Maryland's federal, state and circuit court judges believe that 10 percent or less of the state's trial lawyers are chronic incompetents, according to an extensive survey completed recently by the state's bar association.
The survey found the highest level of incompetence in Baltimore, where the overall caliber of attorney trial performance was rated as substandard by the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City. This finding was termed startling by the authors of the bar report, who noted that one-third of the state's lawyers practiced in Baltimore.
The judges of Baltimore County also were critical of their local trial lawyers, with estimates of the incompetency level there ranging from 5 per cent to 25 per cent. In Prince George's and Montgomery counties, a majority of the circuit judges estimated that 10 percent or less of the attorneys displayed courtroom incompetence.
The survey was conducted over an 18-month period by the state bar's Special Committee on Advocacy. The 13 members of the committee interviewed four-fifths of the state judges above the district court level.
Committee chairman John H. Mudd, a Baltimore attorney, noted that the survey began before U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger made his well-publicized claim that about half the country's trial attorneys were incompetent.
"We'd been talking about it in this state for a long time," said Mudd. "We decided that instead of assuming the level of competence or incompetence, we'd find out exactly where we stood by interviewing those who observe us - the trial judges. The goal from the start was to get the judges to speak critically, to tell us where and why the incompetence was exhibited."
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE] the bar report, to be published in June, concluded that the most prevalent reason for incompetence was inadequate trial preparation. It said that some lawyers were inadequately prepared because they were "lazy," others because they took on too heavy a caseload, and still others because they were not sufficiently instructed in law school.
The 10 circuit judges of Baltimore County offered the harshest criticsms in these areas, according to the report. "One judge observed a propensity to press weak cases without any grasp of the merits or controlling principles of law. Several remarked about the inability of some lawyers (particularly those from Baltimore City) to know when to 'shut up' and refrain from unnecessary cross-examination. Others mentioned 'greed' (taking on an excessive case load, without associates)."
The interviews with members of the state's two highest courts - the Court of Appeals - resulted in two notable findings.
The first was that the judges encounter incompetence less often in civil appeals than criminal appeals. The reasons for this, according to the report, were that "there is more at stake in civil appeals and the appellate issues may be somewhat more profound."
The second point the top judges made was that youth was not necessarily a drawback at the appeals stage. Said the report: "The interviews established that younger lawyers perform as well or better than their more experienced colleagues, particularly in preparing criminal appeals. They . . . ssem to be more familiar with recent judicial pronouncements than some older lawyers . . ."
The nine members of the U.S. District Court in Maryland criticized, among others, U.S. agency lawyers, "Significant numbers of agency lawyers were described as pretty bad, e.g., under-prepared, inexperienced, unreasonable and arrogant."