The American Bar Association’s House of Delegates Nominating Committee held a Candidates Forum on Aug. 6 at the ABA Annual Meeting in Denver 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 chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, is running unopposed for president-elect for the 2024-25 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 opened her remarks with a story about when President John F. Kennedy visited NASA and talked to employees. Everyone he asked what their job was there, including a janitor, said, “I’m working to put a man on the moon.” She stressed the importance of having everyone work together to achieve a goal.
Behnke said membership, infrastructure and artificial intelligence are among the pressing issues facing the association. She talked about the importance of a strategic plan, which she referred to as “a roadmap for how this association will lead the legal profession for the next 150 years.”
Behnke also talked about the future and how we should think about it in terms of what is the “ideal state” and then figure out how to get there.
Cole, who has served as chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services and the ABA Young Lawyers Division, spoke about the need to attract all kinds of lawyers to the House of Delegates and to “make sure that their concerns will be heard.”
The HOD should be about equal voice and equal opportunity to be part of the process, Cole said. He wants to use ABA resources better to raise the level of debate and get more entities involved in producing resolutions and creating policy.
Johnson also talked about ensuring every voice is heard in the HOD, especially young lawyers. He spoke about “maximizing the experience” and making leadership roles available to younger lawyers.
Another area Johnson emphasized was “being attentive to the needs of Main Street lawyers and their clients.” He said his colleagues believe he demonstrates “quiet leadership” and keeps an “open mind.”
The candidates were asked about changes they would make to the ABA’s governing structure. Behnke, while not criticizing the current setup, said that if the association was being created from scratch today it would likely be different.
The ABA needs to be “more attuned to changes in society and in groups we interact with,” she said.
Johnson wants to develop a plan that “builds on the best of what we did in the past and what we’re doing now.” Cole stressed the need for more people to have a voice and be involved.
When asked about artificial intelligence, Behnke mentioned the newly formed ABA President’s Task Force on the Law and Artificial Intelligence. She said AI would affect all of society, including the practice of law, and that the task force will help identify and navigate the new technology.
Behnke also was asked about Supreme Court ethics and what the ABA should do about it. She said the association should help convene and bring the voices of lawyers together “to make judges know the importance of perception.”
Johnson and Cole were asked to comment on how the House of Delegates operates and both suggested possible changes. Johnson mentioned technology improvements and “meeting people where they are.” He said it was worth exploring hybrid meeting options but acknowledged that the costs would be high. He also suggested electronic voting options.
Cole said that the HOD has “met the same way for years and years. Maybe we should look at different ways.”
The Nominating Committee will vote on the candidates at the 2024 Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.