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A Mississippi Business Journal Q&A

Incoming state bar president values technology

Dick Bennett, president-elect of the Mississippi Bar Association, and a member of Bennett Lotterhos Sulser & Wilson, P.A., of Jackson, embodies the new age of technology. Even though he maintains an office at the law firm’s downtown headquarters, Bennett, who lives in Clinton, often telecommutes.

Last week, the Mississippi Business Journal asked Bennett about changes in the legal profession with the advent of advanced technology, the Mississippi Bar’s position on tort reform, “frivolous” lawsuits, capping punitive damages and other issues.

Mississippi Business Journal: What changes have you made in your law practice because of heightened communication capabilities and advances in technology?

Dick Bennett: For some time now, we have recognized the inevitable, dynamic and sweeping changes that technology promises to bring to the practice of law.

For example, client communications through e-mail and Web pages, legal electronic research and the creation of litigation support materials are now common knowledge. As a result of these and similar advances, we hope to better serve our clients in the daily operations and practice of law.

MBJ: What other changes have occurred in the legal profession because of heightened communication capabilities and advances in technology?

DB: The technological phenomenon has brought about fast and more frequent and greater communication with clients. The exchange of information and response rate with clients has also greatly increased. Today, 21st-century courtrooms are technologically in place; some courts require electronic filing. Court and other public records are readily accessible and many lawyers choose to network with each other to better accomplish the delivery of legal services. In fact, the Mississippi Bar has recently created a solo and small firm practitioners listserver, which has proven to be a successful innovation in exchange of information and related matters among several hundred members of the Mississippi Bar.

Significantly, we are now better able to dictate into our computers and automatically create word processing documents, e-mail, faxes and use voice recognition to create pleadings and document transmittals.

MBJ: What is the Mississippi Bar’s position on tort reform and other proposed changes to the legal system?

DB: Even though Mississippians are the least litigious citizens in our country, filing the fewest lawsuits per 100,000 population of any state, it is important to recognize that differences of opinion will probably always exist among concerned Mississippi citizens on various issues.

Certainly, there are occasions when lawsuits or responses lacking merit are filed. But lawsuits deemed by the courts as being meritless are not successful, and courts ultimately overturn jury awards that are deemed excessive. The Mississippi Bar’s goal is to ensure the accuracy and fairness of the legal system, and the legal profession exists to facilitate the guaranteed right to have legal disputes heard and resolved by an impartial judge or jury.

MBJ: How can lawyers defend frivolous lawsuits that some say will destroy our society?

DB: Of the more than 22,000 lawsuits filed in circuit courts in Mississippi every year, an overwhelming number are resolved reasonably and satisfactorily to all involved. Only a handful results in verdicts that attract media attention. On occasion, the media will sensationalize one of these “few,” but these verdicts are the exception, not the rule. Citizens in Mississippi must educate themselves, look at how a change would affect them, and then make an educated decision as to whether or not the system of justice should be changed.

MBJ: Don’t trial lawyers oppose placing limits on punitive and compensatory damages or on placing limits on contingent fees?

DB: Every individual has his or her own personal perspective on the issues, such as capping punitive damages. The legal community welcomes any changes that will improve the justice system. But our legal profession, first and foremost, wants to ensure that our system of justice, which is the world’s standard for justice, is protected so that every person’s rights are preserved. Any proposed changes should be carefully and objectively evaluated on their merits, not on the basis of emotional appeals.

MBJ: Don’t we need laws to deter the filing of frivolous lawsuits?

DB: Both by statute and court rule, Mississippi has established procedures to sanction lawyers and their clients for filing frivolous lawsuits. In other words, we already have a safeguard in place for dealing with these types of lawsuits. It is not only inappropriate, but also detrimental to make sweeping attacks against the entire system that protects our constitutional rights and civil liberties, rather than making educated decisions based upon facts and objective judgments.

MBJ: Aren’t contingent fees used just to make lawyers more money?

DB: Contingent fees have an appropriate place in the legal system because this type of arrangement allows people with little money to have their case brought to court. Without contingent fees, many people would not have access to the legal system. A contingent fee is a contract between a lawyer and a client in which the lawyer’s fee is set as a percentage of the amount the lawyer recovers on behalf of the client. The percentage often depends on the amount itself and the circumstances of the case, and it can be negotiated between the client and the lawyer. A client does not have to pay the lawyer until after the case is over and money has been collected. If a contingent fee is used, the lawyer may work many hours and be paid nothing if he or she loses. In effect, the contingent fee operates as a safeguard against the pursuit of non-meritorious lawsuits.

MBJ: Can a jury really be trusted to make a fair decision?

DB: Most court cases take a long time and involve lots of evidence. In nearly all cases, most people would agree with the decisions of juries if they had the opportunity to sit with the jury and see all the evidence firsthand. In the rare situation in which a jury makes a mistake, the trial judge and the appellate courts are there to correct the problem.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com, mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.


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