Oregon State Bar Bulletin January 2002

Angel Lopez on the Issues

Judicial Independence

'A leading issue facing the bar today is the current attack on the independence of the judiciary. The hallmark of a great lawyer is to show courage and integrity when addressing unpopular causes and issues, regardless of which side we find ourselves on. The same must necessarily hold true for the courts. Democracy is better perpetuated by judicial independence over a judicial system that needs to base decisions on the potential outcome of the next election, or where campaign contributions are coming from. We have to educate the public about the crucial need to maintain judicial independence, adequate court facilities and adequate court staff.

'Last year, as chairman of the OSB Appellate Selection Committee, I arranged to invite legislative representatives and representatives from the governor's office to sit in on the candidate selection process. The feedback we've gotten so far is that the current selection process is neutral and fair. I believe the current system is a good one.'

Access to justice

'How to provide legal services for low- and moderate-income Oregonians is a continuing challenge for our membership. An unfortunate reality of life is that our office and staff overheads are forever rising. We continually try to stay ahead of the curve by raising our fees. Many of us are already outside the financial reach of the middle class. Most of us are beyond the reach of the poor.

'Market competition, being what it is, tends to fill the void. We have the 'notario publico,' who feel free to offer and charge for legal advice to the clients because it is an accepted practice in Latin American countries. We also have 'paralegals' and 'do-it-yourself' divorce or avoiding-probate kits, and even some title companies who stray into the unauthorized practice of law.

'This system of 'legal services' is evolving because of the unaffordability of attorney fees. It is consumer driven. Unfortunately, the guarantees of competence, malpractice insurance and a disciplinary system are not available here as protection for the public. The only standard of consumer protection is caveat emptor.

'We, as a profession, had better be prepared to subsidize, or make accessible, legal services to the poor. We ignore this reality at our own risk. We need to start with the Campaign for Equal Justice, which helps fund legal services on an appropriate level. We need to take an active part in advocating for adequate legal services funding at the state and national level. Finally, we must figure out a way to make legal services more readily available to the middle class. Ultimately, the lack of universal legal services is our problem. If we can't solve the legal services delivery crisis, it will be solved for us, and we will give up our profession to unlicensed practitioners.'

The OSB and the disciplinary system

'At the OSB House of Delegates meeting last September, the message I got loud and clear is that there is a growing feeling among the bar - in particular, practitioners in small to mid-size firms - that they are being unfairly picked on by the disciplinary process.

'Jim Hennings (director of Metropolitan Public Defender) called for a resolution to study our current disciplinary system and make suggestions for improvement. Last year, my predecessor (Ed Harnden) appointed a task force to study the issues. I look forward to the results of this study. However, we must keep in mind that our current disciplinary system is only as successful as it is because of a large panel of lawyer volunteers who run the trial board process. Among other things, it encourages a system of peer review and discourages a system of a highly bureaucratized disciplinary process that would carry the potential of raising our bar dues way out of my comfort zone.'

The criminal justice system

'I will focus on working with the Oregon Supreme Court, the prosecutors and the newly formed office of public defense services to get the message out that in order to have a criminal justice system that is just, we need adequate funding for each part, whether it be the court, the indigent defense or the prosecution function of the justice system. We cannot continue to fund one aspect of this system at the expense of the others; we weaken the process by doing so.'

The public image of lawyers

'The current image of lawyers in society is not one I am particularly proud to share. We are too often seen as hired guns who will lie, cheat and steal to get the job done. More and more, our clients want an aggressive (rude/nasty) litigator. It is their stereotype of what a good lawyer should be. Ironically, it is these traits that hold us up to public derision. My own observation is that such a lawyer cheapens the profession, adds nothing to the case, and in fact, is more likely to run up legal costs, court time and the length of litigation. As attorneys, we should focus on being problem solvers, not problem makers.

'As a Board of Governors member, I see these type of 'good' lawyers with great frequency when reviewing lawyer suspensions or re-admission petitions. Not surprisingly, these also are the lawyers who tend to get local and national press coverage, not often good.

'We as professionals need to take a few minutes at least once a year to inventory ourselves as a member of our profession, and to inventory our lives as human beings. We need to remember why it is we chose to become lawyers and how close we are to that ideal. Ultimately, as professionals, we are answerable both to the public and ourselves. We should strive to make that answer one we are proud to live with.'

Public service

'I believe that lawyers are at their best when engaging in legislative, community or bar services. When I was in law school, then later as a young attorney, the message was constantly driven that with the privilege of entering the legal profession comes the unique opportunity to share our skills and knowledge for the betterment of our community and legal system.

'It is with this in mind that I applaud the lawyer legislators who make an incredible sacrifice to public service. I also thank you, the members of the bar, for your enthusiasm in getting involved in our communities and, in particular, with bar activities.

'Please keep in mind that there are many volunteer possibilities within your state and local bars that suit your interests and your personal and professional goals. Also, for those of you who are not satisfied with the way your professional organization carries out its function - run for bar office. Be part of the governing body, whether at the Board of Governors level or as a member of the board of your local bar association.

'My years on the Board of Governors have been among the most satisfying of my life. I have had the opportunity to meet and exchange ideas with some of the most committed and intellectually gifted minds in the country. I have made some wonderful friendships. Being on the Board of Governors, in particular, has been the opportunity of my lifetime. Why not let it be yours?'

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