Chief Justice Limbaugh addresses The Missouri Bar/Judicial Conference in Kansas City

12 September 2002

Chief Justice Limbaugh addresses The Missouri Bar/Judicial Conference in Kansas City

    Chief Justice Stephen Limbaugh Jr.
 Stephen N. Limbaugh Jr., chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, delivered the following address during the opening luncheon of The Missouri Bar/Judicial Conference September 12, 2002, in Kansas City, Mo.    

When I came to the Court ten years ago, I, like most lawyers and judges, had little understanding of or appreciation for the Court's substantial administrative role.  Although the various courts and judges across the state have a high degree of autonomy, under the Missouri Constitution (and unlike the federal Constitution), the Supreme Court has general supervisory authority over the entire judicial branch of government.  That consists of some 3,400 employees, 400 of whom are judges, and an annual budget of $160 million.  To fulfill the attendant administrative responsibility, the Court acts as a sort of seven-person board of directors, addressing the many functional needs of the courts and judges so that all citizens have access to justice.

In that regard, I wish to devote the first part of my remarks to a summary of some of the important administrative issues of the day. Most of the hands-on, day-to-day administrative work of the Court – the management of personnel and compensation systems, the provision of educational opportunities to all judicial branch employees, the creation and promotion of innovative court programs, and the oversight of the budget, which alone is no small task in these troubled times – is assigned to the Office of State Courts Administrator.  On the other hand, judges and lawyers, themselves, perform invaluable service by working on the Court's committees.  There is a variety of standing committees ranging from those pertaining to drug courts and family courts, to criminal practice and procedure, to civil rules and civil instructions, to committees that administer the bar examination and assist in matters of lawyer discipline, just to name a few.  Speaking of lawyer discipline, I am pleased to announce the establishment of a new position within the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel called the "Ethics Counsel," whose job will be to field informal inquiries from lawyers regarding specific applications of the Rules of Professional Conduct. There also are a number of ad hoc committees such as the Committee on the Courts and the Disabled, which is completing a survey of our courtrooms and the practices in our courts to ensure that reasonable accommodations are provided to persons with disabilities.

Three new committees have just been created.  The first is a joint committee of the Supreme Court and the Bar, chaired by Lori Levine of Jefferson City, to examine the significant increase in pro se litigation, and address how best to accommodate this new development.  The second is a Supreme Court Committee on appellate practice, chaired by Judge Lisa White Hardwick of the Court of Appeals in Kansas City, which is charged with reviewing suggestions and constructive criticism from lawyers in an effort to make appellate practice more user-friendly.  The third is a committee of judges called the "Committee on Courts and Community Collaboration," which is chaired by Judge Jack Garrett of West Plains.  Its purpose is to educate our judges and encourage their participation in community outreach activities, such as public drug court graduation ceremonies and Saturday adoption days, the sponsorship of peer mediation groups and the operation of truancy diversion programs in the schools, and even joint activities of both judges and lawyers like the LEAP program in Kansas City – "Lawyers Encouraging Academic Performance" – in which the dedicated participants tutor and mentor school children from the inner city.  Consistent with the purpose of the committee, membership is open to all judges. An organizational meeting was held this morning, and the room was overflowing!

Perhaps our most important administrative effort is the ongoing court automation program.  The infrastructure has been completed statewide, and case management software is being used in about half of the courts.  Although the original intent was to bring the remaining courts into the statewide system within the next few years, budget cuts have placed the program on hold.  One exception is the 16th Judicial Circuit in Jackson County which, after a review of the several case management software programs throughout the country, decided to invest its own funds to expand its use of the state system.  

Those of you who have used the system's internet access called Case.Net, which is built on the case management software, know full well that the promise of the court automation program – instant electronic access to all court records open to the public – is now being met.  You can access everything from the courts' docket entries in any given case, to a judge's entire court calendar, and your own caseload with the judge, as well.   I am pleased to announce that just last month, Case.Net received the "Best of Breed Award" by the Center for Digital Government, a national think-tank of experts in the use of information technology at all levels of government.  For me, however, as one whose computer skills are far from proficient, the true test of the product is that even I can use it!

