chevron-down Created with Sketch Beta.
September 2018 | First Focus

Meet the new ABA President

Bob Carlson, a small firm lawyer in Butte, Mont., became president of the American Bar Association at the end of the ABA Annual Meeting in August.

Image Detail

Image Detail

Carlson, a shareholder with Corette Black Carlson & Mickelson, P.C., has a long record of service at the ABA. From 2012-14, Carlson was chair of the ABA’s policymaking House of Delegates. He has also served two terms on the ABA Board of Governors and its Executive Committee. He also served as chair of the ABA Day in Washington, D.C., planning committee, chair of the Standing Committee on Meetings and Travel and was a member of the Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, Council of the ABA Section of International Law and co-chair of the ABA Section of Litigation’s ABA Resource Committee. Carlson was Board of Governors liaison to the ABA Standing Committee for Bar Activities and Services, Dispute Resolution Section and Commission on Homelessness and Poverty.

His record of service to the profession reaches beyond the ABA. He was president of the State Bar of Montana from 1993-94. He is a life patron fellow and past state chair of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation and was a member of the Executive Council of the National Conference of Bar Presidents.

Carlson’s civil trial and mediation practice primarily involves insurance defense, products liability and insurance coverage. Before entering private practice, he was staff attorney for the Montana Department of Business Regulation and a law clerk for the Montana Supreme Court. A native Montanan, he earned his B.A. with honors from the University of Montana and his J.D. from the University of Montana School of Law.

“Serving as president of the American Bar Association is an honor and a privilege,” Carlson told the House of Delegates when he took office on Aug. 7. “Most of all, it provides an opportunity to deliver a clear, concise and consistent message about the value and importance of the ABA to the legal community and beyond.”

YourABA caught up with the new president to find out more.

What do you hope to accomplish this year?

My year as president will be more of a relay than a sprint, building on all the progress and good works of my predecessors.

For instance, following up on past president Hilarie Bass’ trip to the southern border in June to get a firsthand look at the border crisis and the response by America’s lawyers, I am in Harlingen, Texas, this week with president-elect Judy Perry Martinez to work with detained adults at the Port Isabel Detention Center, the main adult facility that ProBAR serves. ProBAR is the ABA’s South Texas Pro Bono Asylum Representation Project, which provides pro bono legal services to asylum seekers detained in South Texas by the U.S. government. We will help interview detainees, complete asylum applications, draft declarations, and prepare supporting documentation and possibly legal briefs.

We will also address the well-being of lawyers and law students. To be a good lawyer, you must first be a healthy lawyer. This is not an abstract exercise. Most ABA members have been affected, or know someone who has been touched, by mental illness, addiction, depression, suicide. As the voice of America’s lawyers, the ABA needs to work together and be frank, open, honest and clear about why lawyers disproportionately face these problems, and what we need to do about it.

We have the invaluable resources of the ABA Task Force on Lawyer Well Being on our website, including a toolkit unveiled at the Annual Meeting in Chicago. The toolkit identifies the role each of us can play in reducing the level of toxicity in our profession; specifies how to educate lawyers, judges and law students on lawyer well-being issues; how to take small, incremental steps to change how law is practiced and how lawyers are regulated to instill greater well-being in the profession. I encourage everyone to share it with their local bars, law firms, law schools and colleagues.

In addition, we will:

  • continue efforts to make practical changes to legal education and the bar admission process,
  • work to move the needle on ensuring access to justice. Far too many people are not afforded the legal assistance they need, and the consequences can be dire,
  • promote a strong, independent and impartial judiciary and a fair justice system, and
  • build on the ABA’s legacy of advancing diversity within its membership and throughout the legal profession.

How will your practice at a small firm inform your presidency?

My experience at a small firm has shown me the value of ABA membership firsthand, and I’ve found the practice tools the ABA offers to be indispensable.

For instance, ABA Blueprint provides free advice to help lawyers make the right technology choices for their firm, plus deep discounts for ABA members on products and services. We are expanding the Blueprint platform by adding substantive content from ABA sections on how-to aspects of law practice, from drafting pleadings to managing cases. We are also adding more vendors while providing our members with the ability to provide reviews so that we can continue to meet their practice needs.

ABA Retirement Funds provides full-service 401(k) plans to all lawyers, including solos and small firms. It offers funds and services typically available to only the largest of corporate retirement plans.

ABA Insurance offers a range of policies on everything from health to life and disability insurance to auto and home, and even pet insurance, from a number of major carriers.

And ABA Leverage allows firms to use the ABA’s expertise and vast buying power to book their meetings. Our association has strong relationships with all the major hotel brands, independent properties and convention centers, so this tool saves both time and money.

The savings that my firm and I have realized from these member benefits are more than the cost of ABA annual membership.

But just as important is the sense of community the ABA offers. As a member since law school, I see the ABA as a family, a community of members with shared values. We work together because we recognize the vital role the ABA plays to improve the profession and promote the rule of law.

The ABA recently made changes to its membership model. What are your plans for increasing membership?

Like all bar associations today, the ABA is faced with evolving membership needs and technological changes in how we communicate and connect with members. We are responding to those challenges aggressively.

Here’s what is new:

  • We have dramatically streamlined our dues structure to take effect Sept. 1, 2019. The majority of our members will end up paying less, with reductions in annual dues anywhere from $20 to more than $300.
  • Members will be able to opt into the Law Practice Division and Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division for free.
  • We are expanding our library of free CLEs and will also provide curated material to each member based on their specific interests and needs. 
  • Our redesigned website and mobile platform will go live this fall, making it faster and easier to get ABA products and register for meetings online.

We believe these changes will expand and invigorate our membership.

You chose disaster relief as your theme for the Celebration of Pro Bono in October. Why?

Each year for the last 10 years, the National Celebration of Pro Bono in October has been a show of force for how lawyers make a difference in our communities.

Last year was a busy year for natural disasters in the United States, and we saw anew from the many hurricanes, fires and floods that disaster survivors face countless legal issues ­– including insurance disputes, FEMA appeals, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer fraud, health and education issues and so much more.

And even before a disaster strikes, communities need legal assistance with disaster preparedness through business continuity planning, securing title documents, meeting insurance needs and other assistance.

During the week of Oct. 21-27, we are asking lawyers to do their part to assist with disaster resiliency efforts by offering pro bono assistance to survivors or evacuees of disasters or by helping your community to prepare for a disaster. You can find out more at

The Young Lawyers Division’s Disaster Legal Services has a wealth of information about the needs and how to get started.

The material in all ABA publications is copyrighted and may be reprinted by permission only. Request reprint permission here.