Lawyering in Washington County

Lawyering in Washington County

A look at how things have changed in the past few decades
By Maylon T. Rice
Today is Law Day, a national observance that celebrates America’s legal system. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Law Day.

Boyce Davis of Lincoln, a retired lawyer, and Washington County native, is the president of the local bar association and a founding director of the fictional, yet respected Muddy Fork Bar Association. (More on this later).

The Free Weekly called upon Davis who volunteered to answer some questions about Law Day, the Washington County Bar Association and the legal community in general.

Davis is quick to point out that his route to becoming an attorney was not a straight shot, like that of many, but his family roots reach deep into the ethics and work of the law.

“I was raised in a family with the notion that the worth of one’s life would be measured by what one did for people with whom he came in contact,” Davis said. “I have tried to do that. The practice of law has provided me with a means of fulfilling that personal goal or objective.

“The practice of law in America is unique from that in most of the nations on this earth. We have a component of our system that few nations imitate and no nation replicates. It is that unique and wonderful panel called the “petit jury”, or simply “the jury.

“Under the jury system, we leave to a panel of citizens, who are our equals, the responsibility for determining the facts most civil actions and in all felony criminal actions.

“A judge determines the law; but a jury determines the facts according to the evidence it is allowed to hear and see. Despite recent efforts to curtail our liberties, in large measure because of our unique system, we are still the most free nation on the planet.”

The Changing Times
Davis said that Americans should respect our system of justice because our laws are established by representatives elected by our neighbors and friends, enforced by elected administrators and judged according to the laws we ourselves have indirectly produced. In Arkansas particularly, we also elect most of our judges.

Davis said that practicing law in Washington County has changed. “The practice of law has changed dramatically since the first October morning I opened my office door in Lincoln. At that time, my start-up costs were about $3,500, quite a hefty sum for a recent graduate with a wife and four children. I had owned the building eight years and did much of the remodeling myself, while awaiting my license. That cost is not included. $3,500 was about half the income of a relatively well-paid employee in 1974.”

But today’s rookie lawyer only needs a computer, printer and long distance telephone line to access all the data and information necessary for a practice no matter where he is located, Davis said.

When Davis started his practice, there were fewer judges and fewer cases than there are today.

“We had two judges. One was a Chancery and Probate Judge and the other was a Circuit Judge in the Circuit. Those separate courts have since been joined together so that all six of our current judges have concurrent jurisdiction.”

And so grows the bar
The growth of the bar association has also exploded since Davis began practicing in 1974.
“I expect there were about 60 lawyers in this county,” Davis said. “Only two had an office west or south of Fayetteville. Bill Thurman and my old friend John Everett were located in Prairie Grove.”

Davis said that in 2007 there were over 600 licensed lawyers with a Washington County address. However Davis pointed out that that number is somewhat imprecise because it includes law professors and some corporate counsel who never use the state court system. It would not include some attorneys who reside in Benton County but practice in
Washington County. It does reflect to some degree the migration of some Little Rock, Fort Smith and even national law firms that have established a presence here.

Davis noted that the ratio of male to female attorneys has changed over the years. “The number of female lawyers active in the county is approaching the number of male lawyers, if it has not surpassed the latter group.”

The best stay
Ha the influx of attorneys from outside Washington County affected the practice of law here?

“Historically, some of the 19th Century’s finest lawyers lived in Washington County after having migrated here from Tennessee, Kentucky and even New York. When you live in a place as pleasant as Fayetteville specifically, and Washington County generally are, you must realistically expect that other people will like it too,” Davis said.

Davis muses on with his wry humor. “You can’t blame students from south and east Arkansas for putting down roots here during the six or seven years required to get an advanced degree. I wouldn’t want to live in south or east Arkansas. Have you ever seen the size of their mosquitoes?”

Tech savvy doesn’t mean smart
Davis said that technological advances in computers and legal statute search engines, while providing information, does not necessarily make better attorneys.

“In my own judgment it can bring an uneasy dependency on information its necessary partner: understanding. No matter how much information one has, it is of no value without an understanding of what it means. A lawyer’s understanding of a legal problem and finding a solution is not necessarily enhanced just by instant access to information. The lawyer’s mind is still the fundamental foundation for the service he provides his clients.”

