Don't tell Roger A. Perkins any lawyer jokes.
The recently elected president of the Maryland State Bar Association has probably already heard them. And he's tired of the stereotypes slapped on the legal profession.
His mission, as head of the 15,500-member state bar, is to get people to recognize the flip side of the coin.
"I'm always on the lookout for negative things said about the legal profession, because there are a lot of positive things we do," said Mr. Perkins, 49, an Arnold resident who has a family law practice in Annapolis.
Mr. Perkins points to the extensive pro bono legal work Maryland attorneys do for poor, non-paying clients as an example.
Mr. Perkins received his law degree from George Washington University in Washington in June 1969. He has been a sole practitioner specializing in family law and general litigation since 1978 and is a past president of the Anne Arundel County Bar Association. He began his new job last month.
In addition to his practice, he also hears zoning appeals as a temporary administrative hearing officer for Anne Arundel County and serves on the Governor's Task Force on Family Law, which is studying issues like divorce and will report its findings and recommendations in October.
Improving the image of the profession by improving communication with the public is one of four goals he hopes to achieve during his one-year term. A second goal is to encourage even more lawyers to offer pro bono services.
"We've had a strong commitment to providing pro bono legal services to the indigent community . . . and I want to continue this," Mr. Perkins said.
Part of the reason many people hold lawyers in low esteem is that they don't understand the legal process and why lawyers do unpopular things, like negotiate plea bargains. "People need a better understanding of the whole process. We'll do the best we can to better their understanding," he said.
A third goal is to increase the participation of minorities in the bar.
"I think our doors have always been open [to minority lawyers]," he said. "It's not enough to say our doors are open. We need to reach out to encourage more people to participate . . . so they are bringing their perspective into what we do."
His fourth goal is to help members take advantage of technological advances that will increase office efficiency.
Mr. Perkins said that as a lawyer who works as a sole
practitioner, he has a special commitment to seeing that other sole practitioners and small law firms receive the assistance they need, especially in terms of new office technology.
"There's a tremendous amount of technology available to make the practice of law more effective," he said. As an example, he points to a new system that will make civil and criminal cases as well as land records from throughout the state available to lawyers at their offices through computer modem.
But even with this service available, many lawyers are so busy that they don't have the time to learn how to use a computer to access this information. "And if you don't understand it, you tend not to use it," Mr. Perkins said.
xTC The state bar is developing the software that will enable &L attorneys to access court records, and it is considering providing a staff person to advise members on law office technology.
It is his hope that advancing technology will keep legal costs down for the consumer. "We've got to ensure that legal services are not priced in such a way that the average consumer can't afford them. To do that, the services have to be delivered more efficiently," he said.
"If we used the same methods we used 20 or 25 years ago, nobody would be able to afford a lawyer. And if we use the same methods 20 years from now that we use today, nobody will be able to afford a lawyer 20 years from now," hesaid.
Mr. Perkins acknowledged that there are several concerns he has about the profession as he begins his term. The recession has hit the legal profession hard, putting some firms out of business and many lawyers out of work. About 1,100 new lawyers will be admitted to the bar this year, "and many of them are having trouble finding employment opportunities," he said.
Another concern is that the explosion of lawyers in recent years has caused the profession -- once an informal fraternity -- to become more anonymous and impersonal.
"Every lawyer knew every other lawyer and they would resolve their cases in a professional, civil manner because they had dealt with each other regularly and knew each other," Mr. Perkins said.
Now, with more than 20,000 practicing lawyers in Maryland, that kind of familiarity is often missing. "So there's less incentive to be civil and resolved things in a civil, professional way," he said.
As a remedy, the Court of Appeals has begun offering a one-day seminar for new bar members on professionalism and ethics.
With only one year as president, Mr. Perkins said he knows he does not have a lot of time to achieve his goals.
"Talking about them doesn't get them done," he said. "My goal is not to talk about them, but to accomplish them."