A Firm Commitment To Improving Justice

Thursday, November 1, 2007 - 01:00

Editor: Could you tell us about Drinker Biddle's involvement with defense bar organizations?

Dames: The firm has been active in civil justice reform initiatives through organizations such as DRI and the International Association of Defense Counsel (IADC). In addition, Charles Preuss of our San Francisco office had been active for several years with Lawyers for Civil Justice (LCJ). Many of our partners are members of DRI and the IADC and some have participated in these organizations' governing bodies.

But these organizations only begin to describe our involvement in civil justice reform. Another of our partners, Michael Remington, has served as counsel to the House of Representatives in connection with efforts to improve judicial administration, has served as chief counsel to the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Intellectual Property and Judicial Administration, and as director of the National Commission on Judicial Discipline and Removal. He also has been a consultant to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Legal Reform, focusing specifically on multidistrict litigation and the so-called lexicon reform, which sought to give multidistrict judges the ability to try cases assigned to them as a transferee court. The firm also has been involved with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a reform organization that presses for merit selection of state judges. Through that body, the firm has supported merit selection initiatives in other jurisdictions.

Several Drinker Biddle partners also have been actively involved with organizations advancing legal ethics and judicial screening bodies. For example, we have a New Jersey partner who is serving a four-year term on the Ethics Committee of the New Jersey State Bar Association. And we have a partner who serves on the Judicial and Prosecutorial Appointments Committee for Essex County in New Jersey. Another partner in New Jersey is a member of the Essex County Judicial Screening Committee. And yet another formerly was a member of the New Jersey Supreme Court's Civil Practice Committee. One of our partners has been a rules consultant to the Disciplinary Board on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for more than 20 years. Another is deputy counsel to the Pennsylvania Appellate Courts Procedural Rules Committee. Another was chair of the Subcommittee on Remedies. We also have a partner in Illinois who is a member of the Illinois Judiciary Advisory Council. And another Illinois partner was a member of the Illinois Commission on Professionalism and the Illinois Supreme Court Committee on Mandatory Continuing Legal Education. This is something that has been a longtime interest of firm partners.

Editor: Who sets the tone at the top at the firm?

Dames : I'm a relative newcomer to Drinker Biddle, having been with the firm for two years. I have a particular appreciation for the Drinker Biddle culture, having come from a different culture. I would have to credit the firm chairman, Alfred W. Putnam, Jr. The example set by Alfy Putnam is followed by other partners and exemplified by their activities. The firm has a tradition Quakerism in the sense that public interest and the public good seem to be an integral part of the culture at the firm. To me it's always been special. Everyone here seems to understand a commitment to the profession without your having to explain it.

Editor: Could you tell us about your own experience with DRI?

Dames: I have been a member of DRI almost as long as I have been practicing law. DRI has become one of the important means by which we educate the attorneys in our firm. The attorneys in my Products Liability Group are significantly involved with pharmaceutical cases and we attend DRI's drug and medical device seminar every year which serves as a forum for new developments in that area of the law. It's also a significant networking opportunity for attorneys. And it helps us maintain the level of knowledge that permits us to practice effectively. I'm very appreciative of the efforts that the DRI has made to educate young attorneys, particularly to help them improve their trial skills. DRI has made significant efforts to improve the quality of the people practicing in the fields that are of interest to its members. Both DRI and the IADC have been excellent ways for members to keep abreast of what others are doing. I don't know where else we would find the same ease of communication on legal developments if we didn't have an organization like DRI.

Editor: Judicial selection has been one of the key issues associated with civil justice reform. Could you describe your firm's position on that issue?

Dames: There is a consensus here at the firm that merit selection is the most palatable way to ensure quality in the judiciary. A question that the legal profession needs to continually ask itself is: How good are the interpreters of the legal standards that we seek to apply in the courtroom? The firm has been supportive of reform methods and merit selection initiatives in the past and will continue to do so. As a national firm, we operate in areas of the country that don't have merit selection, but instead rely on either elections or appointments. In these areas, Drinker Biddle attorneys have been involved with bodies that screen judicial candidates. We try to be as active as we can with these systems. A bedrock of reform efforts is participation in the processes that evaluate candidates that will be proposed for the judiciary. We have firm partners who actively seek judicial positions themselves, and we certainly support those efforts because we believe in the quality of our own partners.

