legal profession. Am I right? I mean, how many lawyers do you know whose specialties require skill sets vastly different than your own? We have a big professional tent! But we’re falling short on filling it. Without access to counsel, bad things happen to everyday people, and citizens become disillusioned with the entire system. This is bad for democracy. 

In his speech at The Missouri Bar Annual Meeting and Judicial Conference in 2022, then-Chief Justice Paul Wilson argued that only by expanding the size and composition of our bar can we improve the credibility of our profession, public confidence in the legal system, and respect for the rule of law.  Indeed, nationwide, bar organizations face demographic challenges that hinder access to justice and public trust in the Third Branch.   

On my recent visit to the 9th Judicial Circuit, lawyers expressed concern about the declining rates of lawyers who practice in rural areas while confirming that there’s a good living to be made in small communities. So why aren’t there more lawyers setting up shop on Main Street?   

The answer came from a high school guidance counsel at our dinner table. The average teenager knows exactly nothing about lawyers or the legal system beyond what they see on TV or experience in their own lives (often traumatically). Many of these students plan to stay and work in their hometowns after graduation, but they might not envision or can’t even conceptualize a career in the law.   

Some of our sister states have piloted loan forgiveness programs to entice new graduates into underserved areas. But, lacking ties to the community, these lawyers rarely stay past the contract term. The alternative is obvious. We must grow our own, right from their roots, starting in high school.  Missouri teenagers need to see their future selves in the successful lawyers and judges in their own communities. 

On another front, our profession is still far less diverse than the public we serve. The Missouri Bar Special Committee on Lawyers of Color recognized that we must actively fill the pipeline by recruiting students of color starting in high school. How can we expect a diverse public to trust a homogenous institution? And we can’t evolve as a profession without more diverse perspectives at the table. 

Judge Wilson urged us to take personal responsibility for recruiting the next generation of lawyers. I join his plea. Countless among you have expressed a desire to increase your involvement in the bar. I submit to you that high school outreach through the bar’s Citizenship Education Program could have the greatest impact within and beyond the profession. This spring, dozens of Missouri teens are expected to gather in Columbia for Show Me the Constitution, an annual competition that asks students to consider challenging constitutional issues and debate them in front of volunteer judges – many of whom are lawyers. This is just one example of how the bar is investing in our youth and how you can be involved in that effort. 

Teenagers give me hope for the future. They are smart, savvy, ambitious, curious, and hilarious. Above all, they want to make a difference. We must engage with these promising young people and show them the potential for self-realization in service to the Third Branch and our democracy. So here is your charge: Contact the nearest high school and offer to visit a social studies class to talk about the legal system and careers in the law. You might inspire a teenager to think about law school. And just by showing up you will dispel misconceptions and instill greater confidence in the legal system. Let’s shape the future.