Honor and Compassion

Virginia’s state bar associations, the standard bearers for professionalism in the practice of law, celebrate benchmark anniversaries this year.

On july 5, 1888, more than 100 lawyers from throughout the Commonwealth gathered for an urgent meeting at the Princess Anne Hotel in Virginia Beach. The profession was in dire need of a guiding force, read the summons from Francis H. McGuire, chairman of the Richmond Bar Association. Virginia’s lawyers at the time had no statewide standards for bar admission and no code of legal ethics: “At present, the fences are all down. The profession is a common, and I must say, some very strange cattle now feed upon it,” said McGuire, in his opening remarks at the meeting.

The result of McGuire’s plea for professionalism was the formation of the Virginia State Bar Association—today known as the Virginia Bar Association—which this year celebrates its 125th anniversary.

The organization adopted a constitution and bylaws, elected officers and proposed a Code of Legal Ethics. Its efforts led to the first Virginia Bar Exam in 1897, the creation of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners in 1910 and the first educational requirements for bar admission in 1934.

But membership in the VBA was purely voluntary, and it was difficult to enforce disciplinary measures. The group urged legislators to create a separate, membership-mandatory association to take care of such matters, and 75 years ago, in 1938, the General Assembly established the Virginia State Bar, an administrative agency of the Virginia Supreme Court charged with regulating the state’s legal profession.

Today, Virginia is one of only three states with both mandatory and voluntary state bar associations. (The others are West Virginia and North Carolina.)

“When the Virginia State Bar was created in 1938, many predicted the [voluntary] Virginia Bar Association would exist largely as a social organization, but it continued to play an important role in legislative reform,” says Catherine Obrion, librarian-archivist for the Virginia State Law Library.

According to Thomas Bagby, current VBA president and president and principal of Woods Rogers in Roanoke, the group’s legislative efforts “are really designed to improve the efficiency of the law in Virginia, and that is really for everyone’s benefit.” For instance, the VBA recently joined other statewide bar associations in passing a resolution supporting the funding and filling of judicial vacancies. These vacancies, explains Bagby, bog down the dockets of the circuit and district courts.

“Lawyers in Virginia choose to join the VBA, which is a voluntary organization, because they care about their profession, and they care about our mission, which is to promote collegiality and professionalism,” says Hugh M. Fain III, immediate past president of the VBA and managing director and shareholder of Spotts Fain in Richmond.

The VBA’s 5,500 members are “people who want to use their time, talents and experience to make their communities a better place,” says Yvonne McGhee, an attorney and the VBA’s executive director, from her downtown Richmond office where a large framed poster of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, perhaps the most beloved attorney of all time, hangs.

Two such members are Richmond attorneys Matt Kapinos, an associate with McGuireWoods, and Bob Barrett, assistant corporate counsel with Degremont Technologies. They are the co-chairs of the VBA Veterans Issues Task Force, which helps veterans in need of legal assistance. Both attended West Point and were deployed to Iraq; Kapinos was also deployed to Afghanistan.

Kapinos, a tall man with military-straight posture, received a medical discharge from the Army after a parachute accident and then attended law school. He knows the difficulty that returning servicemen face; even as an officer and a law school student, “It still took me over a year to get an initial determination on my benefits.”

Each November, during Veterans Legal Services Month, the committee hosts a number of events to recruit attorneys to donate pro bono or reduced fee services. In addition to the benefits cases, “We help veterans address a wide variety of their legal needs, with family law being the most common,” says Kapinos. “We give that veteran some quick peace of mind and then help them work through their issues.”

Connecting citizens with qualified legal help is also an important role of the Virginia State Bar, which has 47,000 members. The organization responds to about 12,000 phone calls each year through its Virginia Lawyer Referral Service, which links the public to attorneys practicing in their area of need. The VSB also operates the Clients’ Protection Fund, used to help reimburse people who have suffered a financial loss because of dishonest conduct by a Virginia lawyer. (As a state agency, however, the VSB is restricted from lobbying.)

Among its other duties, the VSB, which is entirely self-funded by attorney dues, ensures that practicing attorneys meet their continuing legal education requirements each year and sponsors some of the programs. The Professional Regulation Department of the VSB investigates complaints about lawyer conduct and prosecutes, when appropriate, cases before the district committees, the VSB Disciplinary Board or circuit court panels. Actions range from dismissals and private or public reprimands or admonitions, to suspensions and even revocations of licenses.

“The disciplinary actions are all posted online. Anybody can look them up. It’s a very open process. Even the hearings are open to the public,” explains Gordon Hickey, public information coordinator for the VSB.

“I think that one of the things we’re proudest of is our disciplinary system and how seriously we take it,” says VSB president Sharon Nelson, a Fairfax attorney and the president of Sensei Enterprises, a digital forensics, information security and information technology company.

“I’ve been called the technology president,” laughs Nelson. With her help, the VSB will bring the ABA TECHSHOW Road Show to Richmond next May: “We’ll have a whole day of education for the lawyers. It will be free, and they can really come and immerse themselves in what’s going on in legal technology, because certainly nothing has been so disruptive to the practice of law as technology,”  and, she adds, “that’s not going to stop anytime soon.”

Like the VSB, the VBA also offers a wide array of continuing legal education opportunities, but the organization is about more than legal reform and education.

On a lighter, but nonetheless civic-minded note, the VBA’s Young Lawyers Division provides the driving force for the “Legal Food Frenzy,” which takes place for two weeks each spring.

Since 2007, the contest has brought in over 10 million pounds of food. “It’s the largest food and fund drive in the state,” says Leslie Van Horn, executive director for the Norfolk-based Federation of Virginia Food Banks. Law firms compete with each other to gather the most canned goods and monetary donations (each $1 collected is equal to four pounds of goods). To raise the funds, “They get really creative,” says Van Horn. She has heard of everything from lawyers shaving their heads or taking part in tricycle races, to senior partners getting hit in the face with pies.

“The Legal Food Frenzy began over 20 years ago as a friendly competition among lawyers in the Tidewater region,” says Christopher Gill, a partner with Christian & Barton in Richmond and one of the project’s co-chairs. In 2007, then-Attorney General Bob McDonnell joined with Gill and Richmond attorney Katja Hill of LeClairRyan, both members of the Young Lawyers Division, to launch the program statewide. The offices of the Attorney General and the Governor also lend support, and other states have even copied the effort. “We didn’t ever anticipate it being this big, but we’re really thrilled that it is,” says Gill. Although a little nutty at times, he adds, the event helps the community “and really puts attorneys in a good light.”

Surely Atticus Finch would approve.

For more information about the community service programs provided by these organizations,

go to VBA.org and VSB.org

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