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Vol. 38, No. 1

NCBP plenary introduces today’s bar leaders to tomorrow’s members

by Patrick Tandy

From veterans to the victims of domestic natural disasters, Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own,” from his 2012 album Wrecking Ball, roils at once with both national pride and a burgeoning sense of uncertainty.

The song’s underlying themes also apply to a legal profession that is no less self-conflicted, according to Michael Bossone and William D. Henderson. Bossone, co-creator and a founding member of LawWithoutWalls, a part-virtual program designed to build legal services skills in “today’s global, multi-disciplinary, and cross-cultural marketplace,” and Henderson, a professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, co-presented  “A New Age for the Legal Profession Requires a New Age for Bar Associations,” a plenary at the August 2013 National Conference of Bar Presidents Annual Meeting in San Francisco.

“[This plenary asks] the same questions Springsteen asks,” Bossone announced, following a screening of the song’s video. “Do we, as lawyers, as law schools, as law firms, law professors, bar associations, bar association leadership—do we take care of our own?” The session, he added, would “actively explore how we, as lawyers, might creatively and innovatively find new ways to connect with each other” in a “new, rapidly changing, tech-driven global legal marketplace.”

Said Henderson, “The legal profession can’t continue the growth of the last two decades or so.” He cited, among other things, a client base that can no longer “afford to pay for [attorney services] on an artisan basis.”

Not surprisingly, much of the program focused on the generational undermining of a profession top-heavy with aging Baby Boomers—a field of limited opportunities for newly minted “Millennial” attorneys saddled with staggering law school debt and scant job prospects.

“The demographics of law firms are getting older,” noted Henderson, who teaches “The Legal Profession,” a mandatory first-year course covering “the ethics, competencies, and economics” of the practice of law. “There are fewer younger attorneys, suggesting that we don’t know how to ‘reload.’”

To illustrate the importance of bridging this age gap, Henderson and Bossone invited more than 30 current law students to offer their perspectives during breakout roundtable discussions among the attendees.

“Law students want to be wanted,” said Richard H. Melnick, president of the Bar Association of Montgomery County, Maryland, following a roundtable discussion with one such student. “They’re looking for experiences in the law, even if it’s for no pay.” Melnick also stressed the importance of local bar associations engaging and collaborating with these students—the future lifeblood of those same associations.

Interestingly, Henderson noted that regular card-sorting exercises among his first-year students suggest that Boomers and Millennials (generally said to have been born between 1980 and 2000) may have more in common than might be expected.  For example, Henderson said his students consistently rank among their top professional priorities “honesty and integrity, followed by work-life balance.”

Still, “the practice of law will not go back to the way it was,” said Henderson. “If we are still asking who’s to blame for the change, perhaps we need an attitude adjustment.  Are we, as leaders, willing to accept that responsibility?”

Among those responsibilities is keeping abreast of the new technologies that today’s “young people are using as their primary means of communication,” Bossone said. Staying on top of how those technologies are used, and the users’ expectations, is just as important. For those same young people, he explained, there is no difference between virtual and real-world communication. “It’s the exact same thing in their minds.”

And the work of adapting to young lawyers’ needs is not something that can be done once and then forgotten. “The audience of the future is going to be an exponentially sharper version of [today’s law school graduates],” noted Lisa Tatum, president of the State Bar of Texas, following one roundtable discussion. “The 4-year-olds who are playing with iPads right now are going to need a vision of the future.”

Indeed, “the technology is changing day by day,” Bossone warned. “When you’re innovative, you have to stay innovative.”

“You must identify who your target audience is now,” Henderson said, “but also who will be your target audience tomorrow. What are their ambitions? Their work styles?”

“Change engenders fear,” he added, but “this not a time for despair. Rather, it is a time for opportunity.”

Patrick Tandy

Patrick Tandy is director of communications at the Maryland State Bar Association.