Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Live from the Paper Chase

We have changed the rules for lawyers in New Jersey. Not in any horrific way mind you. Albeit it is a change that is more than mildly irritating and significantly more time-consuming. Way back when in 1994 when my class of miscreants - including me of course - was admitted to the practice of law in New Jersey all new attorneys were required to take core courses; which were known as Skills and Methods. Within the first year of practice we were required to complete six separate classes. If memory serves me correctly in our second year we had to take three more classes and (I think) one or two in our third year.

I remember the first year requirements most vividly of all because of the fact that they seemed to represent one final hurdle to all of us becoming lawyers. First we had to clear the hurdle of law school, which not only occupied three years of our lives but also drained many thousands of dollars from our bank accounts. Upon graduation from law school - a process during which at least one professor explained to us that we were not being taught about the practice of law but simply the law itself (let that wash over your skull cap for a second and be thankful that medical school is not structured in a similar fashion) - we had to prepare for and pass the Bar exam. One would think after three years of law school and three days of the Bar (three if you took the exam in two jurisdictions simultaneously) we would have then been free and clear to wreak havoc on unsuspecting clients. Nope. We then had to complete Skills and Methods in order to avoid something really horrid happening - such as our newly minted licenses to practice law getting suspended.

But then after Year Three it was over. Once we completed our third year of the practice of law, we no longer had to participate in any continuing legal education classes. However on January 1, 2010 the rules of engagement changed. Our Supreme Court decreed that all New Jersey attorneys are now required to complete 24 hours of continuing legal education every two years.

Figuring that I need to complete twelve hours per year every year unless and until the Court changes the rules yet again, I have already completed eight hours since the first of January. Last night, with storm clouds gathering and snow preparing to fall, I attended a seminar taught by a rather impressive cross-section of judges and lawyers on pertinent developments in Civil Case Law in 2009. It was a lengthy class - a touch short of four hours - but there was quite a bit of good information shared by folks who are well-suited to share it. And considering that they do not get compensated for doing what they did last night, it was quite nice that they shared it.

Attending these classes is a bit of a pain in the ass; no doubt. But it is a pain equally borne by all of us, which is why it strikes me as more than a bit annoying when among the men and women who attended last night's class was a certified jackass, braying from his seat in the back row of the hotel ballroom where the class took place to all those seated near him. As galling as his relentlessly rude behavior was it was especially so because the imbecile in question is an attorney who as part of his practice gets paid by the Superior Court in two separate counties (Warren and Sussex) to serve as an arbitrator for personal injury actions being prosecuted there. One would think that someone who earns at least a portion of his income from his own participation in a necessary, Court-mandated area of our practice would be able to display at least a modicum of respect for others doing the same thing. Apparently not.

Not that his behavior would have been any less obnoxious if he himself was at least good at his job as an arbitrator but I know from my personal experience having him serve as an arbitrator on a number of my cases that he is a clown. Perhaps given how little care he displays performing a task for which the system pays him, I should have not been surprised to see him in action last night.

One of the members of the panel last night was one of the most well-regarded members of the Bar I know. Last night he shared a story with us while the panel was covering one of its topics and the object lesson of his story was something that had less to do with the law than it did with life, "Do not always try to make good better. Sometimes good is good enough."

While he meant it in the context of not over-asking questions during cross-examination of a witness at trial, it seems to me to be sage advice in and out of the courtroom. He did not mean that we should not all aspire to do our best and to apply ourselves with our full effort in everything we do. Rather, he meant that we should not succumb to the temptation of greed - that of not being content with what we have and eyeing what someone else has with envy. Unless your last name is Jones, trying to keep up with the Joneses (regardless of your level of success in doing so) is a fool's errand.

They advertise these as CLE (Continuing Legal Education) courses. Now and again, you pick up a free lesson in Life as well. Talk about your all-inclusive tuition.


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