California Escrow Industry Group Seeks Uniform Regulation

In late May, the Santa Clara County, Calif. District Attorney’s Office charged a former escrow officer with 32 counts of embezzlement and grand theft for allegedly living “high on the hog” on the tab of her clients.

Melanie Melim, a former escrow officer with Alliance Title Co., faces up to 21 years in prison for allegedly stealing more than $1 million from client escrow accounts — funds that were considered to be guarded by a neutral third-party to the real estate transaction.

Instead, Melim used the funds to attend concerts and sporting events, take trips to Las Vegas and go on shopping sprees, authorities alleged.

As much as the allegations against Melim are personally troublesome, they also raise questions about the security of the escrow industry, a staple of the real estate business in California for more than a century.

But as the California escrow industry juggles confronting incidents such as these, waiting for the filing of a controversial rulemaking that would drastically cut its rates and pacing the floor of the state Capitol, one trade group has hinted that the industry may be gearing up for its toughest challenge yet.

‘An aligning of the stars’

Members of the Escrow Institute of California (EIC), a trade group that represents the state’s licensed, independent escrow industry, are laying the groundwork for a cross-industry meeting of the minds to bring stability to an industry confounded by a confusing maze of uneven regulatory oversight.

The EIC has officially opened the door for formal discussion of a proposal to bring California’s escrow practitioners — who, depending on their primary real estate business, must answer to one of five different state regulators — under the umbrella of a comprehensive, uniform escrow law with a single regulator.

According to EIC President P.J. Garcia, it’s a system that could do much to solve the escrow industry’s problems and relieve it of the burden of a regulatory structure that “just doesn’t make sense.”

“There is a broad array of bureaucracries that regulate escrow in California, to the extent that not even the regulators have an integral grasp of the picture,” Garcia said. “If that is the case, how can the consumer possibly understand it and know who to turn to? It’s a question of enhancing consumer protection and streamlining government, both of which we think are good goals.”

However, it’s an idea that has been tossed around before, without much agreement. Still, Garcia describes initial discussions among the various affected industries and regulators as “encouraging.”

“There’s the sense that there is an aligning of the stars,” she said. “But the devil is in the details. What we have to do is build a consensus.”

In the beginning

Independent escrow corporations have been providing closing services to California consumers in California since the late 1940s. The state Escrow Law, which was enacted in 1947, defines escrow providers as neutral, third-party agents for all principals in a real estate transaction.

The Escrow Law requires all corporations engaged in the escrow business as escrow agents to be licensed as independent escrow companies by the California Department of Corporations (DOC). However, in order to reach California’s more rural consumers, the state began to allow other real estate practitioners to provide escrow services to give consumers greater flexibility.

Thus, the state excluded the following groups from the licensure requirements of the Escrow Law:

“Any person whose principal business is that of preparing abstracts or making searches of title that are used as a basis for the issuance of a policy of title insurance by a company doing business under any law of this state relating to insurance companies.” These individuals are regulated by the Department of Insurance (DOI).

“Any real estate broker licensed by the real estate commissioner while performing acts in the course of or incidental to a real estate transaction in which the broker is an agent or a party to the transaction and in which the broker is performing an act for which a real estate license is required.” These individuals are regulated by the Department of Real Estate (DRE).

“Any person doing business relating to banks, trust companies, building and loan or savings and loan associations.” These individuals are regulated by either the DOC or the DRE.

“Any person licensed to practice law in California who has a bona fide client attorney relationship with a principal in a real estate transaction and who is not actively engaged in the business of an escrow agent.” These individuals are regulated by the state bar.
Garcia argued that while the current regulatory structure may have made sense when it was created, times have changed, and so should the system.

“I think the market has changed over the last 60 years or so, particularly in the last 10 or 15 years,” she said. “Technology has made a lot of changes. We’re no longer a predominantly rural state. Even the rural areas aren’t just rural anymore.”

Moreover, escrow practitioners licensed by the DOC are subject to a higher regulatory standard than those who are exempt from the Escrow Law, Garcia said. DOC licensees undergo background checks and fingerprinting by the Department of Justice and are bonded by the Escrow Agents’ Fidelity Corp., while those who are exempt from the Escrow Law get the all-clear from their primary industry regulator.

