The ABA’s new President Hilarie Bass has a long history of leadership at the ABA, where she served as chair of the Section of Litigation, chair of the Committee on Rules and Calendar, and a member of the Board of Governors, House of Delegates, Commission on Women and the State of Florida representative on the Nominating Committee.
Bass, who lives and works in Miami, Florida, is co-president of Greenberg Traurig LLP, where she serves on the firm’s executive committee and was national chair of its 600-member litigation practice for eight years. She is also the founder and former chair of Greenberg Traurig’s Women’s Initiative.
Bass has successfully represented high-profile corporate clients in jury and non-jury trials involving hundreds of millions of dollars in controversy. She has worked on and settled more than 100 cases, tried more than 20 cases to conclusion, and argued numerous appeals. In recognition of that success, she was inducted into The American College of Trial Lawyers. Bass is widely recognized for her pro bono work, including her work on behalf of two foster children that led to the elimination and declaration as unconstitutional Florida’s 20-year-old ban on gay adoption.
In addition, Bass serves as vice chair of the University of Miami’s Board of Trustees and was formerly chair of the United Way of Miami-Dade County.
YourABA caught up with Bass to find out about some of her plans for the year.
Bar passage rates are declining and law students are graduating with substantial debt. How do you plan to address these issues as ABA president?
Falling bar passage rates and law student debt are a major concern, as well as the difficult employment environment for new lawyers. We need to look more broadly at our legal education system to ensure that we are preparing our future lawyers for a vastly different legal landscape. We need to determine whether our current system is up to the challenge of ensuring that future lawyers entering the profession are equipped to provide the service and expertise their clients deserve.
These are tough issues, and many stakeholders are involved. The ABA is in the unique position to invite the various constituencies in legal education and examination to come together to review some of the challenges facing the legal education system.
I have appointed a new Commission on the Future of Legal Education to develop strategies for improving the education and testing of prospective lawyers. The commission, composed of 10 legal educators and innovators (including three law school deans, the general counsel of Spotify and the executive director of Equal Justice Works), will engage with stakeholders in the legal education arena and recommend structural changes to our current legal education system.
Throughout the coming year, the commission will explore the issue of falling bar passage rates, the skills future lawyers will need to best help their clients, and how law grads can best assist in narrowing the justice gap.
The commission’s work is separate from the Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, an independent arm of the ABA that accredits law schools. The council will continue to set accreditation standards for law schools. While the commission and the council have distinctly different missions, both entities look forward to working together to ensure that legal education provides the best possible preparation for the nation’s future lawyers.
You’re also interested in the legal needs of homeless youth. What drew you to this pro bono initiative?
I found the experience of representing children [in the same-sex adoption case] to be incredibly inspiring and one of the most memorable moments of my career. Since that time, I have been on the lookout for other opportunities to help this vulnerable population.
Homeless children are clearly among our most vulnerable. Child homelessness is a significant global human rights issue that affects the U.S. and countries worldwide. The ABA is already galvanizing the legal community to help the more than 500,000 homeless children in the U.S.
With our newly formed Advisory Council on the Legal Rights of Homeless Youth, we are planning to match lawyers, law firms, lawyer groups and bar associations with more than 350 homeless shelters across the country. These volunteer lawyers will be able to help homeless children address some recurring legal issues that are relatively easy for a lawyer to resolve, but would be overwhelming for a homeless youth. These volunteer lawyers will be able to help homeless youth obtain identification, such as a driver’s license, get back into school and apply for medical care, housing and jobs. We want to help these children rebuild their lives.
Our initiative also has an international component. Street-connected youth have remarkably similar legal needs and challenges across borders and cultures. These children suffer from abuse and neglect, sexual exploitation, drug abuse, the effects of global conflict and other miseries. I am sure if you have traveled, you have encountered these children in the streets. It is truly heartbreaking.
To address this tragedy, we are convening more than 150 advocates and providers at the ABA’s second International Summit on the Legal Needs of Street Youth in Sao Paulo, Brazil, this November to examine the mandate provided through the UN General Comment on Children in Street Situations. The goal is to produce action plans that include the resources needed to enforce the legal rights of this vulnerable population.
What can law firms do to advance women in the profession and retain senior women lawyers?
The ABA has long been a champion of diversity and inclusion in the legal profession and we remain committed to continuous improvement in these areas. This year, we will focus our attention on what can be done to retain our most experienced women lawyers.
While women are for the first time this year matriculating at a higher percentage in law schools than men, preliminary research reveals that many of the most experienced women are leaving the profession in their 40s and 50s. Indeed, by the age of 50, women may comprise just about a quarter of the profession. This is a huge loss of talent and expertise to the legal profession and to our justice system that we cannot afford. We need to understand why so many women lawyers are leaving when their experience is at its peak and they should be reaching the highest levels of leadership positions.
We have launched an initiative, Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law, to examine why these women are leaving law and to propose solutions. I am happy to report that we have received tremendous support from law firms and in-house counsel throughout the country, and have raised more than $380,000 for this effort.
To gain an understanding about the career dynamics of women lawyers, the ABA is co-sponsoring a research project with the American Bar Foundation on the career trajectories of women lawyers. In November, the ABA will co-sponsor a first-of-its-kind summit with Harvard Law School examining potential solutions for the long-term retention and advancement of women in law. Given the important resource that we are losing, we think it is critically important to institute changes that will benefit the justice system, law firms and our clients.
Another of your initiatives will focus on fact-checking legal matters. Why is ABA Legal Fact Check important in today’s news environment?
Fact-checking internet sites have grown in popularity in recent years, and several mainstream media outlets routinely verify certain statements made by newsmakers. But until now, no fact-checking site focused on verifying claims made about the law and legal issues. The ABA has created the first fact-checking site that concentrates on legal matters. The site, www.abalegalfactcheck.com, is a way for the public to find answers to current questions of the law. Our explanations will be supported by statutory and case law, not opinions.
We hope the site is widely used by lawyers, the media and other members of the public to challenge false claims made as a matter of public discourse. The best way to fight misinformation in today’s highly politicized environment is to arm the public with the truth.