Institutional knowledge is a collective set of experiences and know-how held by a group of people within a business, government body, or other group and enables it to operate better and more efficiently. As people leave this group, it is critical that their experience and knowledge is passed to those that follow or the excellence and efficiency of operations can be lost.

In the past months, the Alabama Supreme Court Clerk’s Office has suffered a loss of more than 120 years of institutional knowledge. While the most obvious loss is due to the retirement of Robert Esdale after 30 years as Clerk of the Alabama Supreme Court. While every lawyer in Alabama should recognize the significance of the loss of such an iconic figure from the inner workings of the Supreme Court, there have been other losses of personnel from the Court that most lawyers probably are not aware of and which presents a great challenge to Julia Weller, the new Clerk of the Court.

English: Great Seal of The State of Alabama

Great Seal of The State of Alabama (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Not as well noticed has been the recent retirements of four Staff Attorneys of the Alabama Supreme Court Clerk’s office who, collectively, likely had more than 100 years of institutional knowledge of how the appellate process is supposed  to work in that Court. Unless you have a good bit of experience practicing appellate law, you just don’t know the key role that is played by the Staff Attorneys of the Clerk’s office.

When I started work at the Alabama Supreme Court as a law clerk for Chief Justice Sonny Hornsby in July 1993, some 20 years ago, Robert Esdale was already a decade into his tenure as Clerk and the four staff attorneys in his office were Alex Jackson, Celeste Sabel, Wayne Jones, and John Dobbs.  From interaction with them, I learned about the inner workings of the Court, from the appellate jurisdiction checks they performed on each appeal or other matter filed, to how appellate motions were handled, and how the Court’s docket was maintained.  It was valuable experience for a new lawyer. I learned even more about the Court as I worked as a Staff Attorney for an additional for years for Justices Henry Steagall, Terry Butts, and Champ Lyons.  And as I moved into the private practice of law and principally an appellate practice, my knowledge about and confidence in how these four staff attorneys did their job helped me do mine to the best of my ability, whether I needed to file or respond to an appellate motion or even ask one of them how to go about seeking to obtain some form of relief. I always felt hey were always a great source of help to practicing attorneys and treated everyone fairly, regardless of whether my client ultimately prevailed on the matter, or not. 

Eventually, Celeste Sabel moved to handle the Court’s appellate mediation office, and Anne Wilson, a former staff attorney to Justice Red Jones joined the Clerk’s Office and brought additional decades of experience. But that stability and strength of institutional knowledge that built up over decades has been lost in the course of about a year. Wayne  Jones retired in 2012, then John Dobbs retired earlier this year. Anne Wilson became Acting Clerk upon the retirement of Robert Esdale, then retired herself. Alex Jackson, who could have retired several years ago, stayed on for a time to help guide the new Staff Attorneys being hired regarding the duties of their job and lend some sense of stability to new Supreme Court Clerk, Julia Weller.

Julia Weller has stepped into the very big shoes of Robert Esdale and, unfortunately, she does so as a time when the Clerk’s office has lost the 100 plus years of institutional knowledge held by the retiring staff attorneys. It makes her job, and that of her office, all the more difficult. This will be a significant transition period for the Court from the old to the new and so Alabama attorneys should expect that there may be a bumpy road ahead until the Clerk’s office develops its own new institutional knowledge. However, Julia Weller is well-qualified for her new position, and we at Briefly Writing wish her the very best.

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