The ALPS In Brief Podcast

ALPS In Brief – Episode 34: An ABA President’s Hope for the Future

July 25, 2019

What is the American Bar Association (ABA) doing to ensure there is a national voice for, not just the legal profession, but for vulnerable people and communities that we serve, to make sure that the Constitution is protected? As his term comes to an end, current ABA President Bob Carlson sits down with ALPS Executive Vice President Chris Newbold to discuss the ABA’s work to move the needle on tough topics like lawyer wellbeing, natural disaster relief, immigration, diversity and inclusion, and the vision of global stewardship.



CHRIS NEWBOLD:             

Good afternoon. This is Chris Newbold, executive vice president of ALPS. Welcome to ALPS in Brief podcast. I'm actually here today in Missoula, Montana. It's July 19, 2019, and I have a very special guest here in our offices. Current ABA president in America, attorney Bob Carlson. Bob Carlson is a former past president of the state bar of Montana and is the second Montanan to ever hold the post of ABA President. Bob, thank you for joining us today.

BOB CARLSON:                      

Well Chris, thanks for having me. And just to tell your viewers, we just completed another successful ALPS leadership retreat here in Missoula, and had bar leaders and executive directors from around the country. It was inspirational as always, so thank you.


Yeah, obviously ALPS, in our malpractice insurance, one of the strong partnerships that we enjoy is our relationship with state bars and, and Bob was actually, back in his state bar is, was a major force in the creation of ALPS. And so we obviously appreciate his longtime support of ALPS. Bob, let's talk, I want to talk a little bit about ... Let's talk one year ago today, right? So you were on the cusp of going into the annual meeting in which you were going to be sworn in as president of the ABA, right? Talk to our listeners about just kind of what you were thinking about before you went into the post. Obviously, you went through a pretty long cycle of leadership positions in the ABA, but there's, there's probably nothing like kind of getting ready for the actual year itself. And so talk to us about your mindset, about what you were thinking about going into the year as ABA president.


Well, a few things. First of all, my predecessor, Hilarie Bass had started some programs that we wanted the association to continue. Going back a couple of years before that with Linda Klein and Paula Brown, they had started some programs that as an association, we wanted to continue. What we didn't want to do is just start something new, start a fresh initiative that was Bob Carlson's initiative. And I think that Hilarie had a similar mindset and we had worked well together and an issue that was very, very important to both of us was attorney wellness and wellbeing. We were bound and determined to continue to spread the message about the work that the association and state local bars were doing in that area. The second thing was to try to continue to spread the message about what the ABA and its young lawyers division does in the area of disaster relief and disaster resiliency.

In the last two years, we've had disasters, significant devastating disasters, whether it's hurricanes or tornadoes or wildfires or earthquakes from the US Virgin Islands to American Samoa. So literally one end of this country to the other, and we wanted to continue to focus on that. Immigration was a critical issue. The ABA has significant policy in this area to try to assist in making sure that, number one, the children that were removed from their families were reunited. We're still working on that. Number two, that unaccompanied minors got a fair hearing and got as much representation, whether direct representation or pro bono representation, that we could provide or at a minimum that they had been provided with some information about what their rights were and also to assist people seeking asylum. We continue to work on that even though the landscape seems to change on a regular basis.

And finally we were rolling out a new website and a new membership model. I come from a very small firm in a rural state and I wanted to make sure that we had Hilarie and Judy and some other, Judy Perry Martinez, my successor, and others speaking for the larger firms. Hillary's firm was 2000 lawyers. At the start of my year, we had five or six. We're now three due to a couple of moves out of state of a couple of associates. But wanted to really show to lawyers in small firms around the country that the ABA was relevant to them. And that was a great value in terms of making them a better practitioner, providing them the right tools they needed to assist their clients, and to make it more affordable and accessible. On the eve last, almost what is a 49 weeks ago today? That was the thought. Had a lot of momentum going into the year from things that my predecessors had done, and I think we've kept the momentum up and, and moved the ball forward on a lot of areas.


That's a really interesting thing to kind of note because I think in the governance model of the ABA, there has been a little bit, what's the president's initiative? Best practices in nonprofit governance would tell you that, you know, there's a strategic plan, right? And there's a vision of a board and the president is just the steward of the vision, right? As opposed to, and it seems like there's been a lot of progress with the last couple of leaders of the ABA in terms of executing a coherent, sustainable vision for the organization.


