Among lawyers, the name Bob Kutak is fast becoming a household word. He is the chairman of an American Bar Association commission that has spent the last two years working on a new ethical code for lawyers. The proposal is being unveiled at the ABA's midyear convention here with such fanfare that the meeting is sometimes billed as the "Bob Kutak Show."
The Kutak panel proposal, if it survives another year of hearings and comments, will replace a 10-year-old Code of Professional Responsibility that has been roundly criticized as unrealistic and unrepresentative of the legal profession's daily problems and work.
The most controversial portions of the proposed code -- such as a section allowing a lawyer to "blow the whistle" on a client and another requiring an attorney to file an annual report on his free public service work -- will be debated within the legal profession with all the formidable techicalities it can muster.
However, one approach taken in the proposed code is long overdue and so important to clients that it should easily have become part of any lawyer's daily routine without elaborate Kutak-type panels.
In this proposal, the profession for the first time tries to deal officially with setting standards in three main areas of a customer's complaints about a lawyer: the lawyer's competence, the lawyer's candor with clients and the lawyer's fees.
Kutak said the panel was "really astounded" to learn that those were the three chronic problems cited by clients. And so came an opportunity to use the proposed code to describe in handbook form the criteria for "being a good lawyer."
Obviously, any such list cannot be exhaustive. But the panel has set basic guidelines that presumably will please countless clients whose lawyers have badly handled a matter they shouldn't have taken on, neglected to keep them informed of the status of the case, and then sent a bill that was out of line with the work performed.
The current ethics code says only that a lawyer "should be competent." The Kutak proposal expands on that considerably, requiring a level of "specific legal knowledge, skill, efficiency, thoroughness, and preparation employed in acceptable practice by lawyers undertaking similar matters."
Second, the current code only advises an attorney to "not neglect" a matter. The proposal requires the attorney to "attend promptly to a client's affairs, giving them adequate attention until complete."
The reason for the change, Kutak said, is that procrastination by lawyers is a recurrent problem for clients, "causing them needless anxiety and, in some instances, adversely affecting their legal interests."
And in keeping with the second area, attorneys would be required to regularly tell a client what the lawyer is doing and why it is being done.
The third area of concern was the problem of setting legal fees. That problem would be confronted under the proposed code by requiring, in most instances, that the fee arrangement be made in writing. The fee must be reasonable -- whatever that is -- but, most important, the client should know up front what the legal service is costing with much more specificity than most lawyers now provide.
Candor, competence and accountability should be the guidelines for any profession. It's about time that lawyers, as a group, went on record as acknowledging that those attributes are key criteria for their profession as well.
The uneasy relationship between the legal profession and the press continues to be a topic of discussion whenever lawyers, judges and media types are gathered together. There was one surprising view expressed at an ABA-related function, by Michael Franck, chairman of the ABA standing committee on professional discipline.
Franck wrote a report 10 years ago that said a "scandalous situation" existed within the bar concerning the lack of disciplining of lawyers. The report led to an increased vigilance within the bar concerning lawyer misconduct, and the disbarment of about 800 attorneys a year nationally.
However, Franck said the media had been making "totally unwarranted" criticism of the profession by questioning whether the disciplining of attorneys is effective enough. Franck said when reporters question the disciplinary bodies of the bar, the bar should in turn "take on the press" and ask the media how many members it disciplined and whether it had any mechanism for such actions.
He must believe the best defense is a good offense. The question remains: Is that his only defense?
It must be noted that the Conference of Chief Justices of State Courts spent a rather serious 45 minutes or so debating whether an attorney should be automatically disbarred for stealing a client's money.
It seems that in most states, such theft -- politely called misappropriation of client funds -- hardly merits a slap on the wrist, even though the chief desciplinarian of the California bar said it is the complaint most often made about attorneys there.
Vernon Jordan, president of the National Urban League, told a conference of the overwhelmingly white ABA that he wants the group to play a leading role in the pursuit of racial equality in the 1980s.
He said that although there are "few professions in America that have as great an impact on blacks and other minorities as the legal profession . . . the fact is that blacks and other minorities are grossly underrepresented in the legal profession and are underserved by the profession."
Jordan's statistics: Barely 2 percent of all lawyers are black. They are overwhelmingly concentrated in the least lucrative and least prestigious specialties, virtually absent from major law firms and corporate law departments. Only 4 percent of law students are black. There were fewer black law school entrants last year than in either 1975 or 1976.
"Black people don't measure progress by how far we've come, but how far we have to go," he said.