Such uneven standards may be a factor contributing to incidents such as the one involving Melim, Garcia said.

“Whenever something is reported, it is just reported as escrow. There is no distinction made as to who the regulator is,” Garcia said. “We all sort of get painted with the same broad brush, and that is not something we have been happy about.”

Mike Belote, legislative advocate for the California Escrow Association (CEA), a trade group representing all escrow practitioners, agreed change is needed, but said the discussion has been simmering for 25 years without coming to a boiling point.

“We think if you were creating an escrow regulation system from scratch, you wouldn’t do it this way,” Belote said. “Everyone understands it’s a weird system we have now, but it’s been this way for over 50 years. The question is, how do you conform all of that if there is no political will to do that?”

Winds of change

It’s no secret that for more than a year, the DOI has been focused on implementing regulations to drastically reduce title insurance premiums and escrow rates by $1 billion annually. The DOI has been colorful in its depiction of the title insurance industry as “a system rife with illegal kickbacks and gratuities,” and the department was generous enough with its brush to paint the escrow industry as “middlemen” who only further drive up prices for consumers.

This included DOC licensees, who were baffled that they were lumped into a regulation proposed by a regulatory authority other than their own. The EIC spent most of last year fighting the proposal — and standing beside the group was the California Land Title Association (CLTA), which linked arms with the EIC on many occasions, including a contentious day-long DOI hearing last August.

Bridges built and alliances formed, the EIC is hopeful it will be able to bring the CLTA, the California Association of Mortgage Brokers (CAMB) and the California Association of Realtors (CAR) together to hash out a proposal in time to introduce legislation in the 2008 session. While details are still sketchy at this point, Garcia said one suggestion is to bring all escrow providers under the DOC’s jurisdiction.

“Logistically speaking, all of the people who know escrow best are at the Department of Corporations,” Garcia said. “But again, the devil’s in the details. I couldn’t give any commitment on how that might look in the end. Of course, it will have to be done collaboratively because if the other industries are flat-out opposed to it, it would obviously be a lot more difficult to do.”

Craig Page, executive vice president and counsel of the CLTA, and Jack Williams, president of CAMB’s executive board, both said their groups are open to the discussion, but as pen hasn’t yet been put to paper, they declined to state formal opinions on the proposal. Garcia said the DOC and DOI have also been receptive to initial talks.

CAR and the DRE, which historically have been the most resistant to the idea, did not respond to a request for comment by press time.

“The process of going through the Department of Insurance hearings really brought home to us once again that this is a very fractionated and confusing process,” Garcia said. “2007 is paving the way. We’re pleasantly surprised by the response we have received so far.”

What The Appointment Of Jess Sessions Might Mean For Corporate Criminal Law

One of the biggest reasons people feared a Trump administration is because, being a businessman himself, some Americans worry that he will give special favors to corporations. Since the Attorney General is responsible for prosecuting corporate crimes, many are wondering how Jess Sessions’ appointment might affect corporate prosecutions in the future. Many civil liberties and civil rights groups are in direct opposition to a Sessions’ appointment for significant reasons.

Flashback to when George W. Bush nominated John Ashcroft: many worried that Ashcroft would be more lenient on corporate indiscretions and crime, but that didn’t happen. In fact, he was responsible for one of the highest number of criminal prosecutions in history. With Ashcroft in charge during such scandals as Worldcom, Enron and watching the dot-com burst, the Department of Justice indicted many high-profile offenders during the George W. Bush Administration. Big corporate heads like Arthur Andersen went bust, thanks to Ashcroft’s diligence.

So, should corporate America be happy or not about Sessions’ appointment? Many who know his record believe that they should expect the same from Sessions as they did from Ashcroft — swift and severe punishment for crimes. The Department of Justice consists of very few politicians. It is made almost wholly from career prosecutors, which is unlikely to change. So, although Sessions will have some effect, it is likely to be limited.

Sessions is probably going to enhance the Department of Justice’s enforcement of immigration laws, which means that corporations may face stiffer and harsher punishments when they decide to employ undocumented help. Senator Sessions also has a good record when it comes to white-collar crimes. He has consistently favored a more aggressive approach to enforcing the law. So civil liberties organizations should have their fears calmed, but corporate America may have to be on their toes.

