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November 01, 2022 Vol. 48, No. 1

New connections, new energy: Bars launch, revamp leadership academies

By Robert J. Derocher

Sometimes, says 2022-2023 ABA Young Lawyers Division President Jo Bahn, all young lawyers want from their bar leaders is a seat at the table. And experience has taught her that those seats can be hard to come by.

“Bar associations are generally insular crowds, and it’s hard for somebody to find a seat at the table oftentimes, unless somebody gives up their own chair,” says Bahn, an attorney in Washington, DC. “I mean that figuratively—and also literally, in rooms that I have been in, where you don’t have a seat at the actual table.”

Against that backdrop, many bars are mindful of the challenges of cultivating new generations of younger leaders. That is why they have developed a variety of leadership academies and related programs designed to engage younger lawyers and set them on a path toward bar leadership. For some bars, such efforts span two decades, while others are relative newcomers.

More recently, the lingering economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and societal upheaval tied to race, gender and politics—combined with the continued social and demographic factors weighing on membership organizations—have prompted reexaminations of leadership academy approaches. Although many academies are seeing success in their efforts, bars also understand that regular reevaluation is a necessary tool to keep young members engaged, leadership pipelines fresh and the future of the profession hopeful.

Pandemic brings positive shifts

Danielle Boveland only has to look as far as the Louisiana State Bar Association Board of Governors to gauge the success of Leadership LSBA Class: Eight class graduates sit on the current board. “Our immediate past president was a Leadership Class member,” says Boveland, the bar’s liaison to the class as well as its communication coordinator for online media. “[Members] see the value. You can’t deny that kind of success.”

The 10-month program has remained a consistent and valuable source of future bar leaders, both in the LSBA Young Lawyers Division and in the bar as a whole, Boveland says. The program is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year with a class of 15 that is the most geographically diverse in its history: For the first time, more than half of the class hails from outside New Orleans and its suburbs.

The shift reflects, in part, how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected bar leadership programs. While the pandemic cut short the 2019-2020 class, it prompted most of the 2020-21 programming to go virtual—thus making it easier for attendees throughout the state to become involved.

Like the LSBA class, the Missouri Bar Leadership Academy—launched in 2000—had a truncated 2019-2020 class and 2020-21 session that was mostly virtual for its dozen members. But those virtual sessions, particularly once they could be complemented with in-person sessions and events, served to make the overall experience stronger, according to Tony Simones, the bar’s director of citizenship education and adviser for the academy.

“Before [the pandemic], we lost momentum in between events,” he says. “[Zoom meetings] were a great supplement that allowed us to have consistent communication without driving across the state each month.”

In Washington state, the Washington Leadership Institute has been helping develop newer lawyers from traditionally underrepresented groups since 2004, when it was created by the Washington State Bar Association Board of Governors at the behest of then-President Ronald R. Ward. For the WLI, which is a joint program between the WSBA and the University of Washington School of Law, the pandemic opened the doors to a wider range of high-caliber speakers.

“We’ve kept the hybrid functionality,” says WLI board member Zabrina Jenkins, who notes that the speakers interacted with 2020-21 class members in ways that improved their experience.

While the pandemic short-circuited many bar leadership activities, it also provided opportunities for some bars to reevaluate and refresh some aspects of their programs. Group public service projects are centerpieces of many leadership programs, and some saw changes as programs adjusted to in-person/virtual hybrid realities.

The LSBA, says Boveland, has helped recent and current class members adjust by slightly scaling back on some of the ambitious service projects, as members continue to develop new work and home routines.

“Pandemic fatigue is still real,” she explains. “We still don’t want to put too much on their plates. This is supposed to help them put their foot into the bar association, not throw them into the deep end.”

The Idaho Academy of Leadership for Lawyers at the Idaho State Bar is now emphasizing more group efforts in what is known as the academy’s Legacy Project, says Teresa Baker, the bar’s program and legal education director, and liaison to the academy. Previous projects were more individual-oriented—a time-consuming process, Baker notes.

