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Vol. 42, No. 3

Bringing people together: The bar’s role as a convener

by Dan Kittay

While bar associations are good at bringing lawyers from a particular area of the law together to network or learn more about their area of practice, they are not as good at bringing a wide variety of lawyers together to talk about the common issues they face as attorneys, according to the executive director of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

“We do it less often because it’s really hard,” Tim Groshens believes. “Most lawyers identify themselves as a type of lawyer, whether it’s an IP lawyer, family law lawyer, public defender or prosecutor.”

But maintaining a united legal profession requires bars to convene lawyers across practice areas, geographic areas, and other forms of division, Groshens told members of the National Conference of Bar Presidents at its 2017 Annual Meeting. NCBP past President Carl Smallwood moderated the closing plenary at which Groshens and others spoke.

Crossing state lines to unite lawyers

Groshens and State Bar Association of North Dakota Executive Director Tony J. Weiler were talking at the NCBP Midyear Meeting in Miami earlier in 2017, when Weiler suggested that their two associations plan an event together—something they'd never done before.

"We put together a program where we gathered the lawyers from northwest Minnesota and north, east, and south North Dakota for general purposes," Groshens said. "We wanted to encourage interaction among the members."

There were dinners and other events where bar officials and speakers mingled, and speakers were asked to incorporate some time for networking into their programs. Both of the state's chief justices spoke about issues affecting their states, and stayed afterward to talk with individual attorneys.

"That meant a lot to somebody who's five hours from St. Paul, to be able to have an informal conversation with the chief justice," Groshens noted. "It gave them an opportunity to actually feel like they were a member of a broader legal profession and that someone cared. It also helped the chief justice to get a better understanding of the needs of lawyers."

Other sessions focused on immigration issues pertaining to Canada, tribal law, ethics in relation to cross-border practices, and common issues the states face.

Approximately 70 lawyers attended the event—a good number for the sparsely populated area where it was held, Groshens said, adding that he believes it's important for bars to work on these types of meetings, given that the profession is becoming more and more segmented.

"As bar associations, we've got to play a role in bringing these segments together and getting them to reflect on the profession itself," he said, adding that this is no easy task. It's easier to convene lawyers within a certain practice area, he said, because the bar can say that attendance will help them become better and more successful within that area.

"It's harder to make that connection on a program such as [the two-state meeting]," he said, "but it's essential that we do."

Tackling tough issues in new ways

When immediate past President Francis Deisinger was getting ready to become president-elect of the State Bar of Wisconsin, he thought a lot about what he wanted to accomplish during his term. He looked through the rules that govern the mandatory bar and noticed that one of its responsibilities was to provide access to justice for the public.

He also knew that Wisconsin has the highest disparate rate of incarceration of minority males in the country, especially for African-Americans. He wanted to do something about that.

"My problem was I didn't have a clue what I could do about it. I struggled. I talked to a lot of people about what we could do, and for the most part the ideas I got were the traditional approach," Deisinger recalled. "I could form a blue ribbon committee or a special committee or something like that. 'What you want is to get a report authored' [people said]."

But Deisinger wasn't comfortable with that approach, having seen what became of such reports in the past. "It gets stuck on a dusty shelf," he said, "and if you're lucky, people remember it and people say, 'Wasn't that the guy who had that report?'"

Deisinger realized that his bar had a great deal of talent to leverage in tackling the issue. "We … had broad expertise on issues such as justice, a relationship with law schools, political influence, meeting planning expertise, and publications and public affairs expertise," he explained, noting that these assets are typical of bar associations.

Over the next two years, Deisinger worked with bar staff and leaders to develop the Symposium on Disparate Incarceration and Mass Incarceration in Wisconsin. The event included a showing of a documentary about the issue, and a fairly simple agenda with a lot of time for discussion.

The symposium had a full house of attendees and was generally well received, Deisinger says. The bar created a report for the membership on what happened, put video on its website, and is continuing to focus on the issue in its online and print publications.

Inviting the public into the conversation

Convening the public for educational purposes also falls within the realm of some bar associations. Last March, the Columbus (Ohio) Bar Association instituted a series called "Constitutional Conversations," said Lisa Pierce Reisz, CBA president.

Around the time that the Trump administration instituted its travel ban on certain countries, CBA members began asking bar leaders what they could do to help. Out of that interest came the conversations, which take place monthly on a Thursday afternoon. The first session focused on immigration, and later ones have tackled issues such as separation of church and state, and First Amendment rights.

The one-hour sessions, which are free and open to the public, have drawn large crowds. "We have struggled to attract 20 members to a luncheon committee meeting," Reisz noted "We have been drawing 60 to 80 people every month to talk about these issues." A mix of lawyers and members of the public attend, she added.

While some of the topics have arisen from recent political events, CBA takes great care not to have politics be part of the discussions. "We walk that line incredibly well," Reisz stressed. "The questions are respectful. It's been a very successful conversation."

In 2018, she said, the bar plans to present a series of conversations devoted to cultural issues.

Responding effectively to current events

"Current events can change your plans," said Navdeep Singh, policy director of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. NAPABA, which, among other issues, focuses on hate crimes committed against its constituent communities, starts its year in November.

"We saw a massive spike in hate incidents right after the [2016] election," Singh recalled, adding that there was another spike just after the presidential inauguration, and another when the travel ban was issued.

"We have seen a level of hate we have not seen since 9/11," Singh said. "It is both the intensity of the hate and the number of incidents." Singh noted that FBI statistics on the level of hate crimes only take into account what gets reported and that many victims do not report the crimes because of fear of reprisal.

"NAPABA decided we had to do something. Not only were our communities under attack, our own members were facing harassment and having criminal acts conducted against them," Singh said. "We had to have the conversation about what is the role of the bar in this situation. We realized that we have to be the voice of the voiceless."

While its members could provide pro bono services to affected people, NAPABA decided to also "uplift our attorneys so they can help their communities." NAPABA joined with several other bars in this effort. In addition to writing to Congressional leaders and the White House, the bars created a Hate Crimes Toolkit to help members know "what they should keep in mind if they are ever called into an issue like this," Singh said. The kit provides information on such areas as identifying a hate crime and how to report an incident, as well as online and other resources.

 "We sat down later and came up with ways on how we can continue the dialogue," Singh added.