And that's been the goal. I grew up in the bar world in the state bar, Montana. When I first became a member of the board, we were just starting, this was back in the 80s, we were just starting our strategic planning process and when I became president we were five, six years into that process and the presidents were moving things forward. A strategic plan keeps getting evolved every year. You look at it every year. You've done retreats, the [inaudible 00:06:43] retreats for the state bar and others, that you know, what have you accomplished but needs more work? What new issues have arisen on the landscape? The legal profession is constantly evolving. Issues constantly evolve, so you have to figure out a way to meet that. Most of the state bars though don't have the turnover, complete turnover in leadership that the ABA does.

So you have a board at the ABA that rolls over completely, is a new board every three years We have a strategic plan now for the board that Hilarie pushed through. We have done some reorganization internally, but the mindset has to be at the top. The leaders at the top have to say, listen, we support the association moving forward. This is not about the individuals that are the presidents. This is about the association. This is about the profession. This is about the independence of the judiciary, and diversity and inclusion. What are we going to do to move those things forward? And the way you do it is you sort of have a relay. It's not a sprint. It's not, I'm going to do as much as I can in one year. It is confident in the knowledge that you keep moving the baton forward.

That I took it from Hilarie and I'm giving it to Judy and she's giving it to Patricia Refo from Arizona, and we're going to continue to move the association forward in a strategic way, and in an organized way. This gives you the flex. This allows you to meet the ongoing programs, to continue to expand and work on programs, but also meet the new things that happen in every presidency. Whether you're a state bar president or the president of the largest voluntary legal association in the world, every year there's going to be something that happens that you're going to have to react to on behalf of your members and on behalf of the profession.


So you have those expectations, right? There's continuity in the goals one year later. How do feel like things at one?


I actually feel really good. We have moved. We have made progress in a number of areas, and I think the association as a whole has strengthened. We did a lot of things last year to strengthen and we did a number of more to strengthen it, and we are positioned to really have a very strong national association for the future. I think for the listener that's critically important to the independence of the judiciary. It's critically important to due process and the rule of law that you have a national voice for, it's not just for the legal profession, it's for vulnerable people and communities that we serve to make sure that the message gets delivered, to make sure that the Constitution is protected. I feel like we really as an association have made a lot of progress, and one area that we've made significant progress in is the area of lawyer wellness and wellbeing.

Thanks a lot in no small part to your work and assistance as the co-chair of the ABA working group on lawyer wellbeing in the profession. I'm sure I've totally messed up the title but we have really created a movement. Primarily my job is taking in as many groups as possible about the issues concerning lawyer wellbeing and lawyer wellness, whether it's a state bar, or a local bar, or law schools, or meetings of managing partners, or to regional bar associations. Not only what the ABA is doing, but how we can partner with all the other stakeholders, including companies like ALPS, who write legal malpractice insurance and have been big supporters of the organized bar since ALPS inception. So I feel really good. We created a pledge we have for legal employers to talk about and think about lawyer wellness and wellbeing for their employees.

We've got 120 legal employers that have signed up both law schools, in-house counsel, some of the largest law firms in the country, and then a small firm like myself. So it's not just for big firms, and it's not a one size fits all. It's what can you do to make sure that the consciousness of the law firms and the employers are raised so that they are more aware of the issues that their employees are going through. So if somebody needs help, they know the resources they can get to, the toolkit on lawyer wellbeing with the 80 tips, a [inaudible 00:11:53] that you can download on your phone. I mean that's tremendous progress in an area where we needed something to say, listen, this is okay to talk about. It is okay to get help. It is imperative that you get help. And we're trying to make sure that publicly, every day, everywhere I've gone this year to every audience, those words come out of my mouth. If you need help, we have the resources to get you help. Because to be a good lawyer, you need to be a healthy lawyer.


Yeah. And how would you characterize the state of attorney wellbeing right now if you had to kind of step back and reflect a little bit? Because obviously, we have a long way to go. The numbers are not favorable, right? But education and discussion and as you say, the creation of a movement dedicated to the betterment of the profession is a noble direction for us to take.