Finally, I wish to call to your attention two upcoming celebrations.  First, 2003 is the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the juvenile courts in Missouri.  Our celebration will showcase Missouri's juvenile and family courts, which are among the finest in the nation.  In addition, the Missouri Juvenile Justice Association, with funding from The Missouri Bar Foundation, has commissioned a history of the Missouri juvenile courts, which is being written by Professor Doug Abrams of the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law.  The published history will be distributed at a celebratory dinner in Jefferson City in early February, and the Court will be inviting the entire membership of the Missouri legislature, which will include at least 87 new members of the House of Representatives and at least 12 new members of the Senate, to a workshop preceding the dinner.  The purpose is to educate them about the operation of our juvenile and family courts and the vital role those courts play in our society.  

Second, and on a more self-serving level, 2007 is the 100th anniversary of our beautiful Supreme Court Building in Jefferson City.  Under the leadership of the Supreme Court Historical Society, plans are being made to mark the anniversary with a statewide celebration of Missouri's rich judicial and legal heritage.  There will be an emphasis on the Supreme Court Building and the courthouses throughout the state, which are the well-recognized symbols of that heritage.

Though I could devote my entire presentation to the administrative projects of the Court, I am not about to break my pact with President Theresa Levings – that she and I would speak on the topic of professionalism at every opportunity during our respective terms of office.  Last year during the annual address to the bar, I focused on the notion of the lawyer as "public citizen," the notion, as set out in the Rules of Professional Conduct, that a lawyer "should seek improvement of the law, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession."  But I also suggested that the lawyer as "public citizen" is the lawyer who renders public service of every kind, not only by pro bono representation of indigent clients or participation in the work of the organized bar, but also by serving as leaders of churches, charities, civic organizations, and government entities.  

If the public service of lawyers is the nobility of the profession, then the perception that lawyers are greedy and uncivil is the disgrace of the profession.  Few would disagree that the need to overcome the perception of greed and incivility is the greatest challenge to the profession, and the most effective way to meet that challenge, in my view, is to instill the proper mindset through the art of mentoring.  Mentoring, if you recall from my address last year, is the imparting of good values and good practices from one generation to another, from those who themselves have lived out those values and engaged in those practices, to those who are willing to emulate the example.  As I also mentioned last year, when I came to the profession some 25 years ago, my mentors were my father and my grandfather.  Although my father left the firm for the federal bench early on in my practice, I spent several rich and rewarding years with my grandfather, the original Rush Limbaugh.  If once again you will forgive me for the personalization of my comments, I will share with you the substance of his mentoring and in particular, the ways that he attempted to overcome the perception that lawyers are greedy and uncivil.  

At the outset, I should mention that his mentoring was not limited to the concern about greed and incivility.  For instance, he had a marvelous work ethic, and it manifested in different ways.  He had the idea that lawyers shouldn't retire, so he never did.  As some of you know, he died six years ago at the age of 104, still a practicing lawyer.  His law license was in jeopardy, I suppose, because the last time he turned in CLE hours was back when he was 101!  The year before, when he was 100, and at a time the firm had grown to 12 lawyers, he was by far the firm's leading producer.  On his 104th birthday, the Guinness Book of World Records called to advise him that he was the oldest practicing lawyer in the nation, but he wanted no recognition, as that was not his style.  He practiced law until he died because he dearly enjoyed the practice of law, and he saw no reason to quit.

His work ethic also manifested in the fact that he worked all the time.  He worked every weekday and every weekday night.  He worked nights at the office until late in his career when his eyes failed, and from then on he took his work home, every night, and not one briefcase, but two.  And he always worked on Saturday.  No, not just Saturday morning, but all day Saturday, every Saturday.  You can imagine my abject shame in sneaking out of the office on Saturday afternoons to play golf while my 95-year-old grandfather was still there working away!

