An inspiring lesson from South Fork ranch

When I was in college – still a young and callow fellow – the TV show “Dallas” premiered, and I became a fan. A few seasons in, there was a scene that affected my career.

If you don’t remember the show, it featured a couple of brothers who were in the oil business in Texas. Bobby Ewing was the sincere, likeable younger brother. J. R. Ewing was the evil, manipulative older brother. The other characters included their regular nemesis, Cliff Barnes, a crusading lawyer who just happened to be Bobby’s brother-in-law.

Typically Cliff and the Ewings, despite their family ties, were on the opposite side of things, but not always. In one episode, they were all in danger of being scammed, and needed a birth certificate to prove their claim. Unfortunately the scammers had swiped it from the county records department.

“No problem,” said Cliff Barnes. “The state archives in Austin will have a duplicate.” With that information, he saved the day.

Watching this, as an undergrad still considering whether I should go to law school, I made a mental note: A lawyer is someone who knows how to get things done.

I liked that. After all, most of us have a bit of the gnostic impulse; we want to know what’s really going on, and how to deal with it. And while it wasn’t the only reason I went to law school (my discovery that liberal arts degrees don’t fetch much of a paycheck factored in), it certainly influenced my decision. Today, there is nothing I like more than knowing how to solve someone’s legal problem.

Fast forward about 40 years. The chief judge in Anchorage, and the head probate judge, ask for a meeting with all of the probate and estate planning lawyers. At the meeting, they present their problem: The court system set up forms for people to use for probate cases. But laypeople (that is, non-lawyers) are having trouble understanding how to use the forms. As a result, they clog up the court system by filing the wrong forms. The judges ask us, “how do we solve this mess?”

The answer at the time was, if they aren’t sure, they can set an appointment with one of us (lawyers) and we can walk them through it or check over the forms before they get filed, to help them sort it out. Then they only have to pay for a little bit of the lawyer’s time, instead of having to come up with a large retainer to have the lawyer enter the case.

And that was a good enough solution. Until the pandemic.

We already had a shortage of lawyers in Alaska. Fewer and fewer applicants take the Bar exam each year, and the decline has been going on for decades. As a result we have an “aging Bar”, and when the pandemic hit, many of them decided to go ahead and retire. So today, the refrain I keep hearing, when I refer people out for probate cases, is “I can’t find a lawyer who is taking new cases”. And probate isn’t even the most unpopular area of law practice to be in; this gets much worse in areas such as family law or criminal defense.

What do we do about this problem? I don’t know. There are several possible solutions, from setting up a law school in Alaska (we’re the only state that doesn’t have one); to allowing non-law school graduates to become lawyers, which several states allow; to establishing a “probate law self-help center” within the court system, similar to what they have for family law. Or maybe something else.

I’m not sure what the solution is. My point is that there is a problem. Because admitting that you have a problem is the first step.

And we’re not going to wake up and discover that this was all a dream.

Kenneth Kirk is an Anchorage estate planning attorney. Nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice for a specific situation. For legal advice, consult an attorney who can take all the facts into account. If you can find one.