Openness and Informal Dialogue at the Core of the Bench-Bar Relationship

The Bencher  |  January/February 2023

By Kathleen M. Mahan, Esquire

I have heard it said that the bench and the bar are the two essential cogs within the “machine” that is our legal system. Each cog has its own role, responsibilities, and even priorities, but ultimately need to work together for the machine to function.

After almost two decades as a lawyer, with time spent as a private practitioner and a law clerk, working with those in the public sector and with members of the judiciary, I find it an apt analogy. While the judiciary and the practitioners who appear before it may be perceived as two independent silos separated by the proverbial (and actual) bench, in reality, the professional interplay between these two roles is essential to the effective operation of the legal system. If the judiciary is not aware of an issue within the practice or employs a procedure that is unknowingly untenable to the reality of practice, it is a problem. If practitioners do not (or feel they cannot) make the judiciary aware of concerns, or to otherwise make suggestions to benefit the legal process, that likewise is a problem. And the individuals most damaged by such problems are those intended to be served by the system itself—a consequence all should be seeking to avoid. The question then becomes how do these stakeholders—members of the bench and bar—facilitate this necessary working relationship so that the system not only works, but in keeping with our opening imagery, runs like a well-oiled machine?

Communication is the easy answer. As a group of lawyers, there likely is no shortage of individuals willing to state their views on any number of topics relevant to the relationship between the bench and the bar. But how does one go from the relatively simple act of asserting a viewpoint to the type of integrative cooperation that leads to meaningful dialogue, understanding, and action—all of which is necessary to achieve the high levels of civility and professionalism to which we all strive in the operation of our legal system? In my view, this occurs when the relationship between members of the bench and members of the bar is cultivated to extend beyond rigid formality to foster the open exchange of ideas at a more granular level.

An example: Years ago, as a young lawyer attending my first New Hampshire Bar Association Annual Meeting, I found myself sitting outside at a table with several colleagues to take advantage of some sunshine during a break in programming. I think it is fair to say that we all were a bit surprised when Justice Gary E. Hicks, of the New Hampshire Supreme Court, pulled up a chair and spent the next 15 or so minutes chatting with us about our practices (and sharing the cookies we had brought from inside). I distinctly recall thinking at the time, I wonder how often this type of thing happens—that a group of young lawyers can sit and chat with a member of the judiciary about our experience as practitioners? To have this type of easygoing, yet meaningful, conversation?

Perhaps discussing rules and procedure over coffee with a Supreme Court justice while enjoying some early summer sunshine is not an everyday occurrence, but this small act by Justice Hicks is illustrative of the genuine desire our bench and bar have to reach each other on more than a superficial level, and as importantly, the thoughtful handling of the relationship between these two cogs to keep the machine running.

Like many states, New Hampshire’s judiciary and its unified bar have made it a priority to meaningfully connect on a regular basis through representative stakeholders. There are a number of standing committees and events that demonstrate these ongoing efforts. For example, the New Hampshire Bar Association’s Committee on Cooperation with the Courts brings together on a monthly basis judges and clerks from all levels of the state courts, the New Hampshire federal court, and practitioners representing a wide array of practice areas, firm structures, and geographic regions. These meetings are designed to facilitate the ongoing assessment of, and discussion regarding, practice and procedure in our courts. Members are able to act as a conduit between what is happening at the courts and the wider bar. Such meetings have led to rule changes, guidance, and a more widespread and transparent understanding of issues affecting the operation of the court system.

Similarly, larger scale bench-bar conferences, generally targeting specific broad-spectrum issues affecting the judicial system, are routinely planned. These conferences present a unique opportunity to bring together a sizable group of stakeholders from both bench and bar to facilitate, through active working sessions, a comprehensive discussion of timely topics.

New Hampshire’s most recent bench-bar conference, an in-person event in June 2022, tackled such issues as the ongoing evolution of technology in the courtroom and pandemic-related rule changes that should remain in effect, among others. Practitioners were encouraged, with the strong support of the judiciary, to provide their thoughts, experiences, and concerns so that the courts are better able to assess the issues in making future decisions affecting the practice.  

While these efforts are both commendable and effective, they also are formal and structured and even unintentionally restrictive. There is a less formal way to nurture the bench-bar relationship that perhaps provides even greater returns: providing opportunities for members to meet professionally, yet casually, to build collegiality and open the door to discussions that simply may not happen in more formal situations.

New Hampshire is, relatively speaking, a small state (and small bar). Its members tend to run into each other often and know each other well. Professionalism, collegiality, and cooperation rank high among the members, who take pride in “the New Hampshire way” of practice. To some extent, the size of our bar alone may lend itself to the type of less formal gatherings that propagate easy conversations between bench and bar. However, there is no absence of effort to create these opportunities. For example, New Hampshire boasts three active Inns of Court. Its first, founded in 1993, is the Daniel Webster-Batchelder American Inn of Court, followed by the Charles C. Doe American Inn of Court in 1994, and the intellectual property-focused Arthur J. Gajarsa American Inn of Court (a member of Linn Inn Alliance) in 2012. As fittingly described by the Daniel Webster-Batchelder Inn, these Inns bring “together judges, experienced lawyers, new lawyers, and law students in a social atmosphere to create professional congeniality outside of the courtroom.”

The very structure of each Inn lends itself to a more vital connection between bench and bar. On its face, judges and lawyers of varied experience come together on a monthly basis to hear presentations on, and openly discuss, relevant and interesting legal issues. Less transparent but equally important are the strong, direct, and sincere connections among its members that develop over time—month after month the same tablemates dine together, spend time getting to know one another, and discuss issues both large and small, professional and personal, in this informal group setting.

This, multiplied year over year, has created an incredible atmosphere of collegiality, mutual respect, and openness that I believe any of its members would attest to. Such an atmosphere not only shores up the ongoing strength of the relationship between the bench and bar at large, but provides the groundwork for the necessary conversations—the meaningful dialogue, understanding, and action—that need to occur to make the machine run.

Few would dispute that a good working relationship between bench and bar is central to the effective operation of the legal system. While there are a variety of ways to facilitate the underlying relationship, true open dialogue built upon meaningful connections and mutual respect will only serve to enhance that operation. Opportunities such as those offered by the Inns around the country are a valuable resource in further securing the ultimate goal.

Kathleen M. Mahan, Esquire, is a litigation partner at Hinckley Allen, in Manchester, New Hampshire.  She practices in a wide range of intellectual property matters and business disputes in both state and federal courts, arbitration proceedings, and appeals. Mahan is a longtime member of the Daniel Webster-Batchelder American Inn of Court.

© 2023 Kathleen M. Mahan, Esquire. This article was originally published in the January/February 2023 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court. This article, in full or in part, may not be copied, reprinted, distributed, or stored electronically in any form without the written consent of the American Inns of Court.