Davis said having the UA Law School here is a benefit to the legal community. “It provides a steady pool of third-year students who want to clerk for a real; live lawyer. Clerking is the best training a law student can get in the real ways of the legal world.”

Muddy Fork Bar Association
What is the Muddy Fork Bar Association? Davis explained:

“About 1986, John Everett, his partner, the late Bob Whitlock and I were standing outside Judge Tom Butt’s courtroom waiting for a docket call to start. Docket calls have thankfully gone the way of the ribboned typewriter, but it was usually a quarterly practice of getting a status report from the lawyers on all pending cases.

“We decided out in the hall since there was a Washington County Bar Association, there’s no reason why we couldn’t have a Muddy Fork Bar
Association since Muddy Fork Creek flowed northward between Prairie Grove and Lincoln.

“In the MFBA, every member is a president and therefore we would not elect officers or have meetings. The MFBA was simply a state of mind. It was a spoof, or lampoon of the extent to which some of our brothers and sisters take themselves. We were serious about our practices, but less so about ourselves. You gotta do somethin’ to have fun in life or you go nuts.”

Ethics and fools
Davis stressed the importance of legal ethics “Since the first lawyer undertook representation, ethics has probably been the most important quality for which a client ought to seek in a lawyer. It is absolutely imperative that he be able to have total trust in his lawyer. There is more than one reason why we read more often today than we did 20 years ago of lawyer misconduct. You literally trust your lawyer with your life and fortune.

“There is an interdependency that exists in the lawyer/client relationship that does not necessarily exist in any other, except perhaps a doctor patient relationship. The lawyer has to depend on the truth of all relevant answers that pass through the client’s lips. He cannot blindly trust what the client relates. He has to be blessed with enough common sense and uncommon judgment to recognize the truth from the half-truth. Some clients will lie to the lawyer. Others will tell him what they think he wants to hear; and some will fail to tell him something of which they are ashamed. The fact is that the lawyer needs a brutally truthful answer to every question he asks the client.

“If the client shades the truth or discolors it, he risks shackling the skills of the lawyer. The client who hides the truth from his lawyer is a fool; and there are considerable fools in our society today.”

Davis said he personally debunks the myth that lawyers are not popular with the public.

“It’s hard to know just how unpopular lawyers are as a profession. In American society there does exist this odd dichotomy of opinion that ‘every lawyer’s a scoundrel except mine!’

“No person in his right mind would hire a lawyer he thought to be a scoundrel. No person in his right mind would hand over all the facts and circumstances necessary to conclude a legal matter to a lawyer he considered to be a scoundrel.

“I think a part of the answer lies in the fact that there has always been a certain mystique about the profession. We have a language of our own that helps build a communications barrier between us and the public at large. We are too often socially reclusive in that we hang out mostly with other lawyers.

“There is another dynamic at work here. When a lawyer files a civil action, whether over a traffic accident, a medical mistake, an environmental disaster or any other similar wrongdoing, it costs the rich and powerful large sums of money. These entities that are sued generally have one thing in common: Most have some kind of liability insurance. That liability insurance carrier starts spending money on attorneys’ fees and investigators’ charges before the process server gets back to the Court Clerk’s interests.

It is in the interest of those rich and powerful corporate interests that the American public have a low opinion of these professionals who have the ability to require them to incur immediate legal costs, perhaps a later money judgment or even a recall of a defective product. I do not suggest that there is a room in [a] skyscraper somewhere in New York from which a computer geek blogs lawyer jokes all day long. I only suggest that there is a financial advantage to these powerful interests if the American public that serves on juries have a low opinion of the lawyers who bring legal actions against their insured
Customers, whether the latter are doctors, hospitals, manufacturers, polluters or other lawyers.”

Not a bad profession
Davis said he has a “venturesome kind of mind and physical nature,” so the practice of law has offered him a broad diversity of inquiry and challenge and his understanding of life.

“The law doesn’t sit still. It is constantly evolving and morphing into new dimensions, directions and applications. It has enabled me to use whatever God-given talent I have in oral and written communications to be an agent for bringing positive enhancement into the lives of many people, while making a decent living for myself and my family. Finally, it has brought to me a settled, deep and thorough realization that the most important element in our system of justice is the jury system. We must never allow that to be lost.”

Categories: Features