MARCH 2020 | FIRST FOCUS

Takeaways from the 2020 Midyear Meeting

At a gathering of lawyers and legal professionals, odds are that wise counsel will be shared – not just on the law but also on other matters, both personal and professional.

This year’s Midyear Meeting was particularly robust, thanks to the addition of the first-ever Defending Liberty, Pursuing Justice Summit, organized by the ABA Center for Public Interest Law and the Diversity and Inclusion Center..

The wide range of topics presented during Midyear yielded nuggets of advice and wisdom from presenters that can help you break out of your comfort zone and elevate your game. Here’s just a sample of what we learned:

1 - Make yourself uncomfortable. “If I’m not uncomfortable, I’m not making the right decisions,” ­ said Rear Admiral Del Crandall of the Department of the Navy, at a program sponsored by the National Conference of Women’s Bar Associations about involving men in the effort to build workplace diversity.  He recommended revising your normal routines in order to shake off unconscious biases that can impede workplace diversity and inclusion.

Rhonda Hunter, a trial lawyer in Dallas, also urged a higher consciousness of how your prejudices, known and unknown, can affect your decisions – and the decisions of those in authority. “We presume that decision makers are not malicious in their actions, but they are allowing their unconscious biases to affect their decisions, like an automatic reflex,” Hunter said at a session on implicit bias.

2 - Know that you matter. “To be excluded makes us feel that our voices, our experiences and our struggles are not relevant. But we are important, and we need to be included,” said Patty Ferguson-Bohnee, director of the Indian Legal Clinic at Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

Ferguson-Bohnee, a member of the Pointe-au-Chien tribe on Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, shared how a report on minority lawyers excluded Native Americans because their numbers were not “statistically significant.” That bothered her because she knew Native attorneys, like everyone else, were important and needed to be included. Ferguson-Bohnee was presented an ABA Spirit of Excellence Award, along with four other advocates of diversity and inclusion.

A few days later, the ABA House of Delegates passed Resolution 10A urging federal, state, local, territorial and tribal governments to acknowledge and prioritize their response to missing and murdered indigenous women.

3 - Don’t take your rights for granted. “As attorneys, we know how to scrutinize the law as it is. We also know how to imagine the law as it should be. And we can use that power to make voting the right that is promised rather than a privilege that is only available to some,” said Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, at a program on voting rights. She listed ways lawyers can take action to dismantle voting roadblocks:

  • Call out voter suppression: “Name it and reject it, regardless of political party.”
  • Help cultivate a pipeline of diverse attorneys “to fix democracy.”
  • Invest at both federal and local levels, and work for same-day and automatic registration.
  • Staff a hotline on voting questions.
  • Serve as a poll monitor.

In a related session on voting rights, Benjamin E. Griffith, adjunct professor of election law at the University of Mississippi, confirmed that voter suppression is widespread and challenged his fellow attorneys:  “It’s up to us – the American Bar, our membership and our entities – to stand as firm as we can and say no: No to voter suppression. No to any form of discriminatory conduct. No to anything to bars people from the voting booth.”

4 - Leverage technology. In her address to House delegates, ABA President Judy Perry Martinez spoke on the millions of low-income Americans who cannot afford an attorney, saying that the association “must continue to lead conversations across the country on how innovation can close the justice gap.”

Indeed. At a program sponsored by the National Conference of Bar Presidents just days earlier, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht of the Texas Supreme Court shared how the use of electronic filing, virtual legal clinics at public libraries and tech like iPads are helping to resolve legal deserts where clients can’t get to lawyers. “None of this, obviously, is ideal,” Hecht said, “but it is an effort to try to get legal counsel to people in areas where it’s just not otherwise available.”

And, a later panel explored new risk-assessment technology being applied in criminal justice – tools that help judges set bail and draft sentences. One applied by the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction reduced officer probationary caseloads by more than half. But panelists also cautioned about possible bias problems. Tools like these “are intended to aid judges,” said Indiana Superior Court Judge Christina Klineman. “I think where the concern is when they replace judges’ discretion.”

5 - Speak up. “I have been afforded an opportunity to make diversity a part of the conversation,” said  Donise Brown, director-corporate counsel for Starbucks, when she accepted the Spirit of Excellence Award. Brown encouraged others to follow her lead to intentionally think about diversity, whether it’s to hire outside counsel, obtain corporate support for organizations that support diversity or being personally available to mentor and support young attorneys. Donald K. Tamaki, another Spirit of Excellence recipient, echoed Brown’s advice: “Don’t be afraid to speak up,” he said, adding, “Our voices are now more important than ever.”

6 - Collaborate. Panelists at a summit program on interdisciplinary collaboration agreed that a team approach, incorporating social workers and other non-legal professionals, can often best help clients with a range of complex issues. Jayesh Patel of Street Democracy in Detroit shared that working with social service providers helped to identify those homeless clients who are “ready to be helped,” eliminating the no-shows who fail to follow-up after initial contact with lawyers.  However, panelists stressed that attorneys must have the last word in working with non-lawyers, given the regulatory legal framework, such as the rules around client confidentiality.

Of related note, House delegates at the ABA’s policy-making session on Feb. 17 adopted Resolution 115, which encourages states and other jurisdictions to consider such innovative approaches to expanding access to justice with the goal of improving affordability and quality of civil legal services. At least six states have already proposed – or adopted – substantial regulatory changes that could loosen rules, and more are considering doing the same. The resolution does not recommend changes to the Model Rules or embrace any single effort. Rather, it encourages states to continue these efforts and “ensure that changes are effective in increasing access to legal services and are in the interest of clients and the public.”

7 - Women, run for public office. “We know that when women actually run for office, they’re as likely to win as men. It’s that they don’t run,” said Kaitlyn Newman of She Should Run at a program celebrating 100 years of women in politics. The nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit works to increase the number of women considering a run for office. Newman encouraged everyone to ask the women in their life to run – and show up for them when they do.

And if you do run for office, don’t fear losing, said Victoria M. DeFrancesco Soto, director of civic engagement at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, who was also among the session’s presenters. Most men lose a lot, but they don’t let it get to them,” she said.