How to do unbiased, informed, competent coverage of a custody story

We started this blog because of journalism's abysmal failure to exercise basic skepticism, objectivity and diligence when covering family law, and especially hotly contested cases about children. So we are delighted to give credit where credit is due. This story reports the good and bad about both parents, but only as far as it goes, without making assumptions or just buying one parent's story wholesale. And yet it still tells you enough that you feel you know the story as well as anyone who wasn't involved in it could, but with a healthy recognition of, and respect for, the unknowns. 

Colorado International Child Custody Battle Nears End

By Jacob Maslow in The Global Dispatch

-- Just one thing: "Custody Battle Nears End" is so often premature. Besides all the appeals, etc. that people can do in any court case, people can go back to court, claiming that something's changed, until the child turns 18. A few people will keep fighting after that, over collection of fee awards, disabled adult children, and other unusual issues.

 


Pro Bono rule light on substance, heavy on compliance, penalties, lengthy definitions

What's going on in Virginia's pro-bono-reporting controversy was illuminated for me by a recent interview with law professor Richard Epstein, known for many things but first for his monumental works on Strict Liability and Eminent Domain.

"... We're now entering into a compliance culture, where if you do something wrong, the sanctions are always draconian. So you (A) have to have somebody to fix it so you don't get punished. And (B) you have to have all your ducks in order so that if something goes wrong you have all sorts of defenses ... So the compliance culture essentially requires industry concentration ... If you double the size of a firm, you don't double the size of your compliance costs. And so one of the things that Obamacare has done is that it has led to a wave of hospital and industry mergers in an effort to minimize compliance costs thereby creating higher levels of market concentration, which leads to monopoly power."

    Maybe that's why Virginia Lawyers Weekly reports that of the public comments the state bar received on mandatory pro bono reporting, the favorable majority overwhelmingly came from lawyers at big firms and legal aid agencies. I don't mean that this is big-firm lawyers' motive, but it's why the load of compliance isn't an issue for them, and is a big issue for small-firm and solo lawyers. Also, the rule lets firms concentrate their pro bono time in a few lawyers, so they can undertake big, time-consuming cases for the poor. That's a very worthy adaptation to the rule, IF there should even be a rule in the first place. And I suspect many bigger firms already keep track of all their lawyers' pro bono and extracurricular time, so they can put the results in press releases.

The proposed change only requires lawyers to fill in a number in a "How many hours" blank once a year when renewing their membership and paying their dues to the mandatory Virginia State Bar, which licenses and regulates lawyers. There's a lot more that advocates for the poor's legal needs might want to know to make the information more useful -- what kinds of law do you practice? Which of the many kinds of work listed in the Definitions section do you do? Do you do the pro bono through other institutions or just through your law firm? What needs do you think are out there? Any other ways you could work to meet them? What gets in the way of doing that? 

So the Bar only asks lawyers this one short, innocent question, about your free-will offering of humanitarian good works, where the only wrong answer is no answer. (Or an answer that's not a number of hours.) But it makes lawyers awfully apprehensive when it shows up asking that little question but loaded for bear, bristling with hooks, nets, expulsion devices, license-grabbers, long lists and cross-references. Not in a survey like the ones the Supreme Court and Bar already send out, but as part of membership renewal, in a list of questions that gravely affect one's permission to practice law: have you been conflicted of a felony, been disciplined by another state's bar, do you have liability insurance ... ? If lawyers wonder exactly what hours they should include in the number, they need to look up the lists of definitions and alternative means of compliance (which the proposed change will lengthen) in Professional Responsibility Rule 6.1 and, especially in its Commentary. To find out the rules and penalties for not reporting or late reporting, they must look at Bar Organization Rule "19. Procedure for the Administrative Suspension of a Member."  And it does it, not in a survey like the ones the Supreme Court already sends out, but as part of membership renewal and in a list of questions that gravely affect one's permission to practice law: have you been conflicted of a felony, been disciplined by another state's bar, do you have liability insurance ... ?

Just another cumulative annoyance in the process of what Virginia's great writer Florence King called being "nibbled to death by a bureaucratic duck". 

Quotation is from Page 2 of 

Richard Epstein: Why Obamacare Is Collapsing and He's Not Voting for Trump, Hillary, *or* Johnson

Q&A with the great libertarian law professor on cigarettes, global warming, foreign policy, and much, much more.


