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The VLW Quick 10: VSB Scenes

Virginia Lawyers Weekly has been making the scene at the beach and on the boardwalk since 1986. Here’s a Quick10 recap of memorable moments from our “Scenes” coverage of past annual meetings.

1. Then, now and later. In 1995, a UVa law prof bemoaned the high cost of a legal education, when the average law student left the ivory towers $52,000 in debt, according to one study. In January 2010, the American Bar Association Journal reported that almost one-third of law students expect to graduate with over $120,000 in debt. Scary numbers have given rise to a consumer movement among law students urging law school truth in advertising about job prospects and debt load. In recent weeks, a Los Angeles law firm filed the first class action law suit against Thomas Jefferson School of Law, which can be tracked at the Law School Transparency website:

2. Crystal ball gazing. Lots of lawyers show up for the annual update offered by Virginia Continuing Legal Education. Ace civil litigator Joe Kearfott used to brief lawyers on civil procedure. It seems there are always a few car-crash cases on the Virginia Supreme Court docket, and in 1995, Kearfott wondered whether the high court had forgotten what a sudden emergency was. “If there is any life left to sudden emergency, it is restricted to lightning strikes and terrorist bombs….And even then, you can’t be sure,” he said. It looks like the high court still has something to say on the doctrine. We’ve noticed a few more “sudden emergency” cases from the high court since then, in 2002, 2006, 2007, not that we’re keeping score.

3. Doing the numbers. One group that is keeping score is the Virginia State Bar Counsel, who usually kicks off the Virginia CLE program with an annual review of facts and figures on lawyer discipline. In 2000, Bar Counsel Barbara Williams reported that Richmond had overtaken the Hampton Roads area as the dominant producer of complaints against lawyers. But she attributed that dubious distinction to a couple of “centennial respondents” who had more than 100 complaints filed against them.

4. Can you feel it? Family law practitioners who handle the domestic relations update for Virginia CLE have enjoyed tracing the evolution of that practice area since Virginia got its intermediate appellate court in the mid-1980s. In 2003, Sharon Lieblich highlighted the “synergy” in family law, with the circuit courts handling the day-to-day brokering of family law issues, the Virginia Court of Appeals establishing statewide law, and the Supreme Court of Virginia occasionally chipping in with a decision. Then sometimes, practitioners have to go back to the General Assembly for a legislative fix.

5. Collective belt-tightening. Mid-90s coverage detailed how the VSB was hunkering down in the wake of a legislative study that questioned the agency’s mission and finances. VSB President Mike Smith announced new salary guidelines for bar staff. The Supreme Court directed that the VSB would no longer pay for alcohol at meetings. Fairfax lawyer Bill Cremins, head of a VSB finance committee, played a critical role in helping the bar get its financial house in order.

6. Who should monitor lawyer advertising? In 2000, the VSB executive committee recommended abolishing the Standing Committee on Lawyer Advertising and Solicitation, which took on such issues as the lawyer “specialist” designation, advertising about past case results and firms touting members as “Best Lawyers.” But it wasn’t until January 2010 that the committee went off into the sunset,, dying a natural death under state sunset laws. Now it’s the VSB ethics committee that watches over lawyer ads.

7. Déjà vu on judicial independence. The legislative response to the high court’s Hernandez decision has made headlines in 2011. But legislators’ oversight of judges is not a new topic. Ben DiMuro, VSB president in 2002, talked during the annual meeting about lawyers’ need to keep talking with their legislators. DiMuro said he planned to make the case that legislators should stop what he described as the “improper questioning” of judges seeking reappointment to the bench.

8. Who gets a seat at the table? In 2002, outgoing VSB president Joe Condo floated a proposal to include past bar presidents as ex officio members of the VSB Council. The consensus in the executive committee was that there were other, better ways to draw on the collective experience of past presidents, and the proposal failed. Score one for the grey-hairs the next year. In 2003, the council voted to bring in the president of the Senior Lawyers Conference as an ex officio member of the EC.

9. Lawyers respond to deadlines. In 2002, bar leaders lamented the low attendance at the annual meeting, and said it could no longer defend the law meeting as a profit-making venture. VSB executive director Tom Edmonds said it might be time to look at “the viability of the annual meeting.” One reason for the drop-off: In 2001, the VSB moved its deadline for CLE credit from July 1 to Oct. 31. Many lawyers used to attend the Beach meeting to cram in last-minute CLE hours. After the switch, lawyers could procrastinate until fall.

10. Warming up the crowd. Best-selling author David Baldacci had just had his first mega-hit when he headlined the VSB banquet in 1996. Baldacci had the last laugh when VSB president Mike Smith’s introduction noted that his own law firm had turned down Baldacci for a job 10 years earlier. That wasn’t his only brush with rejection, Baldacci said. Earlier he sent a screenplay to a Hollywood agent with a postcard that let the agent check off options such as: “Love the script – enclosed in a check for $1 million.” The agent returned the postcard with his own checked box: “We only represent talent.” Baldacci’s take? “And you thought only lawyers played hardball.”

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