Making the experience more real

Idaho's academy has made other adjustments, Baker adds, driven by a combination of the pandemic, input from previous academy members, and shifting demographics that have brought an influx of new lawyers to a fast-growing population: Idaho had the second-largest percentage population gain in the country, according to the 2020 census.

“We evaluate every session … and we take these things to heart when we choose our next books,” she says. “We’ve brought in a non-attorney to be on the steering committee, and we’re bringing in new ideas.

“That’s a great pool for us: to bring in new speakers outside of the legal profession to bring in some new and fresh topics.”

Constant, rigorous self-evaluation has also been key to the success of the Washington Leadership Institute, according to Washington Supreme Court Justice Mary Yu, the institute’s co-chair. “We make sure we’re still relevant,” she says. “All of that keeps our program vibrant.”

One of the biggest changes for the Missouri Bar Leadership Academy, according to Simones, is an increased emphasis on bar governance for academy members. Instead of just attending a bar Board of Governors meeting or two, academy members created a shadow Board of Governors that will essentially look at the same issues the actual board faces.

“We said, ‘You will preside over the meeting, and you will deal with the issues that the Board of Governors has to deal with in the way that the Board of Governors has to deal with it,’” Simones explains. “By doing this, hopefully, we’re going to make them ready to be effective governors from Day 1. They know what’s expected of them.”

At the ABA, the YLD Leadership Academy is now a two-year program instead of one, with its 16 members divided into two eight-member cohorts per year. The first year of the program is an introduction to how the ABA works. The second year, Bahn says, is a “doing year” focused on accomplishing projects: “This is how you draft an article for publication in the ABA. This is how you do policy within the ABA. This is how you do a resolution that you can get through the YLD and also the House of Delegates.”

New opportunities to engage

Bahn and other bar leaders say adaptability, engagement and commitment from the highest levels of bar organizations will not only be critical to the success of leadership programs, but also to the very future of bars themselves. That is part of what has driven the Tulsa County (Okla.) Bar Association to develop its first YLD Leadership Academy, which at press time was accepting applications for its inaugural cohort.

“This is very important for the future of our bar,” says bar Executive Director Tami Williams. “We have members aging out and retiring at a fast pace not seen before for our bar.”

The academy is part of a broader effort at the 2,000-member TCBA to broaden its reach to younger members: The approximately 375-member YLD is being given its own board of directors for the first time, all local law students were given free YLD memberships, and YLD age eligibility was changed to bring in members based on years of practice.

Bahn says ABA survey data continues to show that if young lawyers don’t join bars in their first four years of practice, it becomes increasingly unlikely that they will ever engage as bar members. That’s why bars need to focus on reaching out and welcoming younger members through better engagement that must continue beyond leadership academies or young lawyer groups, she believes.

“Bars are doing better in understanding how to provide time for young lawyers, but where they fail is that once they’re done with that program, where do they transition them to?” she says. “That’s where we lose people.

“You’ve got these really engaged people. They’ve gone through this rigorous program, they’re ready to lead, and then they lose their sea legs because they’re not put on a commission or committee, or their talents aren’t utilized.”

Toward that end, in Missouri, the bar’s leadership academy and Young Lawyers Section both continue to focus on the interactions between younger and more established members to create an environment that offers more involvement for those newer members, says Brett Rolwes, the bar’s legal and community services coordinator and also the bar’s liaison to the YLS governing council. Over the last three years, he says, there is better communication than there ever has been among participants in the leadership academy, the YLS council and the Board of Governors.

“Now, the Board of Governors is not seen as this kind of group that is unapproachable. I think what the Board of Governors leadership is realizing is that these younger members have some really good ideas and concerns," Rowles says. "And some of them have adopted these ideas and pushed these initiatives. I think it’s really starting to open opportunities that weren’t there five or six years ago.”

(Note: The 2023 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, March 15-17 in Chicago, will include programming specifically focused on leadership development for young lawyers. For the most up-to-date information about programming and registration, make sure you're subscribed to BLI Buzz.)

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