Sessions worked for the Department of Justice for 14 years as an Assistant US Attorney in Alabama, and 12 years as a US Attorney. It is hard to tell from his experience if he will be tough on corporate crime, because very few corporations resided in his district.

He is slated as taking a major role in the Savings and Loan fraud prosecution, however, which occurred when he was a US Attorney. His handling of the situation proved that he took criminal law seriously, regardless of whether it was white-collar crime or not. “A crime is a crime,” in Sessions’ own words.

When BP had the oil spill, Sessions is on record as stating that they should be held liable for what was their responsibility. He went on to say that there is no such thing as being too big to fail. That means that he is unlikely to be swayed by the economic impact that the fall of a corporation could have in relation to their criminal activity prosecution. Crime needs to be punished when it is committed, no matter who the defendant is or what type of influence they have.

Sessions believes the whole notion of “too big to fail” is fundamentally dangerous. If the courts prosecute according to shareholders and stakes, then there is no honesty or realism in criminal law. If a corporation is defrauding people, then they are hurting everyone.

He is also not in favor of allowing boards or any consumer attorney to mitigate the details of any case, nor does he believe corporations should be allowed to handle an investigation alone without the intervention of the Justice Department. Sessions has publicly stated several times that there is no such thing as privilege when it comes to corporate crimes.

Although many on the left are concerned that Sessions is too conservative to become the District Attorney for a Trump administration, they are overlooking his statements and his conduct when it comes to criminal law and corporate crime. With the public statement that a crime is a crime regardless of who perpetrates it, Sessions’ appointment is likely to come down hard on corporate crime, not afford it leniency.

The ones who should probably fear an appointment are those in the corporate world who are guilty of wrongdoing. Shown to be fair-minded and not ascribe to any notions of privilege, Sessions has a record of being tough on crime, even corporate criminals.

A Brief Introduction To The History and Principles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

Although the human rights of children were recognised within the international community more than 50 years ago, by way of the Declaration of the Rights of the Child (1959), this was not binding as an international agreement or treaty. However, in 1978 Poland proposed that a new convention should be adopted in the following year, 1979, which was designated as the International Year of the Child. The proposed convention – later to be named the Convention on the Rights of the Child – was initially proposed to follow the principles stated in the 1959 Declaration, addressing economic, social and cultural rights, but many states favoured a wider scope to incorporate issues of justice, ethnicity and children’s involvement in armed conflicts. These additional aspects of children’s rights reflected the provisions of other conventions that had come into force in the intervening period, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). Another criticism of the proposed convention was that it lacked detail, and was not drafted in enforceable terms.

The United Nations General Assembly was supportive of the Convention being settled during the International Year of the Child, but the Commission on Human Rights resisted undue haste and established a working group comprised of representatives of member states to review the initial proposal. Poland then produced a revised proposal that was accepted as an improved basis for negotiations to reach agreement about the Convention. All of the working group’s decisions were by consensus, which meant that some key issues were not included – e.g., child marriage – because consensus could not be reached on those issues. Nonetheless, this process eventually produced an agreed text that could be submitted to the General Assembly without controversy.

Despite the early hopes for a convention that could be adopted by member states in 1979, it took a decade and successive drafts before the Convention was finalised. In the meantime, more countries from Africa and Asia came on board, as well as some Islamic countries, so the Convention became more representative of worldwide concerns. The drafting process was also assisted by progress in the adoption of other international agreements, including instruments relating to juvenile justice, foster care, and adoption. The terms of these agreements informed many principles stated in the Convention.

Besides the United Nations, UN member states, and inter-governmental organisations – e.g., World Health Organisation, the International Labor Organisation, and (belatedly) UNICEF – some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) became involved in the drafting. The NGOs were not there as of right, but could be invited to make suggestions and give feedback on drafts. As some of the NGOs had been involved in drafting other international agreements around that time, their input into the Convention was invaluable. In about 1983, human rights NGOs and children’s NGOs joined forces, creating an NGO Ad Hoc Group that put forward more consistent proposals to the working party established by the Commission on Human Rights. This led to the NGOs having greater influence in the drafting process.

Several controversial issues addressed during the drafting process included the definition of a child, the determination of fundamental freedoms, protecting the best interests of children who are being adopted, and the minimum age that children can be participants in armed conflict.

