The ABA recently held its National Conference on Professional Responsibility in Baltimore, Maryland. The conference is labeled as “the annual educational and networking event for lawyers who represent, prosecute, advise, and educate other lawyers on issues of ethics, discipline, professionalism and more.” It included two full days of programming on topics ranging from regulating lawyers to practicing in a post-pandemic world. 

Conference Chair Alice Neece Mine, Executive Director of the North Carolina State Bar, noted that this was the first in-person conference in three years and that it was good to be back “learning, debating, and thinking about the big ideas in professional responsibility.” She also described the three plenary sessions of the conference which focused on the “internal conflicts of serving in a regime with policies that are repugnant to the lawyer but where the lawyer’s continuing government service may result in ‘lesser evilism,’ the “‘silver linings’ of post-pandemic practice,” and “a challenging look at the [unauthorized practice of law] in the new world of American lawyers working, via laptop, anywhere and everywhere in the world.”

The ABA’s Center for Professional Responsibility presented the Michael Franck Professional Responsibility Award to Lucian Pera, partner with Adams and Reese in Memphis. According to the ABA website, the award is named in honor of Franck, the former director of the State Bar of Michigan and “champion of improvements in lawyer regulation in the public interest.” The award recognizes lawyers committed to legal ethics, disciplinary enforcement, and lawyer professionalism. Mr. Pera’s practice focuses on legal ethics, and he has written and spoken about legal ethics in many arenas for many years.

The conference also included ten breakout sessions geared to the interests of academics, regulators, and defense counsel. This includes topics like the history of lawyer regulation, whether lawyer regulation protects the public, increasing diversity, and providing internal ethics advice. One breakout session focused on new models of legal services and regulation that could bring significant changes to the profession.

New models in legal services delivery will have tremendous impact on the profession in the coming years. More consumers are turning to online products instead of actual attorneys for basic legal services. Although this particular issue was not discussed at the conference, some states are considering allowing non-licensed individuals to engage in some forms of traditional legal practice. For example, the State Bar of California Board of Trustees is currently considering recommendations from the California Paraprofessionals Program Working Group that would establish a paraprofessional licensing program. The license would enable non-attorneys to provide a limited amount of legal services. The California program follows a trend that began in Washington State and now includes Arizona and Utah.

The California proposal was extremely controversial, and high-profile state leaders like California Attorney General Rob Bonta expressed concern to the working group about the proposed program. The state legislature is also considering legislation that may prohibit any bar regulatory rule change that goes against standing rules regarding the unauthorized practice of law. This is definitely a policy development to watch as more states may consider these kinds of experiments. The California Paraprofessionals Program Working Group report and revised recommendations can be found here and here

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