It is, and we've made progress. I do think we've made progress. The conversations over the past year, I sort of lost track of the count, but I think I spoke in 17, 18, 19 law schools primarily on the topic of lawyer and law student wellbeing, urging law schools to think about it. And there's a number of law schools that are doing great things. There's number of law schools that within an hour after leaving the lunch with the students, they created a working group to discuss how they could do things in their law school, which included faculty, interested faculty members and deans. So I think we've kept this as sort of a fear thing for so long. People were afraid that if they identified as having a problem, whether it's a mental disease problem, anxiety, depression, bipolar, whatever, or if it's a substance issue, they felt that if they sought help that they'd have to report themselves and that they would be stigmatized, and they would be penalized for that either in their admission to the law school or their admission to the bar.

So we increased the bandwidth of the stakeholders where we have regular discussions with the conference of chief justices. So the 50 chief justices from every state who can basically oversee the practice of law and the admission to law and to practice in their states. We've had discussions in law schools. We've had discussions with managing partners of big firms, medium firms, and small firms. There was a national summit where educators, lawyers, legal malpractice insurance companies got together to talk about how to move this message forward. I'd say the most important thing we've done is we talked about it every day, and I think that's made a big difference. There's a lot of things, there's a lot of positive things that the legal profession is doing today. A lot of, whether it's volunteering a for pro-Bono in disaster relief areas, whether it's volunteering to assist people seeking asylum at the border or in their communities, whether it's volunteering to help people with their veterans benefits, or the elderly. Whether it's lobbying for legal services, adequate funding and the Legal Services Corporation or the public service loan forgiveness program.

All things that the profession is doing, the great things. Those things provide you satisfaction as lawyers. Helping somebody pro bono, for free, provides satisfaction. So we're trying to provide as many opportunities to younger lawyers to do that, as well as more seasoned lawyers like myself. At the same time, it's sort of an individual decision about how you want your life as a legal practitioner to unfold. Do you want to be a professor? Do you want to work in government? Do you want to be in a big firm or small firm? When I taught in law school, since I come from a small firm, and Hilarie comes from a very large firm before me, and Judy comes from a medium-sized firm, I make that analysis. Here's the world's largest legal association. Here's three totally separate, 2000 lawyer firm from Miami, three to five lawyer firm at the time I started from Butte Montana, a few hundred lawyers from New Orleans, Louisiana.

That's pretty diverse in terms of practice areas, in terms of scope. You lay that out to people saying these are things that you can do. You can choose to practice where you want, and you need to make part of that decision to make yourself feel like you're giving back.


In many respects, you know, the attorney wellbeing is a one attorney at a time progression. Right? And the more that we're raising the visibility of the issue, willing to have meaningful conversations, be vulnerable at times. Right? And be able to look out for one another. It's amazing how much impact you can have, one lawyer can have, on the people around them.


Yeah. And I think for a long time, people were either embarrassed or didn't want to interfere. But if you look at it in terms of if you saw somebody that was stepping out in front of a bus, you know, you'd reach out and grab the person.

And people that are suffering from either addiction or anxiety, depression, other mental diseases, that's that equipment. And do you have to at least say something, be willing to raise the issue, not to embarrass them, not to demean them, to treat it as a part of society. These things are in society. Unfortunately, the legal profession has way higher averages of people suffering from these issues than the average population and way more than the other professions. And so we need to be able to speak up. And I think part of it historically was, oh, that was a sign of honor to, I could party hard and then still get up and go to work and be a great a lawyer or I, you know, I feel bad so I'm not going to go help because that would make me seem weak. So I'm going to, you know, ignore it for self-medicate, which compounds the problem. And the more you can normalize this, or de-stigmatize it, the more you can say, this is part of life. We're here to help you. You need to get help and we are not going to judge you when you do it.


Yeah. And one of the things that also I think is interesting is that you know, there seems to be more willingness as a society for us to talk about these issues, right? I mean, you, you hear top 40 songs talking about suicide hotlineS, and you see a lot more stars coming out and being more vulnerable about things that are affecting them. And then you have generational change. Right? And so talk about what you see in terms of just, you know, you spent a lot of time in law schools. I mean, I think the generational shift in terms of the millennials are soon going to be, you know, the majority of lawyers out there. Right? And what that means in terms of the awareness of worK-life balance, professional satisfaction and willingness to talk about these issues more openly and honestly.


