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August 5, 2010

Evolving Legal Profession, Declining Access to Justice Top Issues at ABA Annual Meeting

Addressing a legal services landscape transformed by the struggling economy, globalization of business and rapid advances in technology is top of mind for America’s legal community as the nation’s largest lawyers’ organization today opened the _ Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

Leading nearly 1,500 programs and events at the Moscone Convention Center and surrounding venues is “20/20 Vision: The Impact of Technology and Globalization on Ethics for the 21st Century Lawyer,” a program later today that will bring together a panel led by San Francisco lawyer Judith Miller to explore the implications of a rapidly changing legal profession.

“The way we do business today is almost completely different as a result of technology and the globalization of law practice—instantaneously communicating with people around the world on the Internet and searching for information with just a few words typed on a computer. We can’t ignore that our world has changed. We need to be leaders in dealing with the change,” said ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm, explaining the need for a fresh examination of lawyer regulations.

Guidance for the legal profession as it deals with the new realities of law practice is one of Lamm’s areas of focus, and the program will draw from work of the ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20, a group Lamm established last year to address the impact of technology and globalization.

In addition to the “20/20 Vision” program, the ABA has more than a dozen other sessions examining the intersection of technology and law practice, ranging from those on managing e-discovery costs, creating social media policies and other practice-related concerns, to programs that take a more macro view of the legal profession, such as a session on Friday, “Justice 12.0—Is There an App for That?” that will make predictions on legal services 30 years from now.

The impact of the down economy on law practice and the justice system also guides programming at the 2010 meeting. “Law Firm Legal Aid,” a program today from the ABA Center for Pro Bono, explores the probable loss of volunteer lawyers that law firms made available for legal aid programs over the past year while business slowed. A panel will examine the ramifications on the justice system when law firms return to their business as usual.

The possible reduction in pro bono assistance from law firms comes as more Americans than ever struggle with legal issues such as foreclosure, even as the economy shows signs of improving.

Victor M. Fortuno, president of the Legal Services Corporation and Rebekah Diller, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, are among panelists who will lead a discussion today on developing response strategies to problems related to access to justice during “Crisis in Representation!”

Panelists will specifically look at a report from the ABA Coalition for Justice last month that found that the bad economy and a large number of judicial vacancies are widening the justice gap, affecting middle-class Americans as well as those with low-incomes.

Also weighing in on the crisis in legal services is Laurence Tribe, head of the U.S. Department of Justice’s recently created Access to Justice Initiative, who will discuss improving the availability and quality of  indigent defense in a conversation on Saturday with Norman Lefstein, professor and dean emeritus of Indiana University School of Law, and Virginia Sloan, president of The Constitution Project.

Among other programming related to enhancing access to justice, “Enforcing a Right to Counsel for Children: The Time is Now” includes a criminal justice panel led by Miami lawyer Hilarie Bass that will explore ways to remove barriers that prevent lawyers from representing children in dependency court.

“This program is an example of the ABA identifying issues that are falling through the cracks.  All too often we read in the papers about disasters for foster children after they happen.  The ABA is taking the initiative to look at what can be done to prevent these crises from occurring,” explained Lamm of the Thursday session. “This program is focused on improving the system for foster children by looking at best practices for lawyers representing our most vulnerable citizens.”

Other programs addressing indigent defense include the Friday session “Stepping Up for Justice for Veterans as They Stand Down,” an examination of emerging best practices on serving veterans, such as Veteran Treatment Courts that aim to reduce recidivism.

The ABA Annual Meeting continues through Aug. 10.