The definition of a child is open as to when childhood starts, but the preamble of the Convention refers to children before and after birth. The upper age – when childhood ends – was set at 18 because that was the age of adulthood in most countries. The fundamental freedoms include freedom of association, religion, and communication. Adoption was a big issue because certain countries had previously allowed poorly regulated inter-country adoption of their children.

Many states wanted the minimum age that children can be participants in armed conflict to be set at 18, the age when children cease to be covered by the Convention, so that children would effectively be excluded from participation in armed conflict. However consensus was not able to be achieved on that age. In the end, the age was set at 15. In ratifying the Convention since it was adopted, some states have declined to accept the notion of children being engaged in armed conflict and have reserved their position on this provision of the Convention.

It was not until 1989, a full 10 years after the International Year of the Child, that the Convention was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. As most countries and states in the world have now ratified the Convention, it has truly become “the international legal framework” for protecting and promoting children’s rights (Arbour). Under article 4 of the Convention, states who are parties are required to “undertake all appropriate legislative, administrative and other measures” necessary to give effect to the rights and principles stated in the Convention. This obligation is not discretionary. This means that subject to the resources they have available, all state parties must allocate public funds to ensure that laws, policies and programs within the state are consistent with the rights recognised in the Convention. Australia and New Zealand ratified the Convention in 1990 and 1993 respectively. Although the United States has signed the Convention, it has not ratified it, which means that the United States is not a party state and is not obligated to implement the principles of the Convention.

The general principles of the Convention, as they are now recognised, are the right to non-discrimination (article 2), the primacy of the best interests of the child (article 3), the right to life, survival and development (article 6), and the right to be heard (article 12). These general principles are often used as a guide to the interpretation of other principles, which fall into two categories: negative rights (where the state should not interfere with the exercise of the right) and positive rights (where the state must facilitate the exercise of the right). Another way of categorising rights is to consider their adoption historically, so that civil and political rights may be regarded as ‘first generation rights’, economic, social and cultural rights may be regarded as ‘second generation rights’, and ‘solidarity rights’ such as the right to peace and the right to a clean environment may be regarded as ‘third generation rights’.

In assessing the ‘best interests of the child’, which is not defined in the Convention itself, reference can now be made to the UNHCR Guidelines on Determining the Best Interests of the Child (May 2008). This is an important document that complements the Convention and assists child protection practitioners to identify what is in the best interests of a specific child or group of children in their unique circumstances.

The Convention is also an example of the specialisation of rights. Although the right to not be discriminated against is applicable to both adults and children, the best interests principle and the right to life, survival and development are examples of rights that more specifically apply to children under international law. These specialised rights include the right of children to live with their parents, subject to child protection concerns that might prevent this, and the right to play. In this way, the Convention may be regarded as both a statement regarding the needs of children, and a ‘code of conduct’ that tells parents and other adults how they should behave towards children in their care and in their community. Internationally, the Convention stands as a guide to the minimum level of rights that should apply to children everywhere. Where a state has ratified the Convention, it gains the force of law. In this context, an important optional protocol, adopted in 2011, is the ‘communication protocol’ which allows children (or groups of children) directly or through their representatives to address the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child regarding allegations that rights under the Convention have been violated. However, any review rights arising in the home state of the child or children must be exhausted first unless an emergency situation is recognised by the Committee. In some cases the home state may be asked by the committee to take steps to protect a child who comes to the committee’s attention.

An important ongoing feature of the Convention is implemented pursuant to the ‘third optional protocol of the convention’ (the OPIC) which establishes a committee to monitor states’ compliance with the Convention. The committee comprises 18 independent experts who are appointed for terms of 4 years, and who serve personally not on behalf of their home states. States who are parties to the Convention file reports on their compliance. The committee also receives ‘shadow reports’ from NGOs operating in each state. This aspect of the Convention is unique, as no other international treaty expressly reserves a role for specialist agencies in monitoring compliance. Following consideration of the state and NGO reports, the committee will send a list of issues or concerns to the state party. This may lead to dialogue between representatives of the state and the committee, and formal recommendations being issued by the committee. In appropriate circumstances, the committee can offer technical and financial assistance to a state to help it in meeting its obligations under the Convention. The committee also issues formal comments on aspects of the Convention, as a guide to interpretation and implementation.

