Because of numerous questions from the business community about recent and proposed changes to the legal profession and judicial system, the Mississippi Bar recently initiated an ongoing campaign to address these concerns.
“It made sense to directly address the concerns of the business community,” said Melanie Henry, director of communications of the Mississippi Bar, a statewide organization with 6,800 members. “We’ve developed material that can be handed out by attorneys as needed, and we’ll continue to keep the communication lines open.”
Jimmy Dukes, president of the Mississippi Bar, said it seems that every newspaper has an article critical of lawyers these days.
“People love the quote from Shakespeare: ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ But how many people realize that this quotation is taken out of context? The quotation comes from Shakespeare’s play, ‘Henry VI.’ One of the chief rebels comments that in order for the rebellion to succeed, ‘the first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.’ In other words, if you get rid of the primary defenders of society, then you can overthrow the social order,” said Dukes.
Newspapers touting headlines about multi- million dollar verdicts fuel the mistaken notion that lawyers “do nothing but run around the country collecting huge sums of money,” Dukes said.
According to a recent national study, Mississippians are the least litigious citizens in our country, filing the fewest lawsuits per 100,000 population than in any other state in the country.
“I’ve heard it said that our legal system of justice is becoming a ‘giant judicial jackpot’,” Dukes said. “Our system is anything but. Each year, over 22,000 lawsuits are filed in the circuit courts of Mississippi. Overwhelmingly, they are resolved reasonably and satisfactorily to all involved. Only a handful of lawsuits result in verdicts that attract media attention. These verdicts are the exception, not the rule.”
Because good deeds done quietly are rarely reported, the Mississippi Bar is educating the public about the role of the legal profession.
“The public tends to forget that lawyers are governed by a code of conduct promulgated by the Mississippi Supreme Court,” said Larry Houchins, executive director of the Mississippi Bar. “Every lawyer must adhere to a set of ethical standards. Disciplinary procedures, including disbarment, suspension and reprimands, are mandated in order to protect the integrity of the legal system as well as the public.”
For example, lawyers are encouraged by the rules governing their conduct to annually provide at least 50 hours of free legal services to persons who cannot afford a lawyer. That represents one of every 30 hours the average lawyer bills annually, Houchins said.
A recent survey completed by more than 500 Mississippi lawyers indicated they provided an average of 98 hours of free legal services in 1998.
“This amounts to over $5 million in free legal services,” Houchins said. “While the survey results are from a small portion of the Mississippi Bar, it indicates the commitment of lawyers in Mississippi to provide free legal services. Phyllis Thornton, director of the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project, estimates that Mississippi’s 5,700 lawyers provide over $45 million in free legal services each year.”
“Our legal system enables each of us to live in the free, civil society that we all enjoy,” Dukes said. “No profession or system is perfect, and the judicial system has shortcomings, just like all the rest. But the system we have in the U.S. is the best in the world. And it protects us and works for us every day. This is something we tend to forget, but should always try and remember.”
Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or (601) 364-1018.