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Annual Meeting 2011

Ethics 20/20 Commission: Doing Nothing About Lawyer Rankings Is the Best Course

Posted Aug 7, 2011 5:47 PM CDT
By James Podgers

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The ABA Commission on Ethics 20/20 has decided that the best policy for the association to take towards companies that rank law firms and lawyers is to pretty much just leave them alone.

That conclusion is set forth in a report that the commission has submitted to the ABA's policy-making House of Delegates. Because the report is informational in nature, however, it does not require action by the 566-member House, which will convene its two-day session at the association's 2011 Annual Meeting on Monday.

The commission's look into the lawyer ranking service issue stems from a recommendation adopted by the House in February 2010 that directs the association to "examine any efforts to publish national, state, territorial, and local rankings of law firms and law schools." The recommendation was sponsored by the New York State Bar Association. Following the measure's adoption, then ABA President Carolyn B. Lamm of Washington, D.C., directed the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar to study law school rankings and asked the Ethics 20/20 Commission to look at lawyer ranking services.

In its report to the House, the Ethics 20/20 Commission concluded that there isn't evidence of a "pervasive problem" caused by lawyer ranking services that would justify further study by the ABA. Moreover, according to the report, hiring the necessary experts to conduct further in-depth study "would be prohibitively expensive."

A working group of the commission engaged in an extensive outreach effort with lawyers, bar associations, disciplinary agencies, consumer groups and ranking services in efforts to assess the issue, said Roberta Cooper Ramo, one of the working group's co-chairs. "We found no evidence that anyone has been caused any harm by this. That was very important to me," said Ramo, a partner at Modrall Sperling in Albuquerque, N.M. Ramo added that existing ethics rules already govern situations in which lawyers might improperly share information with ranking services or improperly use rankings in their advertising.

Previously, the Legal Education Section issued its own report recommending that the ABA essentially stand pat on the issue of law school rankings.

New York State Bar President Vincent Doyle expressed disappointment with the conclusions of both reports, but said he does not expect his bar to raise the matter in Toronto. Instead, said Doyle, a partner at Connors & Vilardo in Buffalo, the bar will explore how it might be able to study the issue further, and he kept open the possibility of raising the lawyer ranking issue again at the ABA's annual meeting next year, when the Ethics 20/20 Commission's recommendations will come before the House.

Meanwhile, the House of Delegates is expected to tackle one of its heaviest agendas in recent years. Among other matters, the House will consider:

A recommendation by the New York State Bar calling on the ABA to take steps to assure that law schools, law firms, CLE providers and others provide the necessary "knowledge, skills, values, habits and traits that make up the successful modern lawyer." The recommendation also calls for the ABA to urge legal education providers to implement programs, including clinical courses, that are "intended to develop practice ready lawyers." The recommendation comes at a time when a study committee of the Legal Ed Section is looking at possible changes in key areas of law school operations, including how their teaching efforts are measured and whether there should be changes in the tenure system.

A recommendation by the Standing Committee on Judicial Independence that the ABA support efforts at the state level to establish clear procedures for judicial disqualifications and implementation of procedures to review a judge's decision to reject a disqualification request. The recommendation also calls for states in which judges are elected to implement disclosure requirements for litigants and lawyers who provide campaign support to judges before whom they appear. The issue of judicial disqualifications has gained attention in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2008 ruling in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. and a political environment in which judicial elections often have become more heated and expensive.

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