The issue of children’s rights is closely bound up with children’s well-being and happiness. While obtaining reliable data about well-being and happiness is difficult, particularly in relation to young children, a lot of work has been done in the past couple of decades to measure factors such as children’s physical health, mental health, self-esteem and lifestyle. This kind of well-being data is valuable as a guide to how children are developing towards adulthood, and can help us identify specific issues affecting individual children or groups of children. In 2007, UNICEF published international data in its Report Card Number 7 which included indicators of children’s well-being for the first time (UNICEF, 2007). Although this continuing work is at an early stage, it has the potential to inform further development of the Convention, recognising that children’s happiness is a product of many factors that can have serious lifelong implications for individuals in terms of how they relate to others in society, the contributions they make within society, and the overall quality of life they enjoy.

This evolving view of children’s rights represents a maturation of our awareness of children’s needs and how meeting those needs promotes a better future for us all. It has been suggested that the Convention’s “major accomplishment” is increasing the visibility of children in society, so that children’s rights are not easily ignored (Lee). The Convention stands out amongst all international treaties as the one ratified by the most states, which is an almost universal acknowledgment of the importance of our children to our planet’s future and recognition that the protection of children’s rights must have primacy regardless of other demands on our resources. Moreover, ratification of the Convention by a state has often been closely followed by the establishment of an independent public institution focused on the rights of children. In New Zealand that independent institution is the Children’s Commissioner, while in Australia it is the National Children’s Commissioner. As at 2012, there were more than 200 such institutions throughout the world – under a range of names including ‘ombudsman’, child advocate, and ‘child rights commission’ – engaged to “monitor the actions of governments and other entities, advance the realization of children’s rights, receive complaints, provide remedies for violations, and offer a space for dialogue about children in society and between children and the state” (UNICEF, 2012). In Australia, the Australian Human Rights Commission has described the Convention as “underpin[ning] the work of the National Children’s Commissioner” (AHRC).

Despite the extraordinary efforts of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN member states that have ratified the Convention, NGOs that report to the committee, and independent public institutions in member states, there is considerable work still to be done to overcome breaches of the Convention, and to address remaining areas of contention such as child marriage and juvenile justice. The criminal law is sometimes criticised for treating children like small adults (Edwards). Even Australia and New Zealand struggle with the divide between care and protection issues and criminality. New Zealand’s Children’s Commissioner has identified the need to “avoid an unhelpful, rigorous split between the youth justice and care and protection provisions [of legislation] by allowing a cross-over between the two parts” echoing a similar warning by the former President of the Children’s Court of New South Wales in Australia. The New Zealand Commissioner describes the “trenchant criticism” by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child when New Zealand extended the jurisdiction of its Youth Court in October 2010 to include indictable offending by 12 and 13 year olds. Part of the answer here is improved understanding of the neuropsychological factors present in youth offending, and how culpability should be attributed in light of those factors. In a relatively recent decision, Graham v Florida 130 S. Ct. 2011, the Supreme Court of the United States – noting that in the US at that time there were 123 juvenile non-homicide offenders serving sentences of life imprisonment without parole, and that in Florida “a 5-year-old, theoretically, could receive [life without parole] under the letter of the law” – recognised that “developments in psychology and brain science continue to show fundamental differences between juvenile and adult minds” that must be taken into account when sentencing juvenile offenders.

In relation to child marriage, it is notable that as at 2012 about one-third of girls in developing countries (other than China) were expected to be married before turning 18. Despite a majority of states having ratified the Convention, the same UNFPA report suggests that in the decade from 2010 to 2020 there are likely to be around 142 million child marriages worldwide. Although there are many reasons for the persistence of child marriage, the effects can be devastating. A significant feature of child marriage in some countries is the practice of paying off debts and resolving disputes by giving away a young girl child – a practice sometimes known as ‘swara’ – where the child becomes effectively enslaved to her husband, and is often punished for the alleged wrongdoing of her family.

