chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
February 05, 2024

ABA president urges HOD to face present, future legal challenges

ABA President Mary Smith challenged the nation’s lawyers to meet “the test of the moment” in her address to the House of Delegates Monday at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky.

Speaking to the ABA’s 597-member policy-setting body, Smith said lawyers are needed at a time when “democracy is in peril” to protect the safeguards around our system of government.

“All of us, and particularly us lawyers [need] to put the Constitution above all else.”

Citing the ABA’s unique ability to mobilize lawyers, law students and law schools in every state,  Smith said the ABA Task Force for American Democracy “is working hard at the state level [to build] coalitions of citizen groups and stand up for free and clear elections and protect the rule of law and democracy.” She urged everyone to join in this effort.

Smith also challenged lawyers to adapt to changes in the legal profession. She said she often thinks of law students today and wonders about the profession they will be entering and how it will change during the span of their careers.

“Will we be able to meet every moment in their careers?” Smith asked.

Smith said that during her presidency she has listened to lawyers all over the country. She quoted one ABA leader telling her, “The ABA has to be synonymous with your practice.” The association has to be there for those active members “but especially, especially” for those who may never attend a meeting but “will still benefit from what the ABA offers,” she said.

Smith said the path forward for the ABA begins with the strategic plan just passed unanimously by the ABA Board of Governors, and she urged her fellow members to “stay ahead of the trends affecting the profession.”

Referring to how the practice of law has changed since she and her peers started practicing, Smith said that by using the rapid response of artificial intelligence the next generation of lawyers is not learning the skills needed to “navigate the practice of law.” She added that the ABA Task Force on Law and Artificial Intelligence “is addressing the use of AI in legal practice and other issues” related to it.

“The ABA is in a unique position to help lawyers become better lawyers,” she said.

That includes meeting Gen Z lawyers where they are, she said. “The future of this association depends upon it.” This largest and most diverse generation in history communicates primarily through social media and text, and “the ABA needs to have the technology to meet the moment.”

Smith urged HOD members to do their part to engage potential members about all the ABA does, to “secure the future of the American Bar Association,” uphold the rule of law and be “protectors of American democracy.”

“Are each of us meeting the moment?” she asked.

President-elect nominee Michelle Behnke to focus on strategy

Wisconsin solo attorney Michelle Behnke, who will become ABA president in August 2025, spoke to the House of two priorities on her to-do list.

“First, we need to develop that robust strategic plan that President Smith talked about and second, we actually have to implement that strategic plan,” the former treasurer of the ABA said.

“Implementation will take strategic thinking, creative action, willingness to measure our outcomes and a commitment to continually scan the landscape so we’re ready to address the next issues facing this profession,” Behnke said.

In addition, “we all want an association that leads on important issues like the changing nature of the practice of law; diversity, equity and inclusion in our legal profession; and maintaining an independent judiciary that is neither beholden to nor fearful of the other two branches of government,” she said.

The strategic plan will take these issues into account and, having been appointed to the strategic planning committee by ABA President Smith, Behnke said she is “excited to be a part of this work.”

Behnke also expressed a desire to reach out to her fellow solos. “We have resources that will help and support them and I want to be sure that I am spreading that message,” she said.

Noting the changed landscape of diversity, equity and inclusion, Behnke said the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action in higher education “means we’re operating under new rules and therefore we need new tools. We want to intentionally create and sustain fair and inclusive environments. … We must use our creative and analytical skills to find these new tools, both for ourselves and for our clients, so that we further the important work of creating a more perfect union.”