He taught the course on civility like he taught the course on work ethic -- by his own example.  He was an old-time gentleman lawyer who was unfailingly courteous and gracious, and yet those traits never kept him from being a zealous and forceful advocate for his clients.  But there was more to his civility than perfunctory courtesy and graciousness.  It is hard to describe other than to say that his kind treatment of others was proactive and heartfelt.  While I was at the firm, I would give him a ride home at the end of the day, and by six o'clock or so, I usually camped at his door, hoping he would realize that it was time to lock up.  More often than not, I had to wait for him to finish dictating letters.  He was a prolific letter writer, a master of what, in this age of e-mail, is rapidly becoming a lost art.  To this day, I recall two special kinds of letters that were representative of his proactive and heartfelt civility.  The first kind of letters were those congratulating lawyers from other firms, for some victory in the courtroom or for some other job well done.  I thought, how unusual to write complimentary letters to the competitors or the enemy.  The second kind of letters were downright odd.  They were letters to friends and acquaintances of all sorts, thanking them for writing him a note of thanks!

What I have to say about the way my grandfather handled the greed problem – let me call it the moneymaking side of the practice of law – is idealistic and sentimental and impractical and certainly old-fashioned.  But I hope you still get the spirit.  It was always his intention to make a good living from the practice of law, and he went to law school with that in mind.   But over the course of his long career, he found fulfillment and reward, not so much in his fees, but in the sheer satisfaction of knowing that he represented his clients in a competent and professional manner.  He was not one to worship the almighty dollar.  During my time at the family firm, I had a great respect for his attitude, but I also had a great concern for the firm's bottom line.  

His attitude or approach to the moneymaking part of the practice had many facets.  To begin with, he opposed advertising our services to build up the business.  He abhorred lawyer advertising, which to him, was a symbol of lawyers' greed.  The debate within the firm 15 years ago when I left, was not whether to do a spread in the yellow pages, but whether to list the firm's name in bold type in the white pages!

In addition, he thought that persons requesting legal assistance should not be turned down because of their inability to pay.  As a result, he undertook the representation of all persons who requested his services so long as they had a meritorious case.  He could not fathom the need for legal services organizations, or even the need for particularized rules of ethics that required all lawyers to engage in pro bono services.  To him, there was never a question about representing people who couldn't pay.  He saw the representation of people who couldn't pay as an innate and noble part of the profession, one that should be undertaken with no less vigor than the representation of full-paying clients.  Perhaps, too, this attitude was the product of living through the Great Depression, when few people, lawyers included, could pay for services of any kind, and it was simply understood among lawyers, and doctors, and merchants, and craftsmen, and people in all occupations, that people would pay when they could.  And that was his response to clients: They should pay when they could.  Not once did he send a client out the door with instructions to return whenever the client could procure a retainer of $500, or $1,000, or whatever amount.

Of course, some clients never paid.  That was a great concern to the rest of us.  We knew that we had to make the bottom line, and the firm couldn't support the loss of income.  But non-paying clients and the bottom line mattered very little to him.  And, true to form, not once, in 78 years of general practice, did he sue a client for a fee.

Well, collecting fees wasn't the only problem.  The way he billed his paying clients made us shake our heads in frustration.  At the end of each month, he would sit down with the firm's bookkeeper, a fine lady named Joyce King who herself will have been with the firm 50 years this January, and she would tally his hours from his time slips, multiply the hours by his hourly rate, and come up with a bill.  His hourly rate was low, mind you, even though as a distinguished member of the profession, he could have charged double the hourly rate.  We knew his clients would have gladly paid, but despite our protestations, he always refused to raise the rate.  Alas, the problem was worse than that.  After refusing to charge what the market would bear, he then cut the bills.  It didn't matter whether the bill was for a little old lady, or a big corporation, and sometimes he would cut a lot, sometimes just a little.  But, one by one, he cut the bills.  Once in a while, Joyce would come to us and complain about him, but she knew nothing could be done, and we all just shook our heads.

