Vol. 43, No. 5

ABA Day in Washington: Lawyers, bar leaders tap into the power of being there

by Marilyn Cavicchia

On April 9-11, 2019, hundreds of lawyers and others from all 50 states and U.S. territories met with their members of Congress, and with congressional staff. They were there for ABA Day in Washington—an annual event in which delegations talk to legislators about issues pertaining to the legal profession, access to justice, and the rule of law.

For the third year in a row, the possible elimination of Legal Services Corp.—via President Trump’s proposed budget—was in the news as the delegations prepared for ABA Day. Another issue that was at the forefront for many delegations was the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program; under the Trump administration, many lawyers and other professionals have had their applications denied, and there’s a current proposal to eliminate the program entirely.

Bar Leader recently spoke with members of two delegations, and with Holly Cook, director of the ABA Governmental Affairs Office, about their strategies and experiences during this year’s ABA Day event.

A high-stakes year?

“We are in difficult times, and the attacks against Legal Services [Corp.] are unprecedented,” said Thomas Prol, a past president of the New Jersey State Bar Association, and the captain for the New Jersey delegation for the past four years. “It invigorates me to stand up and speak out for the people in the world who need it most.”

From Cook’s perspective, this year does feel a bit different. “We have been under attack before,” she said, “but this is the first time we have two issues where both of them have the White House proposing for elimination—both of them right from the outset.”

To Robert Glaves, executive director of the Chicago Bar Foundation, and a longtime member of the delegation from the Chicago Bar Association and Illinois State Bar Association, the situation seems a bit less dire. Despite the perennial proposals to completely eliminate LSC funding, he notes, it has always ended up being a question of how much funding the organization will receive—and Glaves expects this will be the case this year, too.

His delegation has seen “strong, bipartisan support” for both the LSC and PSLF, Glaves noted, adding that PSLF relates to the much larger issue of the Higher Education Act, which is up for reauthorization. In the course of meeting with members of Congress, Glaves adds, the delegation learned about the bipartisan College Transparency Act, which aims to provide prospective students with more information about graduation, employment, and other outcomes from colleges and universities. 

In a program at the 2019 ABA Bar Leadership Institute, Cook noted that it can be difficult to move legislators on the subject of PSLF, as they are generally “not a sympathetic audience for lawyers.” For those attending ABA Day or advocating for this issue in other ways, Cook recommended highlighting that it’s not only lawyers who benefit from this program, but also other professionals, such as teachers and doctors—and, perhaps more to the point, the everyday people in remote areas who have access to their services because PSLF makes it possible for professionals to live and work there.

“Come up with personal stories,” Cook added in a later interview. “Show the members of Congress how this affects their constituents, both personally and professionally. Show how [having] no Public Service Loan Forgiveness will affect the communities in their jurisdictions.”

The power of being there

Learning about the College Transparency Act, which Glaves said is worthy of support, is one example of important information that can come up in a conversation—however brief—in person.

Not all of those conversations end up being with the members of Congress themselves, Glaves noted, but that’s OK—and new volunteers with the delegation are always told not to get discouraged if they meet with a staff member instead. This year, he said, the Democrats in the House of Representatives had a retreat during much of the ABA Day event, and there are always variables—including Congress members being called away to vote—that are beyond anyone’s control. But staff relationships can be important, too, Glaves said, and it’s good to put a face with a name. His delegation has already been in touch with one legislative staff member in particular, he added, to continue a discussion of PLSF and related issues that began during ABA Day.

And the relationships built or strengthened via in-person events such as ABA Day don’t necessarily have to be only with one’s own elected officials or their staff, Glaves said. This year, the Chicago and Illinois delegation met with Sen. Michael Bennet from Colorado, because he and the immediate past president of the CBF were college roommates—and because Bennet, unlike Illinois’s senators, is a member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions.

‘This is why I became a lawyer’

Both Glaves and Prol said there’s strength not only in personally traveling to Washington, but also in doing it at a time when many other lawyers are there, too, all talking about law-related issues.

“It really sends a great message that so many folks from our legal community are willing to go out there on their own time—busy people—to talk to their elected officials,” Glaves said.

During his term as NJSBA president, Prol was known for traveling up and down the state, frequently appearing at events to help promote access to justice—but he said it was his first ABA Day, six years ago, that introduced him to lobbying at the federal level. It has become a personal passion.

“This is why I became a lawyer,” he said, speaking of ABA Day and other efforts to help ensure access to legal services. “It makes me proud to be an ABA member when I am able to be part of the great mission to help lawyers help others.”

The typical ABA Day schedule is a busy one, he said, though the short distance between New Jersey and D.C. is a help. Besides, he added, “The energy just happens. This work excites me.”