If presidential perjurers don't get charged, will anyone be afraid to lie in court?

In the Clinton impeachment we decided that perjury isn't an impeachable offense, at least when it's basically about a president's private life and not the essential parts of his job, treason, murder, rape, subverting democratic elections, corruption ... .

But what about plain old criminal prosecutions? if presidents and candidates don't get prosecuted for obvious perjury either, then that tells everyone else to disregard that lying when testifying it's illegal and dangerous. And it gives lawyers and judges another reason not to believe what anyone says. Testifying to a court -- whether on the witness stand, in a deposition, or a written, notarized affidavit -- is under oath and "under penalty of perjury."

Newsweek has published clear proof that Donald Trump either: (a) lied in a deposition in a case against an ex-employee, about a failed attempt to bribe Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, or (b) lied about it to Bush's face in the second debate. Or both. (Even if bribe is the wrong word, that doesn't affect the specific question that the lie and contradiction were about: Whether Trump was trying to get Bush to reverse his opposition to casino gambling when he hired the Defendant to get Florida to allow him to build a casino and hosted a fundraising event for Bush.)

The lawsuit was in Broward County, Florida. Perjury in a deposition is a third-degree felony under Florida law, and can mean up to five years in prison. I haven't yet found out whether Trump was in Florida or another state when he gave his deposition testimony, and whether that would keep Florida from prosecuting him. But the head prosecutor in Broward County, and/or the county where Trump testified, needs to decide whether to pursue a perjury investigation and prosecution, preferably before the election. 

DONALD TRUMP EITHER LIED TO THE REPUBLICANS OR BROKE THE LAW (EXCLUSIVE)


Defending marriage vs. unwanted dissolution, turning weakness into strength: Tim Kaine's first cases

"Diane married James against [her] guardian’s wishes and [the guardian] wanted to get the marriage annulled. Kaine represented Diane in a lawsuit to preserve her marriage. He fought the guardian and won, learning that the guardian wanted Diane’s dis­ability checks.

“'What started off as a marriage case in Richmond Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court ended up as a criminal trial against the guardian in federal court,' he said.

"Kaine said, 'I learned a lot from Di­ane.' including the responsibility of law practice and that what a lawyer does really mat­ters.

“'And I also learned a critical lesson that served me well through­out my career— whatever the is­sue seems to be at first, look deeper. The marriage law­suit, ostensibly filed to protect a mentally disabled person, was really the guardian’s effort to continue the subjugation of Diane and the theft of her disability payments,' he said.

From "The Education of Tim Kaine", by  in Virginia Lawyers' Weekly, May 27, 2016, p. 3.  Also available on Sen. Kaine's web site.

The article, about Kaine's talk at William & Mary's law school graduation, also includes some vital advice for lawyers and pretty much everyone else:

At one point Kaine said he sat at his computer with a mental block. Then he recalled a line from Second Corinthians, “in my weakness is my strength.” He said he understood then that “you can’t flee from your weak­nesses but have to embrace and own them as a natural part of being hu­man. I was afraid. But somehow, just admitting that to myself helped me jump back into the work and crank out all the pleadings and advocate at all the hearings right up to the last day.”

Kaine said, “This is a lesson that I come back to again and again in my life. Fleeing from your weaknesses or pretending that you don’t have them makes you weak. But acknowledging your weaknesses, which can be very hard to do, in one of life’s great mys­teries, can make you strong.”

He closed his remarks with a prom­ise to the new grads: “My clients taught me lessons that I still reflect on today, long after I gave up law practice because of the demands of full time public service. They changed me as a lawyer and they changed me as a per­son. And they will change you too,” he said.

