"Get better at showing the pride we feel in what we do and say," Missouri's Supreme Court chief justice challenged his fellow judges and lawyers this week during a gathering of the state's judges and lawyers.
Chief Justice Paul Wilson made the comments during a virtual meeting of The Missouri Bar and an in-person meeting of the Judicial Conference of Missouri.
"Among the many lessons we've all learned over the past year, it should be clear by now that the COVID virus doesn't care what we think or believe," Wilson said. "We all need to think about managing this risk over the long term. How long? I don't know, but no matter what the future holds, I think the lessons over the last many months will serve us well."
Before the pandemic, Wilson said, many assumed the court system was like the early rockets in the 1950s and '60s it operated at full speed or it was off, completely.
"When the pandemic hit, however, turning off the courts was not an option," Wilson said. "We found ways to do what no one thought we could. We took advantage of new technologies to conduct an unprecedented number of proceedings remotely and limited in-person proceedings whenever we could. And it worked. Courts had to remain open and accessible, and they did."
Hundreds of judges and thousands of court staff struggled through new and unfamiliar ways to do their jobs with the pandemic, Wilson said.
"Even though the future is uncertain, it is clear that what worked over the past year will not work indefinitely," Wilson said. "The reduced operations of 2020 simply cannot — and must not — become permanent. Despite our best efforts, filings (of cases) in 2020 outpaced dispositions.
"The size of this backlog and the types of cases involved vary around the state, but there is no doubt we have some catching up to do — and when I say 'we' I mean it will take both the bench and the bar to clear this backlog," Wilson continued. "We need to do it safely, protecting the health of litigants, witnesses, jurors, lawyers and court staff."
Wilson said the pandemic is not the only challenge the courts face and the other challenges, if left unaddressed, "will wreak more havoc on the justice system than COVID ever could."
"All of us need to do a better job of showing we know what we do has value and showing we are proud of the system," Wilson said. "Lay people believe the way each of us is is the way we all are, and the way the justice system is. You can't blame them.
"Either truth exists and we strive toward it, or it doesn't. You cannot shout lies and half-truths in the middle of the town square (or on Twitter) and expect people not to attribute that kind of contempt for the truth to all lawyers or, worse, to the justice system as a whole."
Wilson told his colleagues what the public knows about lawyers and justice in this country "is what we teach them — by word and deed."
"If lawyers act like truth matters, all the time, then society is far more likely to believe their justice system cares about truth as well," Wilson said. "Lawyers have a duty to show people — by what we do and what we say — that the justice system is fair and worthy of their confidence, and it's up to us to show them that the rule of law matters. If we don't do this, we risk losing them both."
The second challenge Wilson discussed was how well the justice system is — and is not — working. In particular, the lack of access to counsel (lawyers).
"Thousands of Missourians are facing eviction as a result of the economic upheaval caused by the COVID epidemic even though there are tens of millions of dollars of federal aid allocated to pay their back-due rent," Wilson said. "Why is this money going largely unspent? Because not enough tenants know it is even available."
Wilson said circuit courts are doing a good job of telling eligible renters who appear how to apply for this money, but they cannot help those who do not show up to court.
"What people need is representation: a lawyer who can explain their options before an eviction notice is sent," Wilson said. "This is a clear example of why we — as a society — need to talk about the kind of world we want to live in and the kind of justice system we want to have. Do we want a system in which an ever-increasing percentage of cases has one or both sides unrepresented, with no idea what their rights are and no meaningful way to protect them? Or, are we going to find ways to provide representation for all those who cannot afford it, not only in criminal cases, but also in the many civil cases where the lack of representation can be every bit as destructive as in a criminal case?"
Wilson said the lack of access to adequate legal representation is not going to go away. It's just going to get worse.
"The solutions — whatever they turn out to be — will not be obvious or simple and, because this lack of access threatens our system of justice, it will be up to all of us to lead that conversation," Wilson added.
The third challenge Wilson noted was finding a way to increase the size and the diversity of the bar.
"Many Baby Boomers became lawyers — so many, in fact, that they constituted history's largest percentage increase in the size of the bar," Wilson said. "That group is now retiring and that loss comes at a time when we need more lawyers, not fewer."
Wilson acknowledged there are no easy answers to bridging the ever-increasing gap between the amount of representation Missourians need and the amount they can afford, but "a future where the number of actively practicing lawyers drops or barely holds steady has no chance of solving it at all."
With that in mind, Wilson challenged his colleagues to take personal responsibility for recruiting the next generation of lawyers.
"We cannot concentrate solely on undergraduate college kids because that's not going to get the job done," Wilson said. "We need to help kids set this goal while they are in high school or even younger."
Wilson also chided his colleagues saying, "collectively, we have failed to bring adequate diversity to our profession."
"The next generation of lawyers needs to look a whole lot more like the 6 million Missourians they'll represent than we do," Wilson added. "Not only in terms of race and ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation, but also in terms of socioeconomic backgrounds and a willingness to live in and serve both urban and rural communities. Achieving real diversity is essential to maintaining and enhancing the credibility our profession needs if we are to play a leading role in finding solutions to the difficult problems our justice system faces."
Wilson believes there is a blueprint for how they can address the diversity challenge. The Student Law Academy, which is put on by the Kansas City Metropolitan Bar Foundation, is a summer program that provides information about the law and legal careers to under-served urban high school students.
"When you look at their scholars, I think you're looking at the future — and the hope — of our profession," Wilson said. "We need an army of these kids. There's no reason the academy program can't be replicated around the state, helping the kids we need for our future."
Along with getting young people into the legal profession, Wilson said they also should focusing on lawyer wellness.
"Our profession is stressful, and that stress can eat you up and run you out of this business if you do not learn to manage it," Wilson said. "Too often, the young people we recruit don't stay because they find the practice of law doesn't produce the joy or the happiness they envisioned it would.
"For legal professionals who are struggling to find the passion that brought them into the profession, ranting on Twitter or reaching for a second glass of wine won't help," Wilson said. "Instead, turn up the service volume on your legal career. Go to a school and plant the seed of a legal career in the mind of a kid to whom that idea might never have occurred. Being a lawyer presents endless opportunities to serve others. So take them."