The Profession and the Courts

Throughout 1994 and 1995, the court system's Committee on the Profession and the Courts - better known as the Craco Committee - held meetings and hearings across the State in an effort to better understand the sources of public dissatisfaction with the legal profession and to devise recommendations to address it. In its final report to the Chief Judge, the Committee's principal finding was that the actual level of professionalism across the State was very high. But it also found that changes in society and in the profession were transforming the practice of law in ways that required a renewed commitment to self-examination and excellence in the service of clients.

In response to these findings, the court system announced its Program on the Profession and the Courts, containing many new initiatives designed to reinforce traditional standards of professionalism, increase clients' access to information and reduce the incidence of avoidable misunderstandings between attorney and client.

Standards of Civility

Professional integrity and personal courtesy are the hallmarks of a learned profession dedicated to public service. While incidents of incivility in New York State courts are the exception and not the rule, any such occurrences can reinforce unflattering popular conceptions about the current state of the profession. In September 1997, the court system announced the adoption of Standards of Civility that set forth guidelines for conduct to which all participants in the legal system - lawyers, judges and court staff - should aspire. The Standards have been printed in brochure format and distributed widely to the bar.

Statement of Client's Rights and Responsibilities

A clear understanding of the attorney-client relationship from the outset can prevent misunderstandings during the course of the representation. In September 1997, the courts' Administrative Board approved a rule requiring all attorneys to post in their offices a Statement of Client's Rights that explains in clear, simple language the basics of the attorney-client relationship. To further ensure that both sides have a similarly clear understanding of reasonable expectations regarding the relationship, in January 1998 the Administrative Board also approved a Statement of Client's Responsibilities, drafted in collaboration with the New York State Bar Association and its Committee on Attorney Professionalism, that became available for distribution in February of this year.

Administrative Rules Regarding Frivolous Litigation

Frivolous litigation should have no part in the New York State court system. Under new rules that became effective March 1, 1998, attorneys and self-represented litigants in most civil cases must certify on their papers that to the best of their knowledge - after reasonable inquiry - the matter presented is not frivolous.

The new rules also increase the costs and sanctions authorized to be imposed in cases where frivolous conduct occurs.

Mandatory Continuing Legal Education Requirements

Under new rules adopted last year, all attorneys admitted to practice on or after October 1, 1997 must complete 32 hours of continuing legal education in their first two years of practice. The training programs cover substantive law as well as practical skills, ethical issues and management techniques that are often essential to the practice of law but rarely addressed in law school. The goal of the program is to ensure that all newly admitted attorneys become competent to deliver legal services as they enter practice and assume primary client service responsibilities.

Addressing Legal Needs of the Poor

It has been well documented that the civil justice needs of the poor in New York State often go unmet, and that the gap between these needs and available resources is growing. To explore the parameters of this issue and develop possible programmatic responses, in October 1997 the court system established The Legal Services Project. Chaired by attorney Michael A. Cooper, this 21-member task force includes representatives from the private bar, legal services providers and the business community. The Project has studied approaches taken in other states and is currently discussing possible permanent funding sources for civil legal services.

The Administrative Board has also adopted a resolution exhorting lawyers to provide at least 20 hours of pro bono legal services each year and to financially support the work of organizations that provide legal services to poor persons. A notice regarding this resolution has been incorporated into the biennial attorney registration materials. The Administrative Board is now conducting a survey to quantify the amount of pro bono work performed in New York State.