A lawyer's word must be his or her bond, and lawyers must work harder to ensure all Americans have access to the justice system, according to Attorney General Janet Reno. "I think there are some lawyers who are preoccupied with the billable hour, with how much money they make and they don't want anybody to take their business; but they only want paying business," Reno said. "We have to look beyond just the dollars of the law to the people the law is meant to serve."
Reno is the latest Florida lawyer to be interviewed as part of a professionalism video series being produced by the Bar's Committee on Lawyer Professionalism. The video project is a compilation of one-on-one interviews with prominent members of Florida's legal community, documenting personal perspectives on the rights and wrongs of the legal system and what can be done to improve it.
The committee plans to use the tapes in conjunction with the Supreme Court's new Center for Professionalism as a tool to spark discussions about professionalism with law students and lawyers. Other Florida lawyers who have been interviewed include former ABA and Florida Bar President Wm. Reece Smith, federal Judges William Hoeveler and Rosemary Barkett, former state Judge Mattie Bell Davis, and lawyers Irwin Block and Shepard Broad.
Reno was interviewed in Washington last month by Paul Remillard, the Bar's assistant director of Lawyer Regulation.
"The law should be used to serve the people, to help them live together without friction and conflict to give people the opportunity to do their very best and live up to their fullest potential," Reno said.
Reno said ethics requires lawyers "to do their very best for their clients as honestly as they can" while professionalism asks the attorney "to go to the fullest extent possible to serve their client the right way."
All too often, Reno said, prosecutors think they have won the battle when they get a conviction and public defenders think they have prevailed when they win a motion to dismiss. However, she said, if there are not enough prison cells to hold the convicted or if charges against a drug addict who can't afford help are dismissed, the lawyers really haven't won.
"In both cases the lawyers involved did not take effective action to interrupt the cycle of crime," Reno said. "We have got to look beyond the arena of the courtroom where the particular transaction in which we are involved is and try to serve our client and society in the most complete way possible."
Reno, who began practicing law in Miami in 1963, said there has been "a greater lack of civility on the part of lawyers" in recent years, which is hurting the profession. "If we as lawyers in this country looked at our role, not just how many billable hours we have, not how much money we make, not how many cases we win, but how we help that person whom we are representing, how we can make that person more self-sufficient, more able to cope with the problems of the world, lawyers can have a wonderful impact in a community," Reno said.
Reno said lawyers should not be overly defensive about low public opinion of the profession.
There are "bad lawyers" just as there are "bad people" in other professions, Reno said, "but I am so proud of lawyers across this county that are contributing pro bono service, taking special cases, lawyers who are championing the person who needs help." ABA studies that show that 70 to 80 percent of America's working poor do not have access to the courts, "means for a significant number of Americans the law is worth little more than the paper it is written on," Reno said.
"We have got to make the law real for those people and that will give public confidence to the legal system," Reno said, adding that lawyers must do more to increase opportunities for pro bono service, look for ways to strengthen and enhance the Legal Services Corporation and explore other means to ensure that all people are provided representation.
As Attorney General, Reno said, she has had the opportunity to visit with people living in public housing who have welfare problems or problems dealing with HUD management and don't know where to turn for help. She said most of the lawyers who accompany her on these trips don't understand public housing problems or the welfare laws.
"What I keep thinking is there may be a new concept of a person licensed to do community advocacy, who with a four-year college degree learns some of the specific problems faced by people of low income who can't afford a lawyer," Reno said. "It is better that we get them a community advocate who can work through the bureaucracy to get their questions answered than to leave them in the frustration that so many of them experience today."
Reno said when she mentioned the idea of a licensed community advocate at a recent ABA meeting she received a "real mean letter" from a president of a state bar association saying those are jobs that lawyers should have. "And I said that is fine, if lawyers will only take them, but no lawyer wants the job," Reno said.
Reno noted some law schools are now developing community programs that combine law student pro bono service with understanding issues surrounding children, poverty and housing problems. Reno also said she would like to see law schools teach more negotiation and conflict resolution skills as part of their curriculum the same way trial advocacy is taught.
"We teach people how to try a case but not how to negotiate a case to produce a result in the best interest of all concerned," Reno said, adding there is so much lawyers can do to address the problems of the poor "if they understood some of the rudiments of it." As an example, Reno said, she is sure there are many "terrified" lawyers who have walked into their accountant's office with an IRS audit notice not knowing what to do. "The accountant says 'Bring me this, this and this,' he sits down with you for 15 minutes, says, 'Lets do this and this, I'll call the IRS person now and work it out' and it is done, and you look at him and think he is the best thing that has happened to you," Reno said. "That's what we should be doing, solving people's problems."
Reno said lawyers have the potential to be "the most important people in society." She said American lawyers need only look to the "very exciting" work lawyers are doing in the newly independent states of Eastern and Central Europe "trying to figure out how to reweave the fabric of community and civility around a society that has lived under totalitarianism."
Reno said judges also can promote professionalism by taking command of their courtrooms by ensuring timeliness, civility and the proper presentation of cases. "It is almost an art," Reno said. "You can spot the judge who has that ability to control the courtroom."
Reno said judges also should reach beyond the bounds of the courtroom and said she is impressed by what some judges are doing in the development of domestic violence centers and focusing on issues that have spilled over from the courtroom into the community. When asked what advice she would give new lawyers, Reno said they should practice in a way that shows everyone they deal with that they can trust what the lawyer tells them.