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February 07, 2023

ABA officer candidates discuss membership and bad behavior

The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates Nominating Committee held a Candidates Forum on Feb. 5 at its Midyear Meeting in New Orleans for the three people who announced their intention to seek nomination for officer at the 2024 Midyear Meeting.

Michelle Behnke from Wisconsin, who served as ABA treasurer from 2017-2020 and is currently chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, is running unopposed for president-elect for the 2024-2025 term.

Jonathan Cole of Tennessee and William D. Johnson of Delaware are facing off to run for chair of the House of Delegates for the 2024-26 term.

The candidates gave brief remarks then answered questions from the Nominating Committee and the audience.

Behnke talked about the resources, support and guidance that the ABA provided her and can provide all lawyers. She pointed out that the 150th anniversary of the ABA’s founding is approaching (in 2028) and that it is imperative to chart a path forward for the association.

She stressed that the need to articulate the value of an ABA membership “more clearly, more often and more broadly.” Behnke touted the ABA’s recent work helping migrants with their legal rights during the immigration surge at the southern border; charting new ways for lawyers to work remotely during and after the COVID pandemic through the ABA Practice Forward commission; and efforts to protect and work as polling officials to ensure free and fair elections.

The power of the ABA lies in doing “collectively that which we could not do alone,” Behnke said.

Cole, who has served as chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services and the ABA Young Lawyers Division, shared a personal story about the importance of lawyers. He said that two lawyers greatly influenced him: One saved his life, and the other gave him purpose.

When Cole was in 5th grade, a solo practitioner from his church worked pro bono to help secure housing for him, his mother and two siblings as well as child support. He said he was amazed at what one lawyer could do. “One lawyer saved four lives.”

The second lawyer who influenced his life is his wife who he watched develop a practice and “made him the man and the lawyer he is today.”

Cole, who also has served as president of the Nashville Bar Association and the National Conference of Bar Presidents, talked about how the House of Delegates is basically the same as it was 50 years ago and that it is important to explore how the association’s policymaking body can work better.

Cole was chair of the ABA Bar Leadership Institute during the pandemic (2021 and 2022), which he said helped him understand the importance of increasing involvement of young lawyers, leaders from national bars of color, and Section/Division/Forum leaders. He wants to include more people to enrich the conversation and ultimately make the ABA stronger.

Johnson, who has held many positions in the ABA including chair of ABA Business Law Section and delegate to the HOD, promised to honor and further the role of the House. He stressed the ABA’s four goals and the importance of “looking for input and hearing every voice in the House.”

Accessibility for all, especially those with disabilities, was emphasized by Johnson along with the need for the ABA to “always be the voice of the legal profession.”

When asked about the ABA doing more to go after lawyers who have very publicly behaved badly on the national stage, Behnke noted that “only the ABA president speaks for the association and the president is bound by the policies the House passes.” Johnson said that the House of Delegates has the Model Rules of Professional Conduct “in their wheelhouse” to enact policy. And Cole said the House should “definitely take it up” and “embrace resolutions about lawyer discipline.”

The Nominating Committee will vote on the candidates at the 2024 Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

At the 2023 Midyear Meeting, the Nominating Committee voted Bill Bay, a partner with Thompson Coburn in St. Louis and past chair of the House of Delegates, as president-elect for the 2023-2024. Bay’s other ABA leadership roles include serving as co-chair of the Coordinating Group on Practice Forward and chair of the Section of Litigation.

The Committee also approved Marvin S. C. Dang, managing member of the Law Offices of Marvin S. C. Dang in Honolulu, for the role of ABA secretary for the 2023-2026 term. He is a member of the Board of Governors and past chair of the Senior Lawyers Division.