April 17, 2019 – Young lawyers are the change agents that will help instill the public’s confidence in the legal system, help drive innovative solutions for access to justice, and advocate on important issues that impact the legal profession as a whole.
That was the message delivered by attorney Tommy Preston, chair of the American Bar Association (ABA) Young Lawyers Division, at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s 10th annual Young Lawyer’s Conference March 29 at the Madison Concourse Hotel.
The event is sponsored by the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Young Lawyers Division, open to lawyers under the age of 36 who are in their first five years of practice.
Preston is an executive in the Boeing Company’s Government Operations Division. But he’s also active in the ABA and was the key note speaker at the recent YLD event. He said young lawyers are crucial to the legal profession’s future, and serving the public.
In this post-session interview, he noted that 80% of low-income individuals and people of moderate means don't have access to civil representation. In addition, 90% of all Americans in the family court system are representing themselves.
“As young lawyers … we have to acknowledge the problem, but secondly we have to say that there are other ways that we can represent people,” Preston said.
“For example, we should be utilizing technology to make sure we're meeting clients where they are, and we talked about that today.”
Preston said speakers at the Young Lawyers Conference talked about some of the programs that they're using to have face-to-face conversations with clients from afar.
“Those are the types of things that we need to scale and see happen all over the country,” said Preston, who noted that there are already programs and organizations in place that can provide the toolkits needed to be change agents in communities.
That includes the ABA YLD website, which has specific tools for getting engaged on legal innovation. Toolkits can also help with other issues in the legal profession, such as diversity and inclusion, and to advocate on issues important to young lawyers.
“Student loan debt is a perfect example of that,” Preston said.
But young lawyers can also be agents of change on issues important to the legal profession as a whole, including the negative public perception of lawyers.
“Pew Research Group, for example came out recently with a report on various industries, and the legal profession is unfortunately the most despised profession in America,” Preston said. “I think when you take that fact with what you see on TV today, what you hear from politicians, people are beginning to lose trust, not only in attorneys, but in the legal systems and judicial systems that we hold dear.”
“Young lawyers have an obligation to make sure that we're pushing against some of those sentiments out there, that and in some way we're bad or we're not providing the public support that that we took an oath to provide,” Preston said.
Preston said more lawyers should consider running for public office. Fewer attorneys are in the legislative and executive branches, meaning fewer lawyers are advocating directly for access to justice and other issues important to the judicial system.
Short of running for public office, lawyers can play a more active advocacy role. “My call to action to young lawyers is it really is a time for us to step up,” he said. “This is not political, in a Republican or Democrat sense. That doesn't matter at the end of the day.”
“But as lawyers, we've been trained differently, we think differently, we have a set of values that guide us on a daily basis, and we need those skills and we need a passion and energy more than ever to help push our country and our communities forward.”
Wanted: Wisconsin Legal Innovators
Tell us about the people and ideas that are changing Wisconsin’s legal landscape. Through the “That’s a Fine Idea: Legal Innovation Wisconsin” initiative, the State Bar of Wisconsin is asking the legal community to help it tell the story of legal innovation. The Wisconsin Lawyer will feature the people behind the best examples of legal innovation in the November 2018 issue.
Innovation can come in many forms. It could mean:
- New ways to use technology to improve client service or serve a new market
- Best practices for promoting workplace diversity
- New marketing/business development strategies
- New ways of providing pro bono or reduced-cost services
- Changes in internal operations that result in greater efficiency
Nominate a Wisconsin Legal Innovator who breaks with tradition to do it better. Learn more or find the nomination form at ThatsaFineIdea.com. The deadline for nominations is June 30.