The widespread ratification of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child stands as a testament to the values expressed within it – values that have been carefully considered and that bring “the weight of the law to the recognition of morally based individual rights for children” (Da Silva et al.) – and the work of innumerable contributors from around the globe. While the Convention is neither complete nor wholly effective, it is nonetheless a major influence on the well-being of children in most developed countries. Even in developing countries, the Convention and its monitoring processes are slowly encouraging positive change. For example, between 2000 and 2014 the number of children engaged in child labour declined by about one-third (UNICEF, 2014). While this might be expressed as still two-thirds too many, for those children who can now attend school instead of work, this change is dramatic and life-changing. Similar patterns can be seen in many other areas of children’s rights. Perhaps most remarkable is that all this has happened in less than 30 years. By any measure that is a laudable achievement.

Sons of Snakes – A Daring Call for the Christian Church Today

I don’t like snakes. I avoid them at all costs and even got an uneasy feeling just writing the title for this article. Yet that reference was the beginning of a passage from the New Testament that ended up challenging the people of first-century Judea, and by extension twenty-first century America, to an extent that we still struggle to grasp.

One of the most interesting characters in the New Testament is John the Baptist. He might have been a distant cousin to Jesus. His mother was named Elizabeth His father was a priest named Zechariah. The gospels suggest that John might have been the second coming of Elijah the prophet. When John saw a group of the religious leaders coming to see him, he called them snakes: “You brood of vipers!” You sons of snakes! His message was simple: “Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand.” It is here! Run for your lives! Run to the Jordan River and get baptized! Change your lives now! It was hard to fool John the Baptist. He knew who those religious leaders were. He knew what they stood for and how they lived their lives. Without question, he let them know they had better change their ways if they wanted him to baptize them.

We live in an age of individual repentance. How many of you have heard the invitation to turn from your sin, repent, receive the Spirit, and be saved? That is not what John was talking about. It was not like today when a political figure, a television evangelist, or a celebrity can cry, confess their sin, seek forgiveness, and expect everything to be okay. John the Baptist was not seeking individual repentance!

The Pharisees and Sadducees represented the Law and the Temple in the first century. In effect, they stood for the whole nation of Judah, which by this time was only a humble Roman province. When John called those religious leaders to repent, he was calling the national to a corporate or group repentance. He was challenging them to change their tune. His challenge was for them to give up being God’s chosen people in the way they had understood it – the way they had been living it. The repentance for which John was calling would have meant a whole new self understanding for the people and their leaders.

What is the connection to our present day? What would John’s challenge be for the Christian Church in the United States today? It would be to call our nation to corporate, or group, repentance. That challenge is, in fact, to call our nation and its leaders to reconsider how we are being the United States of America. To accept such a challenge will mean that we will have to do much more than vote or even get involved in the political process itself, as important as that is. To accept John’s challenge, we will need to find a way to make our voice heard from the local to the national level. We will need to influence leaders who have the ear of the nation to call all of us to a new national self-understanding.

What might this new national self-understanding be? It must begin with confession — that we as a nation have borrowed far too much of our identity from our status as a military and economic super power. Our true national strength is not based on weapons or economics. It is based on imagination, creativity, hard work, and compassion. How would it be for us to begin to embrace a new image that is actually an old image most of us were taught in school: liberty and justice for all and people created equal? To embrace such a new and old image means we will have to trust that what we have of real value to offer this world is our strong commitment to freedom and an almost radical insistence on civil liberty. Are we not, like the chosen people of Israel, called to be a light to the nations, not lord of the nations? It is in keeping with the challenge of John the Baptist for churches to call the United States to be that light to the nations by being a model of inclusion, and a model for non-violence, justice, and economic opportunity.

To call our nation to group repentance may be the easier challenge John the Baptist places before us today. Beyond that, we are to call the Church to repent and let go being Church as we have always done it. John challenges us to call the Church today to confess and repent – to let go a self-understanding of moral superiority, theological monopoly, and the tendency to lust for power. It is the call to step up and do as a small group of Christian college students did in Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz. They decided the best way to communicate the essential message of faith and the true power of Christianity to their anti-religious peer group was to place a confessional booth right in the middle of a spring Bacchanalian festival on campus. But the point was not that they would hear confessions from their peers. It was that they would confess to their fellow students – confess how they had failed to exemplify Jesus by loving others. They would offer apologies for everything from the crusades to televangelists!

