SBM director waxes on effects of ‘beyond bad’ state of state at annual meeting

In her report to attendees of the 2010 Solo & Small Firm Institute — as part of the 2010 State Bar of Michigan annual meeting in Grand Rapids — Janet Welch, executive director of the State Bar of Michigan, was upfront about having bad news and good news.

First, the bad, which is the “beyond bad” state of the state, something that affects the court system and, in turn, lawyers.

The state’s per average capital income is the best way to measure how things stand in Michigan, she said, but there are grim numbers involved. In 1970, Michigan was 13th in the nation, but in 2000 it dropped to 19th, and in 2008, sank to 38th.

And citing the House Fiscal Agency’s ranking of Michigan in income growth, “We’re not only dead last, but we’re so far beyond 49th, we can’t even see 49th.”

For that, she turned to the SBM’s Judicial Crossroads Taskforce, a 13-month-old initiative to study and recommend ways for the court system to be saved and advanced in the wake of declining state revenues.

Though the task force’s final meeting isn’t for another few weeks, and the report’s results aren’t public yet, Welch weighed in on what could be recommended.

“In broadest terms, I think their report will call for a court system that’s simpler, more flexible, and more based on evidence-based results,” she said. “It will recognize that in some areas of the states we have more judges than needed, and in other areas, we don’t have enough. And it will say that we will need to measure that by an objective, evidence-based measure.”

One question the task force has asked is whether there’s something the court system can do to handle business disputes that can be perceived as friendly to the business community to help them feel better about staying in Michigan and, in effect, encourage other businesses to come here.

For that, she said, one committee in the task force is recommended a three-year private business docket in three of the biggest Michigan counties, where two or three judges would handle all business cases. She noted that other states that have tried such a program have had great results.

Finally, she said that the task force believes cost savings can only happen with better information systems in court, particularly via statewide e-filing in all state courts.

“The tools exist right now to make the court system more convenient, more accessible, more efficient … . We’re wasting money by not spending money to make that happen,” she said.

So, wasn’t there something mentioned about good news?

Well, Welch did say that the state of the SBM is “good — truly good.”

Given the reserves that SBM has built up by managing the way it delivers services to its members, and based on the current rate of consumption, she said that the SBM won’t have to raise dues for another eight more years.

That’s relief for a state where more and more lawyers are struggling professionally, but where dues are in the bottom percentage compared to other states. Welch pointed to that the fact there is no mandatory continuing legal education requirements as another advantage of practicing in Michigan.

She said the secret is being tech savvy, thus saving administrative costs where they count, and SBM members’ volunteer time helping offset things. An example of the latter, she added, is the launch of the Master Lawyer Section, which will replace the Senior Lawyers Section, and will allow the more experienced members of the bar to participate in pro bono programs and mentoring for younger attorneys.

Also, something she said that’s of “critical” importance is the upcoming triennial economics of law practice survey, which will be sent to bar members in October via e-mail and the SBM website.

Welch pointed to the Michigan Supreme Court’s 2008 Smith v. Khouri attorney fee ruling, for which the Court said the SBM’s previous survey was the most important resource in determining award of attorney fees.

But the Court also cited limitations within the survey, so Welch said the SBM has streamlined the new survey, which will be tailored in two different forms — one for private practice members, the other for all other members. The results will be published in early 2011, and there will be drawings and giveaways to help bolster participation.

Check back on our blog for more from the 2010 State Bar meeting.

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Dickinson Wright doubles up with chair election

Are two heads better than one? That’s what one of Michigan’s largest law firms is thinking.

On Tuesday, Dickinson Wright PLLC announced that Edward H. Pappas and James A. Samborn were elected co-chairmen of the firm, succeeding Dennis W. Acher.

Both Pappas and Samborn come to the table with a fairly recent canon of leadership — the former was the 2008-09 president of the State Bar of Michigan, while the latter capped 10 years as Dickinson Wright’s CEO.

We can’t help but notice that both of them specialize in commercial litigation and ADR –meaning that they could, if they wanted to, sue each other over office space, then hire one another as mediators.

Proposed legal service tax could be nixed

Following the release of Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm’s proposed 2011 state budget, Rep. Alma Wheeler Smith, D-Salem, has indicated that a substitute bill is being prepared that would exempt legal services from the 5.5 percent service tax rate in the plan.

Granholm’s budget called for an across-the-board 5.5 percent service tax on everything from dry cleaning to estate planning, along with a reduced sales tax of 5.5 percent.

As Michigan Lawyers Weekly reported in its Feb. 22, 2010, edition, small- and mid-sized attorneys were against the surcharge, and that the State Bar of Michigan was doing hard lobbying to quash the tax for attorneys.

Elizabeth K. Lyon, director of governmental relations for the State Bar of Michigan, said it was “a misery tax,” adding that “Legal services are no more discretionary than medical services, and if medical services are exempt, so should legal services.”

Apparently, Smith feels the same way.