Yeah, I think the trend is, I think we're seeing some positive results in the more experienced, the baby boomer generation, getting help and being willing to talk about it. But I really do see a great hope for the profession with our younger lawyers and with the law students coming out because they are more willing to seek help. They're more willing to seek fulfillment in both their day jobs, whatever they are, but also volunteering on issues of importance to them. And as an association, we're trying to provide as many opportunities for them as possible so they can volunteer their time and talents to the communities where they live. And I think that is going to pay dividends in terms of their self-fulfillment, their enjoyment of their job. I've practiced law now for, I graduated 40 years ago, and there's been some tough times. The practice of law is difficult, but I've always enjoyed doing this.

I've always enjoyed being a lawyer, helping clients. But I think part of what's given me the fulfillment in this is this. I mean I've been active in the state and national bar, you know, since the early eighties, so not too long after I got a law school. And that sense of giving back to the profession, that sense of being around talented lawyers from all over the country, and having that experience has really been fulfilling in not only my life but my family's life. My wife and I have great friends all over the country, that but for doing this volunteer work, we would've never met these people. And I think that part of the thing is to, and I come from a small firm, we've always been a small firm and we've always been committed to giving back to both the bar and the community.

But that sense of fulfillment is something that if we can convince more lawyers starting in law school and more young lawyers to participate in that, to take that time and provide more opportunities. You don't have to do this. I mean being the president of this association has been great, but you know, not everybody's going to do this. I do know that in every classroom, every group of young lawyers that I talk to, I say the same thing. There is somebody in this room that in the next 20 years is going to be standing up giving this set of remarks to the next generation of lawyers. Because I do believe that. I believe that you have to be open to the possibilities that one thing you do, one day, one volunteer effort somewhere, you have to be open to the possibility that that is not only going to change the person's life that you're helping, that it's going to change your life. And I think our generation has done a pretty good job. But this next generation I think is ready, willing and able to step up to the plate. And I have great confidence. Is it perfect yet? No, but are we making progress? Did we move the needle this year in a number of areas as an association of profession? Absolutely yes.


That's great. That's great. Tell me how has your small firm perspective been important in your leadership perspective? Not that it's unusual that a small firm lawyer becomes president of the ABA. But when you look at the numbers, right? 49% of, you know, the ABA statistics, 49% of lawyers in private practice are solo practitioners. Right? And then the next, you know, 24, 26% are in firms of two to five. Right? So it's fairly unusual to find somebody who has the capacity, the commitment to step forward and bring that perspective from a leadership perspective. And so I'm wondering how you reflect now about how that perspective has been part of your leadership journey.


Well, I certainly think it's helped. It's helped keep me grounded. I've never taken myself too seriously, although I tried to learn something every day and lay awake at night thinking could I have done this better or differently. But I think that being from a smaller firm, when you're out talking to groups of lawyers, most of them are going to be in that category. And I know what they're going through. I mean, I know the day to day ups and downs, and joys and sort of a downside of being in a small firm and being part of the fabric of a community. And being from a rural state, that sort of amplifies that. Because lawyers volunteer everywhere, but if you're in a big city that shouldn't, but it sort of gets lost in the whole, there's a lot of people doing a lot of things.

If you're in a small town or from a rural state, you see lawyers on every board. You see lawyers coaching soccer and baseball and refereeing and they're part of the fabric, the literal fabrics of their communities. And to be from that background, I think gives you a better voice when you're talking to those folks. I think the association as a whole and the leaders have always done a great job trying to assist solo and small firm lawyers be better lawyers. We've got great tools for that. We've worked hard over the last several years to expand that. And maybe it was in part because of comments or suggestions that I brought to the table being from that perspective. And so I think that it allows you to walk up and say, listen, I get it.

Now the larger firm lawyers who have been president, they're empathetic. They do get it. They want to help everybody there. Their job, you're leading this association, you want to help all the members and you want to increase membership. You want to gain more people so you can help more people help more clients. And so they get it. But it's like when I walk into the room with 50 managing partners of these major law firms, I get it because I've been in those discussions, some of them I've known for a long time, but I don't know what it is they're going through managing 59 offices in 30 countries or whatever it is. I mean I empathize but they're like looking at me like what do you know? And I think that now there's a face because there's been this misperception that the ABA is only for big law firms and coastal law firms. And that's just not true. A vast number of our members are from solo and small firms and, but now they know that you can lead this. Now they know that number one, leadership is for everybody. It's very diverse across all categories. And they know that there's somebody here that they could pick up the phone and say, I'm having this issue, what programs are the ABA running or do you have to help me? And they know that I know what I'm talking about when I'm talking to them.

