The American Bar Association (ABA) met recently in San Francisco. Change was in the air, but I wonder whether there was enough change and what we as a profession need to do going forward to survive and thrive.
com mbehnke behnkeassociates Michelle A. Behnke, U.W. 1988, is the principal at Michelle Behnke & Associates, Madison, and a former State Bar president. She recently took office as ABA treasurer-elect.
As with every annual meeting, there was a change in the officers. This year the act of installing new officers was the same, but for the first time in ABA history a woman president handed off to another woman president. It was also the first time that all four newly elected officers were women. More diversity in leadership is certainly what we’ve been working toward and something to celebrate, but we still see the numbers of women in leadership at large law firms virtually stagnant. Likewise women are still exiting the profession at higher rates than their male peers. Everyone says they look forward to the day that we are no longer counting firsts, but it seems that we still have a way to go.
What is it about the profession and the practice that hinders our diversity efforts or makes the change move so slowly? The Diversity and Inclusion 360 Commission focused not just on increasing numbers but also on implicit bias as a barrier to diversity and inclusion in our organizations and in our justice system. Statistics tell us that diversity and inclusion are of high importance to the next generation of lawyers and the public’s acceptance of the judicial process, so we must improve diversity and the organizational climate to retain the public trust and confidence and to keep future generations of lawyers engaged in the profession. The commission’s latest work gives me hope that we will find new ways to attack this age old problem: www.americanbar.org/diversity-portal/diversity-inclusion-360-commission.
This meeting also included change of a different sort. The Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which spent two years studying the delivery of and access to legal services, delivered its final report, www.ambar.org/ABAFuturesReport. The report attempts to spur lawyers to consider the vastly different landscape of the legal profession and the segments of the public that don’t have access to legal representation.
We must improve diversity
and the organizational
climate to retain the public
trust and confidence and
to keep future generations
of lawyers engaged in the
Many ABA members questioned the participation and inclusion of nonlawyers and service providers such as Legal Zoom in the commission’s work. I was encouraged that the commission threw open the doors to bring all potential stakeholders in to find solutions or at least acknowledge some of the groups and entities that are already filling the legal services gap. The commission was not out just to “protect the legal profession turf”; instead, its members were willing to discuss controversial issues such as limited licensure and alternative business structures. The commission did not embrace all “new ideas” (nor do I) but I think the willingness to acknowledge and discuss them and even to acknowledge that some new ideas actually help the legal system and the delivery of legal services suggests a new way to problem solve that we as lawyers have not always done with respect to this issue.
One thing I know is that the practice of the law continues to change and the only constant is the pace of change. Looking back to try to find the way forward is not likely to provide good solutions. I was encouraged by the “strap on our goggles, move into the fast lane and try to keep up or better yet, lead the way” sentiment of the ABA Future. We don’t have all the answers, but we are applying our legal training to the problem solving.