As legal issues evolve, lawyers must be vigilant about staying current

When business owners and others seek advice from their attorney, they expect to get an informed answer. But as lawyers juggle a barrage of evolving legal issues, it’s reasonable to ask: How do they keep up with all the changes?

When business owners and others seek advice from their attorney, they expect to get an informed answer. But as lawyers juggle a barrage of evolving legal issues, it’s reasonable to ask: How do they keep up with all the changes?

“New Jersey has Continuing Legal Education requirements (24 credit hours every two years), but that’s not nearly enough to keep up with developments,” said Stephen Baker, senior partner and president of the full-service intellectual property law firm Baker & Rannells PA. “CLEs are great for ethics and general matters, but if you’re considering matters like IP infringement, then advance sheets are a must-read.”

Even the state’s top judges have to stay current

At the New Jersey Supreme Court, “Judges need to keep up with new decisions rendered by federal and state courts and, of course, by the United States Supreme Court,” according to retired New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Virginia Long. She joined Fox Rothschild LLP as Counsel in March 2012 after 15 years on the Appellate Division and 12 on the state’s top court.

NJBIZ asked Long how she stayed current. “That can be done through subscriptions to legal news services and websites and by skimming the decisions issued each day and setting aside for further review those of particular interest,” she said. “However, the idea that any judge can be familiar with every single new judicial decision is not a physical reality. As issues arise, judges drill down on what has been decided.”

How did she prepare for a case? “Judges review the parties’ briefs and appendices, their own clerks’ independent memos and read the original source material, including relevant court decisions, legislation and scholarly writing on the subject,” Long said. “Every judge relies on his or her law clerk for an independent recitation of the facts and the relevant legal authority on the subject at issue. Although we expect lawyers to honestly set forth the facts and the applicable legal principles in their briefs, sometimes things are missed and sometimes viewed through a partisan lens. The law clerk is the fail-safe for the judge who knows that no legal stone has been left unturned. The ultimate responsibility for actually deciding the case remains with the judge, who brings experience and perspective that the law clerk does not have.”

Advance sheets are timely summaries of either general or specialist court decisions. They’re usually delivered in electronic or paper form on a regular basis by services including LexisNexis, United States Patents Quarterly, Westlaw and others. 

“We also take live and online classes presented by organizations like the International Trademark Association” and others, he added. “I want our lawyers to be able to read books in different categories and the science section of The New York Times, because if you’re not a good reader you can’t write well either. And if you can’t write well, you can’t make yourself understood.”

At the same time, Baker noted, the practice of law is becoming more specialized. “My dad did patent, copyright and other kinds of work; almost everything expect chemicals. Today, though, it’s much more focused. A general IP lawyer, for example, probably isn’t equipped to handle computer or sewing machine patents, which can be very complicated.”

“In New Jersey, particularly before CLEs became mandatory in 2010, the State Bar and a few other providers offered them. … [Now] there’s a wealth of information available for lawyers, but you need to pick the ones that make sense for your practice.”

– Jennifer Mazawey, Genova Burns

Being an instructor as well as an attendee at legal events can also help a lawyer maintain an edge, according to Jennifer Mazawey, a partner with Genova Burns. She also chairs the firm’s professional development committee and develops its internal CLE program.

 “We utilize a combination of internal and external programs that are specific to each attorney’s practice area,” said Mazawey, whose focus is primarily on commercial real estate, land use and construction law. “They include seminars, classes presented by professional associations, clients, consultants and others. Some title companies, for example, do complimentary CLEs on ethics and other relevant information, which is a good learning experience for the attorneys who attend, and it’s also a good business-development opportunity for the sponsoring company. As a speaker at some of these events I have to do a deep dive into the material, which helps me to stay current.”

A ringside seat to history

When Scarinci Hollenbeck Founding Partner Donald Scarinci presents constitutional law for the New Jersey Institute for Continuing Legal Education, his co-presenters include John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and other famous figures.

“I like to bring in historical actors so the attendees can see how the nation’s founders would respond to modern issues,” said Scarinci, whose practice focuses on representing public institutions and businesses that interact with government. “It makes the issues come alive. It’s also entertaining, so people can have fun while they’re learning.”

He also edits a blog, ConstitutionalLawReporter.com. “I also write for it, and follow the U.S. Supreme Court on a daily basis – it keeps me up to date,” he said. “Being current is important, but many people don’t think about that issue when they hire an attorney.”

Her firm subscribes to Westlaw and other sources that include trade journals that provide updated summaries of court rulings. “Seton Hall Law School also offers alumni-only and other CLEs, and the Rutgers Institute for Professional Education offers CLEs throughout the year,” she said.

Mazawey, who earned her J.D. from Seton Hall University School of Law in 1997, said she’s seen significant changes in the way CLE is delivered.

“In New Jersey, particularly before CLEs became mandatory in 2010, the State Bar and a few other providers offered them,” she said. “But now many more are offering state-approved CLEs. There’s a wealth of information available for lawyers, but you need to pick the ones that make sense for your practice. There are online and offline courses, and I don’t mind the offline ones since it gives you an excuse to get out of the office and you get a chance to meet more people.”

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