Dr. Guthrie T. Abbott, president of the Mississippi Bar Association and a law professor at the University of Mississippi, has been practicing law for 31 years. A graduate of Harvard University, Abbot has a list of impressive credentials, awards and committee involvement. He was elected Outstanding Professor of Law by the law school student body four times spanning three decades.
Recently, Abbott talked to the Mississippi Business Journal about changes in the law and in the legal profession, about the function of the Mississippi Bar and its future plans.
Mississippi Business Journal: What is the demographic make-up of the current membership of the Mississippi Bar compared to current law students at the University of Mississippi Law School?
Guff Abbott: The Mississippi Bar has a total of 6,552 active in-state members. About 82% are men. Of the total, about 17% are minority. By comparison, for the 1997-98 academic year, the University of Mississippi Law School had a total of 499 students, of which 60% were men. About 10% of the total were minority.
MBJ: What changes have you seen in the legal profession?
GA: Since I started practice in 1967, the legal profession has changed to mirror changes in society. Our population has grown, society has become more complex and more regulated. Women have entered the workforce in large numbers.
The legal world has more attorneys and a growing number are women and minorities. Although a majority of Mississippi attorneys are solo or small firm practitioners, we have seen a number of Mississippi firms grow to the 30 to 80 member range.
More attorneys limit their practice to specialty areas as shown by the Mississippi Bar`s Sections for Health Law, Gaming Law and Environmental areas. Family law practice has grown tremendously.
Technology is changing the mechanics of law practice. Legal research is becoming a computer endeavor, and communications, document filing and such are becoming electronic matters.
MBJ: What impact has the change in discovery rules made in the legal profession?
GA: Mississippi State Courts received their modern discovery rules from the Legislature in 1975. The basic rules were incorporated into the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure in 1982. In my opinion, they have generally worked very well. It is important to be able to gather the facts necessary to evaluate and try lawsuits. However, there is a cost factor which should be kept as low as possible. The federal courts have made some innovative changes to discovery in response to the federal Civil Justice Reform Act. The matter is currently under study for state courts in Mississippi.
MBJ: What changes have you seen in legal education?
GA: The early 1970s saw a large increase in law students. Enrollment since that time period has remained fairly high. There has been a change in demographics with more women and minorities, and the curriculum has changed in response to changes in practice. Law schools now offer courses in complex litigation, including class actions. International law offerings have grown. There is a much larger emphasis on business and tax law, and bankruptcy has become a major area.
MBJ: What is the primary function of the Mississippi Bar?
GA: The Bar has several “primary functions.” Working with the Supreme Court to administer our disciplinary process is a major function.
Over 40% of the Bar`s budget is spent on attorney discipline.
Working with our court systems and attorneys to improve the administration of our system of justice in Mississippi is a major function.
This includes assuring access to justice through the work of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project and other programs.
The Bar has numerous programs to educate attorneys and the public about specific legal matters and rights and about the Rules of Law in general.
MBJ: What plans are on the table?
GA: Our programs include alternate dispute resolution. The Bar has a petition before the Mississippi Supreme Court asking the Court to allow individual trial judges to order mediation. The Bar is providing educational programs and encouraging mediation, which can make resolving disputes both more quickly and less expensive.
This year, the Bar will work with the Mississippi Supreme Court as part of a national ABA project to analyze our American judicial system, and respond to criticisms and improve the system where possible.
The Professionalism Committee is planning a series of programs around the state which will bring lawyers and judges in various communities together to discuss professionalism and ethics issues. A pilot professionalism program held last spring in Columbus was very successful.
The Bar`s Technology committee has planned to continue to offer Computer Kindergarten for attorneys. The Bar is working with a statewide task force to establish uniformity in state offices for storage and filing of public records.
The Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program will continue to provide confidential assistance for lawyers and judges who experience alcohol, drug or depression problems.
The Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project assists over 5,000 low-income citizens each year in civil cases. In 1997, over $2 million in free legal services were provided by attorneys through this project.
MBJ: What is the make-up and function of Bar commissioners?
GA: The Board of Bar Commissioners is the governing body of The Mississippi Bar. In addition to statewide elected officers such as the president, the board is composed of representatives from each of the state`s 22 court districts. Commissioners are nominated and elected by the lawyers in each district to a three-year term on the board.
The 34-member Board of Commissioners meets five times a year and conducts the business of the Bar. A typical meeting consists of committee reports, budget matters, consideration of ethics opinions, attorney disciplinary matters and other business of the Bar.
MBJ: Are future Bar meetings, seminars or conventions planned out-of-state as previous ones have been? If so, why?
GA: Almost all Bar meetings are held in the state of Mississippi. The Board of Bar Commissioners, regional Bar meetings, section meetings, CLE programs, etc., are virtually all held in the state.
The annual meeting was held in Biloxi in 1997. It was held in Sandestin, Fla., in 1998 and is scheduled for Sandestin for the next two years. The experience of the Bar is that it gets much larger attendance at the annual meeting when it is held in a conveniently located out-of-state resort.
MBJ: To what extent is The Mississippi Bar affiliated with the American Bar Association?
GA: The Mississippi Bar and the ABA are completely separate entities. The Mississippi Bar is a unified Bar which means all attorneys licensed in Mississippi are members.
The ABA is a voluntary organization. Approximately 40% of the members of The Mississippi Bar have chosen to join the ABA.
All state bars and the ABA share many common goals such as promoting continuing legal education, providing access to justice for all citizens and improving our system of justice whenever possible.
The Mississippi Bar works with the ABA on various programs, and sends delegates to the ABA House of Delegates.