During an unprecedented time, Patricia Lee Refo assumes the helm of the American Bar Association. Her goal is to lead the ABA as it responds to the national and global upheaval while continuing efforts to improve the legal profession.
Refo, a native of Virginia and a partner at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix, has held leadership positions in the association for more than 30 years, including Chair of the House of Delegates and Chair of the Section of Litigation, the ABA’s largest practice group. She also chaired the ABA Standing Committee on Membership, the American Jury Project, and the association’s grassroots advocacy event, ABA Day in Washington, D.C. Refo was also a member of the ABA Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers. She is the 10th female ABA president and fifth in the past six years.
Known as Trish to colleagues and friends, Refo is an alumnus of the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), where she received her B.A. and J.D. degrees. YourABA interviewed Refo after the first-ever virtual Annual Meeting to learn more about her presidential plans:
What a year 2020 has been for the country and the legal profession. Considering the ever-shifting landscape, what are your top priorities?
Yes, it’s been quite a year. But it’s also a time of great opportunity. My focus will be on four key issues: COVID-19 and leading lawyers through the pandemic; racial equity and intensifying our work on anti-racism; leading the ABA through change; and finally, helping to ensure election integrity.
Let’s start with COVID-19. How will the ABA help lawyers deal with the challenges they face, both professionally and personally, during the pandemic?
The COVID-19 crisis has completely upended our communities and our lives. The virus has also disrupted our practices, court systems and law schools. On top of that, we face a tsunami of legal needs arising out of the pandemic — housing evictions, foreclosures, bankruptcies, domestic violence and much more.
The ABA has formed two groups to address the crisis. The Coronavirus (COVID-19) Task Force, chaired by Legal Services Corporation President Emeritus Jim Sandman, is working to identify legal needs arising from the pandemic, recommend solutions and mobilize lawyers to help people in need. The task force’s website provides the latest in resources, changes in benefits and emerging legal issues. It serves as a clearinghouse for valuable information, such as practice tools for remote work and updates on new benefits provided by the CARES Act.
Also, our Practice Forward initiative, led by former House of Delegates Chair Bill Bay and Laura Farber, harnesses the power of the association to help America’s lawyers thrive in our “new normal.” The new Practice Forward website offers thought leadership, practical tools and resources to advance the practice of law and the judicial system during and after the pandemic. It even has tips for professional development. The pandemic has changed the way the legal profession operates. We have learned that we can use technologies and do our jobs in innovative ways that we previously thought we could not do. As a profession, we will identify what technologies might be used going forward to advance access to justice.
Access to justice is often tied to racial issues in this country. As a longtime leader in the fight for civil and human rights, how will the ABA address racial equity in the judicial system?
We have asked every entity in the ABA to move racial equity and anti-racism to the top of their agendas for the coming year. We recognize that the American justice system is in a moment of reckoning and change. Lawyers have a special duty to address injustices and to promote public trust in the justice system. And that is what we will do. We have a great deal more work to do.
With the November election approaching, how can lawyers help protect election integrity?
It’s important that we continue to have free and fair elections. Lawyers can help protect the right to vote for all eligible voters. The ABA has partnered with the National Association of Secretaries of State and the National Association of State Election Directors for the Poll Worker, Esq. initiative to mobilize lawyers to volunteer as poll workers for the Nov. 3 general election. Due to the pandemic, and the fact that many experienced poll workers are older and fall into high-risk health categories, states are predicting a shortage of volunteers to serve on Election Day. They need us to step up and serve in these important positions throughout the country.
Interested volunteers can sign up at www.canIvote.org and click on the “Become a Poll Worker” tab to find out how to serve in their jurisdiction. Responsibilities can range from manning polling places to opening envelopes or helping election officials tabulate results. Poll worker training for lawyers may be eligible for Continuing Legal Education credit.
How else can lawyers help during these difficult times?
We need lawyer volunteers to help with ABA Free Legal Answers, especially during the COVID-19 crisis. Free Legal Answers is a virtual legal advice clinic that works in collaboration with state and local bars. Qualifying users submit civil legal questions to their state’s website, and volunteer attorneys provide information and basic legal advice. The service, begun in 2016, has responded to more than 100,000 inquiries.
Any plans to further boost membership in the association?
During the last year, the ABA implemented the most significant changes to the association’s membership model in its history. As part of this new value proposition, dues rates were decreased for most members and exclusive membership benefits were added.
We are continuing to strengthen the value proposition and effectively market our benefits, which includes free access to the ABA’s outstanding and extensive CLE library, as well as opportunities to join the Law Practice Division and the Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division at no additional cost.
With everything that’s happening in our profession and around the globe, I urge everyone to join us in serving our members, our clients and our nation. The ABA is the largest voluntary association of lawyers in the world. We will continue our work to lead the legal profession and the justice system through the pandemic and beyond. We need everyone to do their part.