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TCL > April 2014 Issue > Guest Authors—A Call To All Trial Lawyers: Get Involved!

April 2014       Vol. 43, No. 4       Page  5
In and Around the Bar
CBA President's Message to Members

Guest Authors—A Call To All Trial Lawyers: Get Involved!
by Gordon W. Netzorg, Peter G. Koclanes

About the Authors

   

Gordon W. Netzorg is a member of Sherman & Howard’s trial group. He is a member of the American College of Trial Lawyers, formerly the Colorado chair, and helped develop the proposed set of pilot project rules for business cases. He is a past president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association and a former member of the CBA Ethics Committee—snetzorg@shermanhoward.com. Peter G. Koclanes is chair of Sherman & Howard’s trial group. He is past president of both the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association and the Colorado Association of Corporate Counsel. He currently serves on the board of the Colorado Judicial Institute and has been a member of the CBA Ethics Committee since 1997—pkoclanes@shermanhoward.com.


Hello Readers: Having worked with many excellent attorneys, judges, and law-related professionals throughout my career, I decided to periodically deviate from the traditional monthly President’s Message. I have invited a few of those colleagues to share some of their experiences and views concerning the legal profession and about topics of import and meaning to them and me.

Trial lawyers are a vital component of the legal profession. Their firsthand courtroom experience gives them a unique perspective on how our judicial system works. This month, two experienced trial lawyers who are active CBA members discuss how participating in bar activities enhances their practice.

—W. Terry Ruckriegle


Talk to trial lawyers about what they do and why they do it, and you will begin to hear the same things over and over again:

  • I love helping those who need help.
  • I love presenting a case to and interacting with a jury or a judge.
  • I love seeking justice for my clients.
  • It’s great to be paid to think, write, talk, and argue, which are all things I would do anyway.
  • I love the creativity involved.
  • I thrive on the interaction I have with other lawyers.
  • I love protecting people in a court of law.
  • I love helping solve problems for people I like.
  • I love the challenge of it.
  • I love making change for the better.
  • It’s deeply satisfying.
  • It’s never boring.

We have had the privilege and honor of representing our clients in trials and appeals for thirty-eight years and twenty-seven years, respectively. Believe us when we say that we have experienced these and other similar feelings and emotions during our careers. For us, there is nothing better than being a trial lawyer.

However, increasingly, trial lawyers also are talking about their concerns with the practice of law and the judicial system. We hear about the decline in the number of jury trials, overcrowded court dockets, and busy judges who may lack sufficient staff and administrative support. Trial lawyers express concerns about "scorched earth discovery tactics," the high cost of litigation, the erosion of the public’s access to the courts, repeated attacks on the independence of the judiciary, a lack of professionalism and collegiality among counsel, an increase in questionable ethical conduct, some negative public perception of lawyers in general and of trial lawyers in particular, and limited or no opportunities for young trial lawyers to try civil cases.

In our experience, these concerns are real ones. Trial lawyers are no strangers to adversity. Fortunately, none of this is outside the trial bar’s control if we are willing to get involved in the bar and related organizations. The political leanings of the trial bar are diverse in so many ways. However, as trial lawyers, we have a set of fundamental common goals. Trial lawyers value the independence of the judiciary, fair and appropriate procedural rules, the public’s access to the courts, professionalism among counsel, and practicing solid legal ethics. This brings us together no matter what the circumstance.

Over the years, the bar and other organizations that are made up in good part of trial lawyers have assisted with safeguarding the courts, the public, and the bar. There are countless examples.

Potential Rules Changes—
The Colorado Civil Action Pilot Project

In an attempt to decrease the burden of civil litigation, increase access to the courts, and protect civil trials, a group of legal professionals, including judges, partnered with the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System to address the growing concern that the civil pretrial process is unnecessarily complex, lengthy, and expensive. A committee met to discuss ways to improve the Colorado civil justice system. This committee included local members of the American Board of Trial Advocates and the American College of Trial Lawyers; leadership from the CBA, the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association, and the Colorado Defense Lawyers Association; and other experienced members of the Colorado trial bar and judiciary. A subcommittee developed a proposed set of pilot project rules for business cases, which was offered to the Colorado Supreme Court for consideration.

In July 2011, the Court authorized a two-year pilot project to begin January 1, 2012. In June 2013, the Court extended the project to cases filed through December 31, 2014. The goals of the Colorado Civil Action Pilot Project (CAPP) are an improved pretrial process with a threefold intention:

1) to benefit citizens by minimizing gamesmanship and cost overruns;

2) to benefit attorneys by allowing them to take cases that would have been economically infeasible, and for greater opportunities to take cases to trial; and

3) to benefit judges by allowing them to move cases through the process in a more effective and expeditious manner.