Learning new tricks at the SBM Annual Meeting

Michigan Lawyers Weekly Associate Editor Douglas J. Levy files this post from the State Bar of Michigan Annual meeting in Dearborn:

They say you’re never too old to learn. In the case of the 2009 State Bar Meeting, being an older practitioner means learning is mandatory.

When asked what one thing stood out this year from her at the annual summit, Julie I. Fershtman, who was installed Thursday as the SBM vice president for 2009-10, said it was seeing how the majority of attendees at the Solo & Small Firm Institute were seasoned attorneys.

They were likely trying to find out how to both streamline and expand their practices, she noted, by learning the latest technology, ways to make a “virtual” law office, and marketing themselves on the cheap.

Quite a few of these folks, we’re assuming, never had to start from scratch – or, if they did, it was probably when PDF was an acronym for something else.

In other news …

Newly installed SBM President Charles R. Toy was asked what he has next on his plate following the meeting. He said he’s heading to the Macomb County Bar Association gala following the meeting, then is off to meet with the Ontario Bar, the Great Rivers Conference (made up of bar groups across the Midwest) and the Upper Peninsula, and only plans to be in his Cooley Law School office in Lansing four days, at most, over the next month.

It was wondered, however, whether Edward G. Pappas, immediate past president, already misses his post; after Toy laid out his immediate plans, Pappas got his words in edgewise: “Want to know what I’M doing?”

SBM Annual Meeting: ‘Advice’ for the new prez

Michigan Lawyers Weekly Associate Editor Douglas J. Levy continues to roam the State Bar of Michigan Annual Meeting and files this post about some tongue-in-cheek advice for incoming State Bar President Charles Toy:

At the State Bar of Michigan meeting’s swearing-in luncheon Thursday, many people sang the praises of outgoing President Edward G. Pappas.

But incoming President Charles Toy, who was sworn in by Michigan Supreme Court Chief Justice Marilyn Kelly, did him one better – by actually having a singer.

OK, so it was his daughter Elizabeth, a trained vocalist who closed out the lunch with a soaring rendition of “America the Beautiful.”

Still, Pappas, known throughout Michigan’s legal community as a funny guy, couldn’t help but offer Toy five pieces of advice as a State Bar president:

1. Be wary of groupies: “Yes, like rock stars, we presidents have groupies, but they’re usually an older group – in their 70s and 80s.”

2. Always maintain your popularity as president: “The way to do it is, it’s OK to make promises you cannot keep. But do not, under any circumstance, tell anyone at the State Bar you made such promises.”

3. If you want to maintain your presidential statues, do not stand or sit next to President-Elect W. Anthony Jenkins or anyone taller than 6-foot-5. (Jenkins, like Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, who was on hand to deliver the opening remarks, is a former Boston Celtic.)

4. Delegate as much as possible: “You will always have someone else to blame.”

5. And the most important piece of advice, Pappas said with an expression both self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating: “Always revere and honor your past presidents.”

SBM: ‘You are not alone in these tough times’

Michigan Lawyers Weekly Associate Editor Douglas J. Levy is at the State Bar Annual Meeting in Dearborn today, and he’s checked in with this post about SBM Executive Director Janet Welch’s comments to the attendees:

Today, the first full day of the State Bar of Michigan meeting, Janet Welch, SBM’s executive director, recalled last year discussing “the road ahead” with then-incoming SBM President Edward G. Pappas. Back then, no one knew who would be president, whether there would be a new Michigan Supreme Court justice, how many banks would need to be bailed out, or whether any of the Big 3 would need governmental help.

Since then, she said, there’s been wholesale cancellation of summer associate programs, mass large-firm layoffs, and disillusion among law school students as to whether there’s opportunity in a field that’s forever been viewed as prosperous and lucrative.

But she offered an upbeat message: Michigan lawyers have two advantages, once being that they’ve been suffering longer than other states, making their survival skills more sharpened because of it.
And second, the SBM’s annual dues are among the lowest in the country. That’s good news, she said, for solo practitioners, who are the majority of SBM members.

“You are not alone in these tough times,” she said during her meeting welcoming speech and report.

And the SBM put its money where its mouth was, as it engineered, along with ICLE, nearly 70 scholarships to get select attorneys to attend the meeting. This, despite the fact that more than 900 pre-registrations were made, a figure that’s above average according to an SBM staffer.

In other news …

Before Welch’s report, ICLE’s Sheldon Stark conducted a live survey asking, among other questions, why attendees were at the Solo & Small Firm Institute, the series of educational sessions that coincided with the meeting.

The top answer was “would like to generate more revenue without working so hard.”

That’s probably because “would like to work, period” was not among the choices offered.

As for generating revenue, Clark Davis, chair of the SBM’s General Practice Section, recalled an anecdote about an attorney who said he owed taxes on $1 million in revenue, and openly admitted he never paid it.

That’s because, the attorney said, he never got paid that $1 million.

And, among the advice offered for new attorneys during the early morning “Starting a Law Practice — Hanging Out Your Shingle” program: Schedule consultations with new clients on the same day. That way, one follows the other, and each can see how busy you are.

— Douglas J. Levy