The result of their action was powerful. Rather than being defensive in the face of an attitude of moral superiority, students who came into the confessional booth actually offered forgiveness to those representing the Church. The Christian students felt, at least at some level, a sense of renewed life – born again to what being a follower of Jesus really means.

How can we prepare ourselves for the kingdom of God as John proclaimed it? How can we celebrate the Kingdom that Jesus proclaimed is here among us? We can take the proclamation of John seriously about the need for group repentance. We can take his challenge seriously regarding our responsibilities as citizens of a nation and also citizens of the Kingdom of God.

We live in a modern democratic society with a representative government, a republic, and we have personal responsibility as citizens. Unlike John’s and Jesus’ situation, it is theoretically possible for individuals to address issues with the rulers of our society since we the people are the government. It is important for us to do so. The most effective way to influence government and the society at large, in my experience, is to organize – find a group that reflects your most important priorities and add your voice to theirs.

A great deal of good can happen when we work through channels to address and redress societal issues of injustice, and of moral and ethical concerns. Unfortunately, it is rare for a system of power to change itself fundamentally, even in order to address or redress significant societal problems. Systems of power tend toward self preservation, even to the extent of blaming those who attempt corrections. It will be most interesting to watch the Presidential candidates this year in their efforts to bring about real change – how successful they are and how the system responds to their efforts.

What about group repentance by the church? What might it mean for the Christian church to embrace repentance by giving up being church in the way it has gotten used to being church? Could we let go of our institutional insistence on the exclusivity of Christianity for salvation, giving up an attitude of moral superiority arising from a monopoly on correct doctrine? Can we confess a history of seeking and then abusing coercive power? I suspect nothing less than such a radical giving up will suffice for us to respect other faiths at a deep level and for the world to live in peace.

Being a light to the nations does not mean Christians have to give up faith in the importance of Jesus. It does not mean we need to turn away from worshiping Christ or give up a belief in the rightness of the Christian path. It does mean being open to the possibility of God’s presence in other faith traditions and other belief systems as well as our own. It means being willing to separate the reality of God from our interpretation of that reality.

Jesus’ message was as challenging as John’s for his people to hear and accept. It was the call to return to the path of Moses and the prophets from which they had strayed. It was time to let go, give up, and go back to the basics of their faith. The same is true in this time and place as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus. God still calls us to a way of living that is fundamentally different than the wisdom of self-serving power and self-justifying wealth. God calls us to be new people and to trust that all newness comes as a gift of God.

God sends us out to live in the world, to share good news and a big challenge to change a world of pain into a world of love, justice, and peace. God sends us out to make the earth into a place where the Kingdom is revealed.

It is Time For Law Firm Marketing and Branding to Evolve

Whether the last straw was dropped in a marriage, a DUI received on a Friday night, or a company board meeting ending with a vote to restructure in bankruptcy, people are turning to Google before turning through Yellow Pages.

A handful of companies exist that claim to have lawyer’s best interests in mind. They offer services like web design, law firm search engine optimization, and so on but do they really understand branding?

I must admit, the law firm marketing department of my company is my favorite to work with. Primarily because it is unspoiled land. I can count on one hand how many attorneys we work with who were branded with a logo, slogan, or any sort of branding prior to working with us. Most law firms come to us with a template web site that they spend thousands of dollars for from a huge lawyer service that doesn’t fully understand branding themselves. But rather than focus on the negative, let’s identify the problems and how law firms can evolve.

Think Like a Business

Most law firms I work with are essentially, small businesses. Less than fifteen lawyers working together, often specializing in various fields. Just like a company, a law firm should consider a positioning statement or slogan.

New Firms May Consider a Company Name

This is something rarely done by attorneys. Using a corporate name like “Divorce Law Group” or even “Smith Defense and Justice” may help your firm stand out. Using a corporate name for your firm rather than your own name also has some online reputation management benefits which we will go into later on.

Brand Your Firm With a Logo

One thing that many law firms fail to do is consider their image. A logo. A face for the firm. By having a logo, your firm stands out and can be easily identified. So long as that logo is not just your law firm’s name and gavel clipart. If your firm does not have a uniquely branded logo, prospective clients will only see “just another group of names”.

Prepare for the Internet

All of this gets your law firm prepared for the internet. Search engine optimization can get traffic to your firm’s web site, but it takes professional design and branding to convert traffic into new cases.