Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Mary R. Russell on Thursday announced the creation of a task force to focus on the future of the legal profession. The details are coming — when else? — in the future.
Speaking at The Missouri Bar’s 2014 annual meeting in Kansas City, Russell said the bar must keep ahead of national- and state-level changes in demographics and technology that are destined to change society.
“It is critical that we continue to seek solutions that can be created and implemented by us rather than be imposed on us,” Russell told members of the bar.
The task force proposed by the Supreme Court has been welcomed by the bar’s board of governors, which formally signed onto the plan at its meeting Wednesday afternoon. But the membership, size, scope and timing of the task force’s work remain to be determined.
But the problems the task force is intended to address are clear, Russell said. She pointed to statistics predicting that an increasing percentage of the U.S. and Missouri population in the coming decades will consist of retirees, meaning that a smaller workforce will find itself paying for the needs of the growing number of elderly. To that end, Russell said the profession needs to grow its elder law sections and re-examine the role of its probate courts.
She also said lawyers must watch out for elderly lawyers whose time to retire has come, prompting a few younger lawyers to playfully nudge their older colleagues.
Russell also spoke about the disruptive potential of technology. To some extent, the court system has sought to get ahead of that problem through the expansion of Case.net, which Russell said is set to be implemented statewide by the end of 2016, as well as a new “pay by web” feature that allows court costs in some circuits to be paid online.
On the other hand, Russell said many people are now foregoing lawyers to do their own legal research and attempt to solve their own problems. She cautioned against “do-it-yourself” companies that sell online legal documents.
“We need to protect the public from companies not owned by lawyers that provide misinformation and inaccurate forms,” she said. “They create a false impression that an attorney is not needed or does not add value. Most importantly, these companies put the public, families and businesses at potential risk.”
Specifically, Russell pointed to the case of LegalZoom, an online legal document provider that agreed in 2011 to pay up to $6 million to settle a class action lawsuit in Missouri. The company, which was alleged to have engaged in the unauthorized practice of law, also temporarily changed its business practices in Missouri.
Russell, who was named to the Missouri Supreme Court in 2004, started her two-year term as the court’s chief justice last year.
Russell’s speech accompanied the official swearing in of incoming bar President Reuben Shelton. Shelton, just the second black lawyer to lead the bar, vowed to take his own steps toward modernization, including a plan to get more non-lawyers involved in the bar.
“It’s in my DNA to break barriers and build bridges,” Shelton said.