It's just a matter of expanding the bandwidth and pushing the envelope that we have all sorts of people who've risen to the top and leadership of this association. This association is a big tent and it is for everybody, no matter where you come from, no matter what your practice, no matter what your firm size, no matter what your gender, race, social or sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion, whatever. This association is for them. We have done I think a better job over the last several years of moving that message, in part because of who we've selected to be the president of this association.


Well, you sit now in the home stretch of your tenure as president, just a few short weeks you'll be handing off the baton. Have you had any time to reflect on the year? You've, you've been go, go, go, go, go. I'm just curious about the personal side of this type of service, commitment to the profession. I'm sure you'll have a decompression time at some point here in the near future. But you've been in enough airplanes where you probably get some time to think as well.


Yeah. I've been trying to take it one hour at a time, literally. Get to the next commitment, be in the moment for the people that I'm speaking to or having conversations with at the time, and then keep moving. I've done some reflection on the plains, but a lot of it is how can I do a better job and the time that's remaining in this term to deliver the message better. Trying to learn from every set of remarks, how could I make more of an impact on the audience?

How can I make this work? How can we make a broader impact on other issues facing the profession and the judiciary in the United States and frankly the world? So what can you do to move that forward? And I've been very fortunate. My very small law firm has supported me. I have still practiced law this year, not as much as maybe I would have liked to help my partner out and help the law firm out in our clients, but I've done some, which is a little unusual for an ABA president. And I think I've had great support from my wife Cindy. Because we have two dogs who miss us and we miss them. We haven't traveled a lot together and plus this job is sort of like being on a rock band tour without the band.

You're sometimes in multiple cities in a handful of days and she prefers to go to a location to sort of be there for a few days, three or four days at a time. And there's times when you're in a city for two hours. So it's been a little difficult at times. But she's been great. But we've been in this for the whole run. We're going to be 34 years of marriage, but we dated before that. So she's my entire career or bar service, my entire career at my law firm, which I started in 1981, she's been in the picture. And she's got a lot of friends in the state bars, and in the national bar, and people that she's met around the world. This has been a fabulous experience.

I'll sit back and reflect later, but we still have three weeks give or take to go and there's still more stuff to do. We're still trying to every day look at things and say, how can we do good today and continue to move the association forward?


Well thank you Bob, obviously for your service. I think anybody who ultimately serves in a service capacity, in a leadership role, I think our ultimate goals that leave the organization better than we found it. Right? And I think that if that's the benchmark versus success, I think you should certainly be proud of what you've been able to achieve in your year as ABA President. And again, there's a lot of people around you. There's an incredible ABA staff, right? This is an organization that's committed to betterment. And you know, while you're the steward of the vision at this point, I know it's got to be fulfilling for you to begin to think about the fact that you've ideally move the needle forward and you're going to leave at a stronger organization than you found it.


Yeah, you sort of stole my last set of comments. But yeah, we do have a great, not only a great staff, they're tremendous and they provide a great deal of support. But we have a tremendous number of volunteer members, volunteer lawyer leaders around the country that participate like yourself, on working groups, committees, task force commissions, the sections that provide the substantive practice. We have such a great wealth of talent in this association. We are definitely moving the needle in a number of areas. Do we have more work to do? Yes, but we will continue to do that. We'll continue to speak out where it's necessary in defense of, not only the profession, not only the judiciary, but in defense of due process and rule of law, both in this country and around the world.

That's what the association has been doing. I am fortunate enough to be the 142nd president. We've been doing this for 142 years, three years, and we're going to keep doing it. So thanks for your time. I appreciate all that you've done and all that ALPS has done as a company to support the organized bar.


Bob, it's been fun. I appreciate you taking a couple of minutes on a late Friday afternoon at the conclusion of our ALPS bar leaders retreat. Again, Bob's been a great friend of mine and our organization. We thank him for his service and leadership of this great profession. So thank you Bob.


Thank you. Appreciate it.


That will conclude our ALPS in Brief a podcast. If you have any thoughts or suggestions, please let us know for future topics, and that's it. Have a great weekend. Thanks.