Our bottom line was in jeopardy for another reason.  Instead of cranking out the billable hours, he insisted on participating in a wide array of extracurricular activities -- free work! -- some of which was not even related to the practice of law.  He spent an inordinate amount of time -- an entire career for most people -- in public service.  For the entirety of his professional life he was actively involved in bar work, on the local level, the state level, the national level, and even the international level.  These activities took him away from the office, sometimes for weeks on end, but it was his way of giving something back to his profession.  

When he was not doing bar work, he was doing community service.  He served as a state representative, and as president of the school board, and he served on the boards of this organization and that -- the Salvation Army and the Boy Scout Council and the Rotary Club, the local hospital and the Methodist church -- and in a larger context, he was President of the State Historical Society and one of the first members of the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.  These activities took him away from the office, too, but it was his way of giving something back to his community.  Though he was the consummate lawyer as public citizen, we didn't see how so much free work paid off for the firm.

Despite these blows to the firm's bottom line, and the desire of the others of us in the firm to take something home at the end of the year, he insisted that a good part of whatever income was left over be reinvested in the firm, which to him meant the firm's library.  He thought that to be a good lawyer, one had to be a scholarly lawyer, and to be a scholarly lawyer, one had to have books.  He was not a man of excess, except when it came to books.  The consequence of his excessiveness was that the firm had the best library in the area, and he opened the library to every lawyer in the area.  He had the complete reporter system, state and federal, so that you could find anything from an ancient case in the first series of Northeast Reporter, to a case hot off the press in Southern Second, to an obscure case in the Federal Rules Decisions.  He had both Am.Jur.2d and C.J.S.  He had law reviews from Washburn to Harvard, and stacks of big, thick, digests dating back to the dawn of time.  He even subscribed to the Congressional Record and the U.S. Code Congressional and Administrative News -- the legislative history of the U.S. Congress.   With all this, the overhead at the firm was out of control, and it is a wonder we ever made any money at all.

But ultimately, what we learned from the way he handled the moneymaking part of the practice, was that even with the untold hours that were lost representing clients who couldn't pay, and the unnecessary reduction in charges for the clients who could pay, and the inordinate amount of time out of the office doing public service, and the insistence on reinvesting the income back in the firm, at the end of the year, there always was money left over.  To be sure, some years were better than others, but there was always money left over, good money, and that is what we took home.  The fact is, he brought in more business to the firm than he and the others in the firm could ever do.  And that is the wonderful irony of it all.  Despite his utter lack of greed, or maybe because of it, he brought in more business than we could do, and there was always good money left over.

Let me capsulize the lessons of his mentorship in this simple way: The greatest honor of his life, aside from the fact that he was married to my grandmother for 63 years, was the honor of being a lawyer.
How would it be if all of us held our chosen profession in such high esteem?

*     *     *

One of the privileges of my position is to preside over the traditional and joyful ceremony at the Supreme Court at which the new law school graduates who have passed the bar exam are sworn in as members of The Missouri Bar.  At President Levings' suggestion, I will conclude by asking each lawyer in attendance to reaffirm your oath of admission.  A copy of the oath has been provided for that purpose, and as you senior counselors will see, there is no longer a reference to terms like "filthy lucre," but the substance is the same.  All those lawyers who are able, please rise, raise your right hand, and repeat with me in unison the oath of admission.  

I do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States
and the Constitution of the State of Missouri;

That I will maintain the respect due courts of justice, judicial officers
and members of my profession and will at all times conduct myself
with dignity becoming an officer of the Court in which I appear;

That I will never seek to mislead the judge or jury
by any artifice or false statement of fact or law;

That I will at all times conduct myself in accordance
with the Rules of Professional Conduct;  and,

That I will practice law to the best of my knowledge and ability
and with consideration for the defenseless and oppressed.

So help me God.

As I say to the newly admitted lawyers: Congratulations, welcome to the profession of law, and Godspeed!