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FBI director to headline new session at ABA annual meeting

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In Boston in 2014, the ABA launched the first part of its three-year plan to improve the annual meeting experience for attendees. In Chicago last year, the association refined its experiment, discarding a la carte event pricing and other changes that didn’t work.

This year, in San Francisco, the plan will culminate with the 2016 ABA Annual Meeting. The ABA has made only minimal changes this time around—but one is the high-profile ABA Plenary Session with keynote speaker James Comey, director of the FBI.

Expected attendance for the meeting, being held Aug. 4-9 at San Francisco’s Moscone Center and multiple surrounding hotels, is between 6,000 and 7,000. Once again, the theme is “Greatness in Every Direction.”

Less is More

One tweak to the 2016 annual meeting schedule is a reduction in the number of CLE showcase programs. Andre Burke, associate director of ABA Meetings and Travel, says association members enjoyed last year’s programs—but with 20 programs, there were so many that attendees often didn’t get to everything they wanted to. As a result, the Annual Meeting Program Planning Committee has trimmed down to nine CLE showcase programs.

Those programs are packed with discussions of many hot-button topics of the moment, including surveillance technology; the U.S. Supreme Court and the presidential election; immigration; diversity and inclusion; medical marijuana; and sexual assault on college campuses. One highlight will be Saturday morning’s “Fortune 500 General Counsel Share the 3 C’s of Diversity and Inclusion: Commitment, Candor and Collaboration.” The topic is a priority issue for outgoing ABA President Paulette Brown, and the panel will be moderated by former ABA President Dennis W. Archer, who later in the meeting will receive the association’s highest honor, the ABA Medal. Brown’s term will end at the close of the meeting.

More high-profile speakers are on the slate for “On the Docket: The 2015-16 U.S. Supreme Court Term.” The panel will be moderated by New York Times Supreme Court correspondent Adam Liptak. Panelists will include former Acting Solicitor General Neal Katyal and Nicole Austin-Hillery of the Brennan Center for Justice. It will take place Friday, Aug. 5.

Attendees can also choose from a wealth of events staged by various ABA entities. One likely standout is the Section of Litigation’s “Thou Poisonous Bunch-Back’d Toad: Ethics of Insults Throughout the Centuries,” to be held the morning of Friday, Aug. 5. The session will include two live actors performing insults from Shakespeare and other playwrights, as well as insults from modern entertainment.

Gregory Hanthorn, the panel’s moderator and a past co-chair of the Section of Litigation’s Ethics and Professionalism Committee, says he proposed the panel after he noticed an increase in ethics cases involving judges, lawyers and witnesses insulting one another.

“Sometimes, looking back 500 or 600 years helps us to see what’s going on today,” says Hanthorn, of counsel in the Atlanta office of Jones Day.

A carryover from 2015 is the meeting’s price structure, which offers tiered admission packages rather than the a la carte pricing from 2014. Attendees can choose restricted registration ($50 for ABA members and $250 for nonmembers), which permits access only to section meetings, the General Assembly and the ABA Expo at the Moscone Center; standard registration ($195/$395), which adds the new ABA Plenary Session, the President’s Reception and the Expo reception; and all-access registration ($495/$695), which also grants admission to more than 80 CLE events.

As before, the standard, meetingwide events are scheduled for earlier—the bulk of them will take place Friday and Saturday, Aug. 5 and 6—to avoid conflicts with ABA and section governance sessions.

One such event is the brand-new ABA Plenary Session, to be held Friday afternoon at the Moscone Center. Comey will speak about the security challenges created by privacy software, an issue that came to a head earlier this year in the FBI’s investigation of the shooting in San Bernardino, California. Investigators were unable to unlock a shooter’s iPhone, so the Justice Department asked a judge to compel Apple to develop software giving the FBI access to the phone. Apple refused, but a courtroom showdown was averted when the FBI found another way to access the phone’s information.

Another meetingwide event is “The Law as a Platform for Writing,” a panel of authors of legal books, scheduled for Saturday morning at the ABA Expo. Authors appearing include professor Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University, author of multiple books on Thomas Jefferson; nonfiction writer and practicing Dallas attorney Talmage Boston; and novelists/former attorneys Phillip Margolin and Corban Addison.

Saturday afternoon will see the ABA General Assembly, followed at 6 p.m. by the President’s Reception at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, recently renovated by the architectural firm Snøhetta. The event offers cocktails, dancing and networking, as well as access to the museum’s collection and grounds.

This year marks the annual meeting’s return to San Francisco after a three-year hiatus—a pattern that planners have adhered to since 2007. But meeting-goers can expect a big change to that pattern in the future. In June, the ABA’s Board of Governors approved a request from the Standing Committee on Meetings and Travel to hold future annuals in Chicago every other year from 2020 to 2024. Because the 2018 annual meeting is already scheduled for Chicago, ABA meeting attendees can expect to see more of the Windy City in the future.


This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of the ABA Journal with this headline: “Third Time’s the Charm: FBI director to headline new session at the annual meeting."

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