BY JUDGE BRIAN TOLLEFSON (RET.)
One of my all-time favorite movies is the first Back to the Future. In it there is a scene where the main character, Marty McFly, is handed a flier by a passerby asking people in the community to “save the clock tower” from demolition. Evidently, the clock tower stopped working; that is, it stopped being relevant and didn’t keep up with the times. While your WSBA is committed to being relevant, the question is: how does the WSBA stay relevant?
“Relevant” has different meanings. There does not seem to be one accepted definition of “relevant,” nor is there a shortage of “how-to-keep-up-with-the-times” ideas. Different dictionaries have various definitions for the word. Most broadly, it seems that “relevant” means something to do with the “matter at hand,” whatever that means.11 Cf. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/relevant and www.thefreedictionary.com/relevant and www.dictionary.com/browse/relevant (last viewed Oct. 3, 2021).
“Relevance” is an important term in a variety of contexts. In litigation, there is relevance for evidentiary purposes, relevance for discovery purposes, and relevance for certain causes of action, such as anti-trust cases. In IP contracts, there is the concept of “relevant technology.” In communications or linguistics philosophy there is the notion of “relevance theory.”22 A central claim of relevance theory is “that the expectations of relevance raised by an utterance are precise and predictable enough to guide the hearer toward the speaker’s meaning.” See Wilson & Sperber (2004) Relevance Theory. (in L. R. Horn & G. Ward (eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics (Blackwell), pp 607-632). Whoa!
“Time waits for no one, and it won’t wait for me,” Mick Jagger of the ever-relevant Rolling Stones famously sang. Staying relevant as a legal professional as one navigates the passage of time also is important. We stay relevant or we risk getting “clocked” like the tower in Back to the Future.
The phrase “staying relevant” also has more than one connotation. Type that phrase into the search function of your favorite browser and you’re likely to find advice on “staying relevant in the workforce”; “steps to becoming and staying relevant” in life; and (not my favorite) “secrets to staying relevant as you age.”
Now and then I get the idea, either by hearing or seeing something, that not much that the Bar Association does has relevance to many members except for the licensing and discipline functions. Last year, a lawyer-member sent an email to a whole group of WSBA members, including me, that probably echoed what other WSBA members are thinking. The sender was unsure of “exactly what the Bar Association does.” Basically, the sender claims that there is a “disconnect” between the Bar Association and one’s passion to be an extremely good legal professional. Here again is that relevance question.
Many of the fundamentals of the practice of law haven’t changed since I first joined our Bar Association. Ethical responsibilities to a client continue to be very important. Legal professionals still represent clients by giving advice, preparing legal documents, and advocating for their clients (in court and elsewhere). Yet many other aspects of being a legal professional are radically different now. Here are just a few examples:
At one time, there were no online research services; almost all research was done by using paper-based research products from a handful of legal publishers. Now most legal research is digitized. Decades ago, many law firms had a combination of “ordinary” IBM Selectric and IBM Mag-card Selectric electric typewriters. Then came a variety of dedicated word-processor computers, with IBM being only one of the offerings. And finally the personal computer revolution replaced dedicated word-processing computers altogether. Another big change has been in how legal professionals communicate with their clients. While some clients must receive their communications via the mail, email (even text messaging) and Zoom (or other video-conferencing technology) are the general rule now.
Going to the courthouse to look at paper-based court files is gone in many jurisdictions. Court records are online or going online now more than ever. Other types of legal data, like auditor’s records, also are online.
It’s no secret then that the progress of word-processing power (including voice-enabled systems) and other personal-computer-based technologies—coupled with high-speed printers and copiers plus the advances in computerized legal research—allow legal professionals to produce more work (“law product,” if you will) in a shorter time period. In fact, legal professionals simply produce more law product than ever before. This is especially evident in the areas of drafting transactional documents and litigation.
Then, of course, there is the constant tsunami of state and federal legislation changes and additions. One problematic aspect: The ultimate cost of delivering many legal services has not declined.
Staying relevant—that is, keeping up with the times—as a legal professional is more important than ever. While your Washington State Bar Association must continue to stay relevant to all its members and the public, the question is: Is this message getting across?
Member engagement is so important to your Board of Governors that it has formed a Member Engagement Work Group33 www.wsba.org/Legal-Community/Committees-Boards-and-Other-Groups/member-engagement-work-group. to help the Board “involve bar members and collect their feedback on the board’s work.”44 The Work Group’s charter can be found here: www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/legal-community/committees/member-engagement-work-group/member-engagement-work-group-charter.pdf?sfvrsn=bdb90cf1_2.
One of the first tasks of this work group has been to create a survey to be sent to the members. Among the topics to be covered in the survey are members’ attitudes toward member benefits such as: the Legal Lunchbox™ (free monthly CLE credits); live, remote, and on-demand WSBA Continuing Legal Education (CLE) Seminars; deskbooks; the Washington State Bar News magazine; the Ethics Line; the Member Wellness Program; and the free legal research product Fastcase. But the WSBA wants to do more to grow and maintain its relevance to each and every legal professional and the public.
We are listening. Your input and involvement will help the WSBA stay relevant. Whether you’re a recent WSBA member or a seasoned legal veteran, we need you. With your help and input on this survey, the WSBA can keep pace and stay relevant. Marty McFly understood relevance. Let’s keep going into the future and save the clock tower.
1. Cf. www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/relevant and www.thefreedictionary.com/relevant and www.dictionary.com/browse/relevant (last viewed Oct. 3, 2021).
2. A central claim of relevance theory is “that the expectations of relevance raised by an utterance are precise and predictable enough to guide the hearer toward the speaker’s meaning.” See Wilson & Sperber (2004) Relevance Theory. (in L. R. Horn & G. Ward (eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics (Blackwell), pp 607-632).
4. The Work Group’s charter can be found here: www.wsba.org/docs/default-source/legal-community/committees/member-engagement-work-group/member-engagement-work-group-charter.pdf?sfvrsn=bdb90cf1_2.