Editor: What merit selection methodologies appeal to you?

Dames: Rather than endorsing a particular methodology, I think Drinker Biddle supports a standard of experience and competence. We need to take care in promoting, nominating and appointing or electing people to the judiciary who are screened for their intellectual competence, who have the requisite amount of experience in the practice of law, but whose experience qualifies them to become purveyors of legal standards. I'm not wedded to any particular system, but I support the concept that legal standards need to be applied to judicial candidates. That includes intellectual and experience standards, and to some degree temperamental standards. Every lawyer has seen judges who are intellectually competent but temperamentally unsuited to the task. Those who evaluate judicial candidates always have to grapple with the issue of how they evaluate judicial temperament without exercising biases. I think you need to create a set of criteria that incorporate intellectual capacity, experience and temperament, and last but not least, some sort of method of assessing integrity.

Editor: How do you get the word out to the public that must elect judges? What is the best way of disseminating candidates' backgrounds?

Dames: We have become so overwhelmed with information. I'm skeptical about the willingness of many people to learn the details of the candidates for judicial offices. For some major offices, people may learn enough to assess the broad outlines of what these people may bring to the office. But particularly in Cook County, Illinois, where we have I believe the largest consolidated court system in the country, it's almost impossible for the average voter to know who the judicial candidates are and the qualities they have. So they have to rely on bodies that will evaluate candidates. We need active bar associations that will publish their assessments of judicial candidates. These legal organizations need to provide this information to the media. Hopefully, the newspapers will pick it up, digest it and translate it for the voters. We may find that there will be segments of the population that will use the Internet to get at that information. Perhaps they will carry it with them to the voting booth so they can refer to something when they look at perhaps a hundred candidates for judicial vacancies. There isn't a very good system when you are throwing so many candidates at voters. All too often they are selected based on some name recognition, ethnic recognition or gender recognition that has almost nothing to do with the refinements of what qualities they bring to the office. It is overwhelming. That is part of the reason why merit selection becomes very palatable.

Editor: What role has the firm had in improving on the federal rules on e-discovery?

Dames: The e-discovery efforts of the firm have been more in advising clients to implement procedures that comply with the rules. We formed a committee that is designed to evaluate and educate everyone involved on our procedures for e-discovery compliance. Our firm may have had limited involvement in the development of the new e-discovery rules through DRI or IADC, but primarily we've tried to be responsive to the new rules by advising clients on e-discovery compliance guidelines. Hopefully we can get them up to speed on procedures they need to employ to avoid issues such as spoliation or potential destruction of evidence.

Editor: I understand that LCJ played a key role in the development of the new rules .

Dames: I would suspect that Charles Preuss of our San Francisco office was involved in LCJ's efforts at the time. He also was involved with class action issues when he was a member of LCJ's Federal Rules of Civil Procedure Rules Committee.

Editor: Do you have any thoughts about raising judicial salaries?

Dames: Judicial salaries have lagged so far behind the pay of attorneys in private practice. It still represents a significant sacrifice for practicing attorneys to decide to become judges, particularly in the state courts. In many cases, particularly here in Illinois, judges' salaries now lag behind those of first year associates. That's an incredible divergence, and it's incredibly unfair. Obviously, you can't attract the quality of judges you need to try cases effectively if they are making less money than people who have just graduated from law school. Where the money comes from is another huge issue, particularly recently with declining state budgets. There's no easy solution to the problem.

Editor: Some state's judicial salaries are tied to legislative salaries, and legislators often are hesitant to increase their own salaries.

Dames: That is correct. You won't find legislators deciding that judges need to earn double the amount that legislators earn. But if we are going to demand significant improvements in the judiciary, it's unfair for us not to reimburse them. I know our judiciary in Illinois is very conscious of the difference between what they are making and what attorneys who appear in their courtrooms are making. And I think it sends the wrong message to the profession as a whole.

Please email the interviewee at john.dames@dbr.com with questions about this interview.