President gives SBM update

Dismal bar exam results prompted much debate, Bruce Courtade says

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

The State Bar of Michigan's financial situation is in better shape than it has been in years, SBM President Bruce Courtade told the crowd at the Washtenaw County Bar Association's 24th Annual Bench-Bar Conference last week.

"In fact, you should have noticed that you had a $10 dues reduction this year," he said. "I'm taking full credit for that."

He said the SBM is offering more programs for less money to more attorneys than ever, and membership is now 42,600 attorneys in the state of Michigan.

Courtade talked about the upcoming one-year anniversary of the soft launch of the Michigan Online Legal Self-Help Center website which was created to help citizens who can't afford an attorney, or who don't qualify for Legal Aid, or don't have Legal Aid attorneys available.

"That is a program that is not a State Bar program, but is one that the State Bar fully supports," he said. "When that was announced, there was a lot of blowback from people saying, 'How can you do that? It's taking work away from Michigan attorneys, because these people are now going to have access to forms.'"

But he said the site has been a boon to lawyers, as making legal forms available to the public streamlines the court system. And, he noted, the second-most clicked on link on the site is "Finding a Lawyer."

"What we hoped would happen is happening," he said.

Courtade noted that the most common phone call he received this year was from a lawyer wanting the SBM to help with the Newtown massacre relief. That was followed by many calls about the results of the Bar Exam in July, when just 62 percent passed the exam, the lowest in the history of the state.

(According to a November 2012 SBM Blog post, the best explanation for the drop "seems to be a change to a straight 4/3 ratio for the MBE and essays, without scaling using the standard deviation method for the essays." )

Courtade said some lawyers were dismayed at the exam rule changes to students who had invested so much money in law school, while others said, "It's about time!"

Courtade noted that the SBM has nothing to do with writing or scoring the exam or anything else.

"But we have been involved in trying to address all the problems," he said, adding that there are ongoing discussions about the issues with law schools, examiners, Supreme Court and sometims SBM.

He said he doesn't care what changes are made, but he has insisted that those changes be transparent so everyone knows exactly what to expect.

Courtade made the case for criminal juvenile defense legislation and better civic education in the schools.

He said he attends similar events throughout the state, and called the attendance Friday "outstanding."

"It speaks highly of your commitment to the local bar and to the justice system," he said.

He also applauded the work of Ann Arbor attorney Lori Buiteweg, who is SBM secretary.

"That means she is in line to succeed eventually as State Bar president," he said, noting that she is extremely qualified for the position. "What amazes me is that she'll be the first Washtenaw County attorney to be State Bar of Michigan president."

Courtade left each guest a Guide to the U.S. Constitution.

Following his talk, local judges gave updates on the state of the Washtenaw County courts.

Judge Donald Shelton, Chief Judge of Washtenaw County Trial Court, noted that last year he told of the significant reorganization of the court in 2011 and 2012, which included physical remodeling of the courthouse.

He had also talked about the fact that new state laws and the county's implementation of them had resulted in an 80 percent turnover rate in the clerking office, which posed huge problems.

"I have good news and bad news," he said.

This year's good news, he said, is that for the first time in two and a half years, the courthouse is fully staffed.

"The bad news is that so many of the people who work in the courts are new that training has now become a constant endeavor for us."

He also noted that with the election of Judge Carol Kuhnke, the trial court took the opportunity to review and amend the judicial case assignments.

"I know many of you have been trying to figure out who's on first, with the various reassignments that have been made," he said, before listing the changes.

The criminal caseload of retired Judge Melinda Morris has been assigned to Judge Darlene O'Brien, who now has a full criminal case load "and is from all reports doing a wonderful job," Shelton said.

O'Brien's probate caseload has been assigned to Judge Tim Connors--"who didn't do anything wrong--but volunteered."

Judge Nancy Wheeler's PPO caseload has been assigned to Judge Kunke and Judge Connors' existing civil caseload was split between Shelton and Judge David Swartz.

Shelton also explained that the court is working on the purchase of a new software system.

"My expectation is that we will contract for a brand new software case management system by this summer," he said. "By next summer, that system will be implemented Trial Court-wide within the Circuit Court. That system, regardless of which of the systems we select, will be light years ahead of where we are."

The system will include electronic filing for all civil and domestic cases.

Trial Court Judge Archie Brown talked about the Business Court he will soon oversee. Judge Joe Burke, who also presides over the 15th District Court's Sobriety Court, reminded guests of the national Relay for Recovery stop at the court at 10 a.m. on May 22.

Judge Kirk Tabbey talked about the new video conferencing and courtroom presentation technology in the 14A District Courts, and the improved security coming to 14A-2 and 3.

Published: Thu, May 9, 2013