President's Message May/June 2016

Addressing Our Profession's Challenges

Melissa E. Darigan, Esq.
President, Rhode Island Bar Association

Our Bar’s experience, expertise and relationships in all things touching on the practice of law and administration of justice make us uniquely suited to play an influential and impactful role in how our members adapt and whether lawyers in this state struggle or thrive. 

So I began this year as Bar President speaking of change in the legal profession and the marketplace challenges caused by increased client demands, intensifying competition and disruptive technologies.  We need to work better, smarter, faster and cheaper to stay ahead, I said, and called on members to get engaged in finding solutions to our challenges.  

As my term comes to an end, I look back and ask whether anything has changed, really, and have I just been crying wolf?  After all, clients still call, the courts are still running, the work gets done and bills are getting paid – business goes on pretty much as usual.  But does it? Could it be that we simply are refusing to acknowledge the threats?  Could it be that we are reluctant to adopt changes that upset our traditional way of doing things?  Could it be that we are just opting for short-term fixes versus making difficult choices that will provide benefits in the long run?  

I believe most of us, even the skeptics, know, in our heart of hearts that the market for legal services has changed in significant and permanent ways.  Clients are more willing than ever to look to non-traditional legal services providers for a wide range of services previously offered almost exclusively by lawyers.  When they do use lawyers, good results are not enough; clients are demanding greater value, meaning greater efficiency, predictability and cost effectiveness.  This is to say nothing about the growing number of clients who simply cannot afford legal assistance and the mounting strain on the court system as it struggles to do more with less. 

Our profession needs to stop responding to these market changes in passive and reactive ways.  My plan this year was to try to raise our collective consciousness about the need to change, elevate the level of engagement of our members, and encourage greater communication and collaboration with all our constituencies.  I am happy to say we have made progress toward these goals in large and small ways.  Among them, our Bar’s Executive Committee met with leadership of the Rhode Island House of Representatives to discuss how the Bar Association can be a resource to the legislature and its attorney members.  We wrote to the Governor regarding the adverse effect on the administration of justice resulting from unfilled judicial vacancies, and to the Supreme Court seeking implementation of a statewide administrative order on attorney use of electronic devices in the courtroom.  Mid-year reports were requested of committees and distributed among all of our leadership so that members would stay connected to the initiatives and work of the Association and identify areas for collaboration. Soon the Executive Committee will meet with the Chief Judges of all the state courts and the federal district court to discuss matters of common concern and possible solutions.  And, we updated and formalized our legislative protocols with the objective of increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of our legislative program.  In all of these activities, my mission has been to increase the impact the Bar Association has on matters that affect the changing practice of law. 

A big success on this front is the Bar Association’s report to the Supreme Court on Limited Scope Representation (LSR).  Providing less than the traditional all-in legal services to clients in litigation, LSR is a growing trend developing in response to changes in the marketplace and is a way of practicing that is relatively new to Rhode Island.  We harnessed the expertise of our members and created an inter-disciplinary committee to analyze other states’ responses to the problems stemming from the increasing number of pro se litigants and to propose rules and protocols for our members to competently and safely provided limited scope assistance to clients.  A comprehensive report and model forms for LSR were prepared in record time, and our Bar’s Executive Committee and House of Delegates met in special sessions so the committee’s recommendations could be vetted and approved in time to meet the Court’s submission date. 

This project typifies the type of collaboration and proactive engagement we as a Bar Association need to play a role in adapting our profession to change.  And, I believe, that role should be prominent.  As the preeminent professional association of lawyers within the state, our Bar Association should have a greater voice in what is happening in the legal profession.  Our experience, expertise and relationships in all things touching on the practice of law and administration of justice make us uniquely suited to play an influential and impactful role in how our members adapt and whether lawyers in this state struggle or thrive.  

As I said at the outset of this term, I do not easily embrace change.  But I cannot deny the threats to our profession arising from the shift in client demands and expectations and the growing problems related to the public’s unmet need for legal assistance.  For me, knowing the legal landscape has changed is not the challenge; it is making the choice to act.  Our Bar Association can have an active and energetic leadership presence that provides value to members, improves the delivery of legal services and advances the interests of the profession.  We just have to do it. 

At this time of year, I am frequently asked if I’m counting down the days to the end of my term.  I am, but not in the way most people think.  I have loved every aspect of this job and will miss being a part of the opportunity we have to innovate and adapt to change.  I hope I have served you well.  I think I have.  Thank you for giving me the opportunity.