The CAPP program is alive and well.

Potential Political Changes—
Defeating Attacks on Judicial Independence

For decades, Colorado judges have been chosen through a system of judicial merit selection, which is based on input from Colorado citizens and a final appointment decision by the governor. Once chosen, our judges are subject to a nonpartisan judicial performance review program that relies on information gathered from those who work with judges, sit on juries, and appear in courtrooms. Over the years, trial lawyers, through their involvement in the CBA and related organizations such as the Colorado Judicial Institute, have successfully assisted in defeating attacks on our merit-based judicial selection and retention system, including a serious effort to term-limit judges. Changes to and erosion of the judicial system sometimes take place in a gradual manner. Many times, when we realize that we must act, the changes are already in place and might even be irreversible. The trial bar’s vigilance in this regard is critical to preserving our system of justice.

Ethics and Professionalism

The CBA has more than twenty committees.1 Two important ones relating to ethics and professionalism are the Ethics Committee and the Professionalism Coordinating Council. The Ethics Committee is a standing committee with approximately 100 Colorado attorneys. It exists to give ethics advice to Colorado attorneys. Subject to certain exceptions, the Ethics Committee answers written requests for ethics advice, issues formal ethics opinions, and offers a hotline subcommittee for a brief discussion of ethical issues to provide more immediate information.

The Professionalism Coordinating Council, which has approximately 180 members, implements professionalism principles among the bar and seeks to improve professional conduct by lawyers and judges. It sponsors a speaker’s bureau, presents to law students, and has produced a video vignette series for use in professionalism and ethical education and discussions. This committee also coordinated the October 2013 theme issue of The Colorado Lawyer on Professionalism.2

Young Trial Lawyers

A recent statistic from the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado reveals that only approximately 1.17% of all filed civil cases go to trial. The Colorado state district court trial rate is about the same. The opportunities for lawyers of any age to try civil cases are few and far between. Consequently, it is important for young trial lawyers to become involved in the trial bar and related organizations and, in particular, those with young lawyers committees. Both the Colorado Trial Lawyers Association and the Colorado Defense Lawyers Association have such committees. It also is important that experienced trial lawyers take the initiative to mentor young lawyers in the art of trying cases. We must challenge and help train our younger trial lawyers to develop the skills to be outstanding lawyers and advocates for their clients, keeping in mind that they are our future bar leaders.

Community Outreach Efforts
by the Bar and Related Organizations

There are a variety of reasons the public may have adverse perceptions of trial lawyers. Stories abound about how a lawyer’s conduct may have caused negative views about our profession. Notwithstanding, it is up to all of us to do our part to assist those who cannot afford legal services. This way, we are not only helping those in need, but we also are demonstrating to the public the positive qualities of the trial bar. For example, the CBA’s Availability of Legal Services Committee works to expand legal services for all people, regardless of their ability to pay; encourages lawyer pro bono services; develops proposals to improve systems of low-cost legal services; and assists local bar associations with public service programs. Another example is the Denver Bar Association’s Metro Volunteer Lawyers program, which provides civil legal services to financially eligible applicants in eight metro Denver counties, to bridge the gap in access to justice to people who could not otherwise afford legal services for their civil legal issues.

We need to continue to participate in and connect with the community so that the public knows the trial bar for who we are. There are countless ways to do this. Remember to give of yourself, speak and act from your heart, and be happy in your role as a trial lawyer.

It’s Your Move

Some people may wonder whether it is worth their effort to get involved. We already have so many demands on our time. Will it really make a difference? The answer is yes!

Trial lawyers have a unique insight and perspective on the workings of our judicial system, lawyer ethics and professionalism, client needs, and mentoring the next generation of trial lawyers. The reality is that our system of justice needs active participation and efforts from all of us who are members of the bar.

From those who have committed significant time to bar activities, we believe you will hear a resounding vote in favor of doing the work of the bar. To many, the benefits from committing meaningful amounts of time and energy to projects that can change the way we do things for the better are invaluable. Donate your time, network and share ideas, and contribute as you are able. As trial lawyers, we must continue to work together to support the bar.

Notes

1. To learn more about the CBA’s committees, visit www.cobar.org/index.cfm/ID/20192/DPADM/Committees.

2. CBA members can access the theme issue at www.cobar.org/tcl/tcl_vol.cfm?pubyear=2013&pubmonth=10.

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