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Charles Swayze: on doctors, the Supreme Court and the public perception of attorneys

Bar president prepares for 100th anniversary of association

When Greenwood attorney Charles J. Swayze Jr. took over as the 99th president of The Mississippi Bar August 1, 2004, his tasks included hosting the Southern Conference of Bar Presidents, directing the Bench-Bar Committee to draft a standardized civil case management rule for trial court docket management and the Medical Liaison Committee to improve and foster a better relationship between doctors and lawyers, and implementing Casemaker, a cost-cutting online computer search engine, for Mississippi lawyers.

Swayze, who has an impressive career track record, has made considerable progress. The Delta native earned banking and finance degrees from the University of Mississippi in 1966, a law degree from Ole Miss Law School in 1969, and another degree focusing on labor relations from George Washington University in 1973. That year, he received the Army Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service for work done while serving in the military’s legal branch during law school.

The Mississippi Business Journal asked Swayze how he’s coming with his agenda as leader of the 7,933-member organization, and what remains to be done.

Mississippi Business Journal: You have stated that the Bench-Bar Committee is your “flagship” committee. What progress is being made this year?

Charlie Swayze: Last year, there was much emphasis placed on the Bench-Bar Committee. This year is the same and I have appointed committee members who represent the finest courtroom lawyers in the state. This year’s committee is working closely and diligently with the Mississippi Supreme Court’s Bench-Bar Liaison Committee. I have encouraged the committee to place special emphasis on drafting a standardized civil case management rule for trial court docket management. Also, I have asked the committee to study the process, procedure and effectiveness of the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance and to make recommendations to the Supreme Court. There have been many, many suggestions by practicing lawyers for the Bar to make improvements in these two areas.

The committee has been divided into two sub-committees. The committee’s work on drafting a standardized civil case management rule for trial court docket management is a continuation of last year’s Bench-Bar Committee work. It has met with the judges at the Mississippi Judicial Conference and Mississippi Supreme Court justices.

The idea is to have one rule for all courts in Mississippi to follow in setting cases for trial. Many lawyers practice throughout the state and it is very difficult to conscientiously follow and know all of the different rules of the various judicial districts. Consequently, one rule will provide for one system, which will be applicable throughout the state. This will provide litigants and attorneys an equal and fair opportunity to obtain a trial setting. The other subcommittee is studying the statutes and rules, which pertain to the Mississippi Commission on Judicial Performance and will work with the Mississippi Supreme Court and the commission to make any improvements that the groups deem necessary.

MBJ: Tell us more about the work of the Medical Liaison Committee.

CS: The medical profession established a similar committee. This September, the committees held their first joint meeting. Both committees have a mutual goal to improve and foster a better relationship between the two professions.

The bar committee received numerous e-mails of attorney/physician problems that needed to be addressed. Some were scheduling of depositions, reasonable deposition fees, access to medical records and cost of medical records. The two meetings have been candid, but cordial. There have been articles published in The Mississippi Lawyer magazine and there will be articles published in The Medical Journal. Through education, I am optimistic that the committees will accomplish their goal and resolve their conflicts. When done, it will have an immediate, positive effect on both professions’ practice.

vMBJ: The Mississippi Bar has joined a consortium to offer Casemaker, an online computer search engine. Tell us how that will impact the lawyers in Mississippi.

CS: This electronic search engine will be coming online in May. The Technology Committee has worked many hours on this project. When the Bar joined the Casemaker consortium, there were approximately 14 member states. Now there are 20 member states, including Texas and Florida. As more states come online, it will provide larger and more databases for research. It will cost each lawyer approximately $20 a year. Currently, this same or similar service can cost an attorney $6,000 or more per year. This will have an immediate cost savings effect upon our practice and generate savings to the client.

MBJ: The Mississippi Bar is fast approaching its 100-year anniversary. What has stayed the same and what has changed in the legal profession over the past 100 years in Mississippi?

CS: The Mississippi Bar was founded in 1906. Our Centennial Celebration Committee is hard at work making plans for our centennial anniversary.

The goal of a practicing attorney is to provide good sound legal advice to clients, whether corporate or individual. This has never changed. However, the number of lawyers in the state and the number of clients has increased considerably, thereby increasing litigation. The cost of legal services has increased over the years, just as other professional services have increased.

Probably the most significant change in the practice of law has been technology. In the past, legal research could take several hours before an attorney was competent to render a legal opinion. Now, with computer research engines such as Casemaker, legal research can literally take a matter of minutes, thus saving time and client expense. The cost of this technology, again as evidenced by the Casemaker system, is becoming more and more cost effective.

MBJ: What are your thoughts about the public’s perception of lawyers?

CS: The public’s perception of lawyers is the same as it has been since biblical days. Lawyers represent clients in an adversary environment where different positions must be taken in the prosecution of a case and in the defense of a case. Obviously, this stirs animosity and tension between clients, which is usually “taken out on” the lawyer.

In my opinion, lawyers are members of a very powerful, honorable and noble profession. Mississippi lawyers and judges come from all walks of life, serve in communities of all sorts, and participate in more service and charitable organizations than any other profession. Lawyers are the reason that our legal system and our judiciary are models emulated the world over.

Mississippi has an excellent judicial system which channels people’s grievances into socially controlled, non-violent means of dispute resolution. We do not settle matters through duels or threats of terror. Lawyers are leaders of this nation and always have been. Our founding fathers such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are responsible for our constitution and our individual freedom.

I conclude all of my Bar speeches with this statement: “Next time you read an article bashing the judicial system or bashing lawyers, remember that same judicial system and those same lawyers are the reasons you have the protected freedom to read and the author has the protected freedom to publish that article. Be thankful for your American justice system.”

In October, The Mississippi Bar hosted the Southern Conference of Bar Presidents, which is comprised of 18 bar associations in the Southeast. At the conference, bar officers discussed all the topics that we read about in newspapers and listen to on television. They are: judicial elections, professionalism, civility, tort reform, advertising, legal services for the poor, diversity, judicial performance, discipline and court funding. These issues are continually being discussed aggressively by bar organizations throughout the country. The resolutions are difficult, but the subjects are not unique to Mississippi. In fact, they are not restricted to the U.S.

Recently, I met with 20 international lawyers from Uganda, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, Croatia, Nigeria, India and others. Ironically, their questions pertaining to our system related to attorney discipline, professionalism and advertising. The interest is worldwide.

MBJ: What is the Bar doing for the public in 2005?

CS: The Mississippi Bar will continue its mission to serve the public good by promoting excellence in the profession and in our system of justice. The Bar is committed to providing programs and services that assist the members of the Bar and provide high quality legal services in a professional and cost effective manner.

I have already discussed some functions of the various committees and the addition of Casemaker in 2005. The Bar offers many more resources and services that continue to expand, such as the Mississippi Volunteer Lawyers Project (MVLP). The Bar, in partnership with Mississippi’s legal services organizations, administers the MVLP, which handles domestic cases as assigned by Legal Services Programs. With the recent merger of the four remaining Legal Services Programs into two, MVLP anticipates even more calls for help. Operating since 1982, MVLP has plans to continue its core function: to engage private attorneys of The Mississippi Bar in providing pro bono services to citizens of limited means throughout the state.

The Lawyers and Judges Assistance Program (LJAP) will continue to help attorneys who are impaired. The Office of the General Counsel will continue its role to actively review and process Bar complaints to protect the public. The Consumer Assistance Program (CAP) assists in any way possible to first determine if clients have a basis for a complaint and then, if so, try to resolve the issue without litigation.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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