 


Law schools' focus on case-law makes the law & lawyers elitist, undemocratic, bad at their most important job

Larry Gaughan, an elder statesman of family law and mediation in Northern Virginia, recently reflected on the legal profession's excessive focus on case-law, and the attitude that law isn't real until it has been applied in a published appeals court case. Besides the way it poisons lawyers' ability to help their clients, which he so eloquently illustrates, I think there's even more:

  1. It makes young lawyers ridiculously elitist and contentious -- they model themselves on bow-tied Supreme Court Justices hurling pompous insults at each other and at the people involved in their cases, and not on real lawyers working in the trial courts, lawyers who work to resolve disputes before they become trials, and lawyers who try to draft contracts and statutes so well that people won't even have legal disputes about them, and won't have to go to lawyers to know what they mean.
  2. It's anti-democratic: As Larry points out, major new legislation in our field -- even something as basic as letting divorce courts divide property --  is often not understood, and not really recognized, until there is case law saying what it means. And Virginia's appeals courts sometimes take the attitude that revising the details of divorce-related law is only their business, and when the legislature tries to meddle in it or to undo the effects of an appeals court decision, they seem to do their best to frustrate the legislature's aims or use the new statutes to reach absurd and unintended results, as if to say, 'see what a mess you make when you meddle in the affairs of divorce courts!' In Constitutional law, the Third Amendment and, until recent decades, the Second Amendment, are often described as a dead letter because there were no court case opinions 'making them real.'

Larry writes:

"In 1890 American law schools began to switch to the study of appellate cases as the primary means of legal education.  ...  Given that so few law graduates now wind up as litigators, that approach makes less sense with every passing year.  Almost by its very nature, the case system teaches us to look backwards and to think of law as litigation. ...

"The case system made more sense when most law graduates wound up as lawyers whose practices included litigation.  Even [for them], law schools were not great in teaching statutory interpretation.  I remember vividly the problems many Virginia lawyers had in figuring out how to interpret the new equitable distribution statute as first enacted in 1982.  To many lawyers, the new statute really only started to have meaning after the appellate cases started to come into play. ...

"We must recognize that most legal disputes are not resolved by courts, that statutes have meaning even before courts interpret them, and that more law school graduates will pursue careers that require some knowledge of the legal framework, but also the ability to quickly learn and assimilate other kinds of expertise."

Like most lawyers, I have good and bad recollections of my own legal education.  I remember the popular law professor who taught commercial law courses, and the skepticism about another professor who taught criminal procedure.  The former taught us “the law” from uniform statues that were already in the process of major revisions.  The latter was a theorist whose courses accurately predicted every one of the major reforms of the Warren court.

-- Mediator and lawyer Larry Gaughan in "An Improper Focus for Legal Education", The Divorce Agreement Newsletter, No. 53 – July 6, 2016


Pro bono work sharply decreased in most states that mandated pro bono reporting

The ABA reports that mandatory pro bono reporting policies, in states that had recently enacted them, were followed by sharp decreases in four states, and a slight increase in one state, from 2009 to 2013. In the states that had already had the policies for several years, one state saw a slight increase and the other showed no change.  Here's a summary. Much more info on policies and statistics is at the ABA's page, Pro Bono Reporting: State Reporting Policies.

State Year imposed 2009 Participation 2013 Participation
 Florida  1993  51%  51%
 Hawaii  2007  50%  41%
 Illinois  2007  32%  34%
 Maryland  2002  54%  57%
 Mississippi  2007  53%  40% *
 Nevada  2007  43%  33%
 New Mexico  2008  67%  57%

 * Mississippi stopped  reporting percentages in 2012, but I computed the number by looking at the numbers on hours worked and hours per lawyer, and comparing with those numbers from the last year a percentage was reported.

(2009's total hours divided by hours per lawyer =8745=44%, so total lawyers = 19875
2012-13 total hours divided by hours per lawyer =8031, which is 40.4% of 19875.)


A vote for mandatory reporting of pro bono is a vote for mandatory pro bono, sooner, likelier, inevitable-er

Recently the Virginia State Bar's governing Council learned of a proposal for mandatory pro bono reporting, and I posted the text and practical details of the proposal on this blog. (UPDATE: The Bar will decide on Oct. 7, and has asked for comments by August 31, 2016. They should be sent to publiccomment@vsb.org. If you can't make that deadline send them anyway.)

Yesterday I took a break from the proposal's technical intricacies to write about what state pro bono rules and other pro bono efforts mean in the big picture, in "Throw the poor a bono? The real problem is that pro bono is no solution."

Now, back to the proposal at hand, but this time, the human side of it, not the technicalities.

The Virginia proponents argue that the change would not in any way lead to mandatory pro bono, and that there is no reason to be concerned about a “slippery slope”. They point out that the handful of states that have mandatory reporting have not later moved to mandatory pro bono.

They even point out that mandatory reporting may prevent a future imposition of mandatory pro bono, by (1) encouraging more voluntary pro bono work, and (2) putting together and publicizing the amount of pro bono work that is being done.

Well, that's like saying you can be 400 pounds and be as healthy as a horse. And you can choose not to get married and be more stable, committed, lifelong partners and parents than people who do. Possible? Certainly. Likely? Never. Unless you are a horse.

Most of us know how these things usually go, in Virginia and in the rest of the developed world. We know all about how to boil a frog, and when'n'how to gradually lubricate a slippery slope. For example, we all know respected, mainstream people who routinely will say that there’s no reason anyone in modern society should have any kind of gun, or how we’re the only democracy that doesn’t provide universal free health care, free two-month vacations, etc. But then when a policy that would move in that direction goes to the legislature, all that talk goes quiet, and all you hear is about how limited this particular measure is, and how dare anyone suggest that it would ever lead to more radical changes later on, of course we would never do that. In Virginia, we punctuate each step in this process by chuckling, “Virginia’s so conservative … they’d never try to slippery that slope here ….”. Then just a few years after it passes, all you hear is that that reform hasn’t made enough of a difference, and is somehow failing to achieve its real goal of making us perfectly healthy and gun-free, so we need to go back and strengthen it.  

Would this happen with Mandatory Pro Bono? If you only looked at what’s being enacted right now, it doesn’t look extremely likely, but then again they have it in at least one huge state now compared to no states six years ago. The only bars requiring it are New York State, where it was imposed by the Chief Judge over the objections of the state bar association, and several federal district courts. California’s state bar trustees approved a similar rule in 2014, subject to approval by the Supreme Court and the legislature. New York and California did this through the vehicle of bar admissions, as part of on-the-job training. The federal courts, from what I’ve seen, seem to do it through panels of lawyers who already try civil cases there frequently.

But the CONCEPT of mandatory pro bono – the widespread if not majority belief that it’s one of the main possible solutions – has been well-known for decades and is not going away. For a lot of people, mandating or prohibiting something is the first and easiest thing to think of when they are first told about a problem. Just a few weeks ago, Justice Sotomayor called for mandatory pro bono, and it might not be a coincidence that she did so in a speech to the American Law Institute, which is always looking for new projects, in response to a question from the Institute’s Director. 

Even if the idea is only for the State Bar to measure and report how much pro bono work is being done, that begs -- i.e., it decides without actually asking and considering -- the question of whether it's the job of the mandatory, regulatory state bar to monitor, measure, and publicize the amount of pro bono work being done. If that's part of its job, what reason would there be for that, other than its also being responsible for making sure pro bono work gets done and everyone's legal needs and wants are met?

Also, bear in mind what happened in New York: The Virginia State Bar’s elected leaders may not want mandatory pro bono, but all too often they are not the deciders – the Virginia Supreme Court is. If and when the Supreme Court is thinking about mandating pro bono, these proposed reporting and enforcement rules will make it easy for them.

Finally, we’re at a point where our nation’s politics, Virginia’s politics, and the beliefs of the generations and cohorts that enter and lead our professions, have moved left for several years now, but the law and the makeup of the bench have lagged behind that. For decades we’ve had a U.S. Supreme Court that took individual rights seriously even when they seemed to be in conflict with other progressive goals. So liberal and professional groups have recognized that there are certain things that constitutional law might not let you do, and that they should focus their efforts elsewhere for the time being. But now we’re hanging fire between the judicial regime that died with Justice Scalia, and the one that will take shape when he is replaced.

So let’s not be comforted by saying mandatory will never happen, or only happens in outlying states like New York and California. I believe that if you oppose mandatory pro bono, or if you oppose lightly deciding to add to the burdens, deadlines and penalties that we place on our members, who vary greatly in earnings, time commitments, clerical support, expertise, and opportunity to do pro bono, then you should not support mandatory reporting of voluntary work.


Throw the poor a bono? The real problem is that pro bono is no solution.

(UPDATE: The Bar will decide on Oct. 7, and has asked for comments by August 31, 2016. They should be sent to publiccomment@vsb.org. If you can't make that deadline send them anyway.)

As the proposal for mandatory pro bono reporting slouches toward the Virginia State Bar Council to be approved this Fall, others can complain about the burden on lawyers, especially sole practitioners and various unconventional lawyers. And they’ve done so at our latest Arlington bar meeting, the last state bar meeting, on my facebook, and on my last blog post’s comments section. But I think the biggest problem with any pro bono requirement is that it will always do far too little to have any effect on the problems it aims at. And this failure will eternally spark calls for redoubling our efforts, and mandates, and penalties, instead of other changes that might actually help.

Pro bono cannot even begin to mend the gap – the chasm – between what people can afford and what the legal system requires them to pay – whether they are coming to court seeking justice, or being dragged into court. We have huge structural problems that can never be fixed by more of the same work being done, whether forced or volunteer.

In some areas of the law, innovations have fixed this gap. For example, allowing contingent fees and class-action suits, to make lawsuits affordable for most people and get them lawyers who are as good and well-equipped as the big business lawyers for the other side.

But family law, my field, is an example of the kinds of law where that’s much harder. A couple generations ago we decided to allow unilateral divorce, so anyone might end up in a divorce or child custody case, but we didn’t do anything to make it affordable, and in fact many trends have combined to make it less affordable. Americans have the right to litigate everything until the cows come home, legal ethics and malpractice standards rightly demand legal advice and hyperactivity that pushes people farther apart and foments litigation, and custody cases can always go back into litigation about what’s best for a child, so costs mount up to numbers that even upper middle class people cannot afford. If hardly anyone can afford it as an individual, and it happens to perhaps almost half the population, then we can’t make it any more affordable by making taxpayers pay for it or by asking lawyers to do the work for free. And that’s without even looking at non-paying clients’ lack of rational incentives to weigh the cost of legal work when deciding how much of it, and what particular kind, to demand.

Lately there are a host of private-sector and nonprofit and governmental solutions popping up to address this need. Some have been around for a few years and become institutions. Some are court-led reforms that sacrifice traditional formalities that we used to think protected the public, so that there are other choices between self-representation and full-service, unlimited-cost, law firm representation. For example, the Virginia State Bar is launching a hotline for volunteer lawyers  to answer legal questions from low-income people.

Many of the proposed solutions are scary. Some need to be embraced anyway. Some are vital but need to be molded to be compatible with the legal system and its obscure dangers and obstacles. Some really are irresponsible, leave consumers worse off than they would be without them, and should be heavily regulated or squelched. Some are downright gross.

But these kinds of changes are the only sustainable and scalable solutions to make legal help affordable for most people. Even more effective would be changes to the adjudication system so that less lawyering is needed in the courts, and even more fundamentally, so that fewer cases end up in litigation. Small claims courts are a great example of this that have been around for generations now. Even tradition-bound Virginia Circuit Courts are changing their terminology and procedures so that non-lawyers can do more to help themselves. Mediation and collaborative law, both for family law cases and other civil cases, including probate and elder law disputes, are helping but a lot more can be done. But even the substantive laws themselves too often are designed by lawyers who think that ending up in court, with a judge handcrafting a custom-made decision, is a routine part of life and is an easy all-purpose answer to questions about laws being vague, ambiguous, or leaving too much to a judge's discretion instead of being predictable. An outstanding example of changing this paradigm, and keeping millions of people out of court, is child support guidelines. But we should look at family law and other civil laws for more opportunities to streamline the interactions between law and everyday life.

I like pro bono, and I do pro bono. To help individual people and to make my own work more varied, balanced, connected, and socially just. But I do not do it to change society or make the legal system work to serve everyone’s needs. That’s impossible and would only make me crazy and permanently disappointed. When I want to work wholesale on fixing the misery the legal system imposes on families, I prefer to "go upstream" and work on collaborative dispute resolution and, further upstream, to learn how to help people improve and save their marriages; and further upstream, to avoid unhealthy relationships and establish healthy ones before marriage and babies are on the horizon.

 So I'm sure I can comply with any pro bono standard the bar throws at me, but my pro bono work for clients is only pro the bono of myself, my interns, and a few clients whom I hope I can help, and their families. What I do pro the bono of the publico doesn't look like lawyering at all.