Bill Bay, the ABA's president-elect nominee, hopes to attract new lawyers to the association
When considering the future of the ABA, Bill Bay says its greatest imperative is to welcome lawyers home to a place that is familiar and comfortable.
Bay believes this is especially necessary now, amid rapid shifts in the legal profession and as scores of new lawyers, young lawyers and other lawyers commit their time and talents elsewhere because they don’t think their interests align with those of members of the association.
“They don’t see the profession and the association the way we see it, and we’re not going to convince them by repeatedly saying they must join,” Bay says. “But if we want to continue to be the voice of the profession, we have to be the home of the profession. And if we’re going to be the home where every member feels welcome, we’re going to have to adapt and change.”
Bay, a partner at Thompson Coburn in St. Louis, was selected as the ABA’s next president-elect nominee by the House of Delegates Nominating Committee at the ABA Midyear Meeting in February. He will face an uncontested vote by the full House at the ABA Annual Meeting in Denver in August.
Mary Smith is the current president-elect and will begin her one-year term as president at the close of the annual meeting. Smith would pass the gavel to Bay after the 2024 ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.
While Bay intends to focus on helping the ABA better meet the needs of the legal profession, he adds that changes should not compromise the mission and goals of the association. They can, however, promote the evolution of its methods, structures and even traditions.
“In thinking about broad principles, it’s to simplify and transform [the ABA] to meet the needs of new generations, rethink some of the things we’re doing or how we do them, listen and understand the myriad of member interests and then share resources to facilitate member connections,” Bay says.
Joining the practice
Bay grew up in St. Louis and decided to go to law school when he was an upperclassman at the University of Missouri.
Shortly after graduating from the University of Michigan Law School, he returned to his hometown and joined Thompson Coburn. He thought he might be a transactional lawyer but began focusing on maritime litigation and then financial services litigation. In the past decade, he has handled more education litigation.
In addition to changes in his practice, Bay has also seen significant changes in his firm over the years.
“I was the 50th lawyer hired in one St. Louis office, and now we are nearly 500 lawyers with offices in New York, Chicago, Dallas, LA and D.C.,” he says. “I think it’s fair to say I would never have imagined that when I started. … And honestly, I would have never anticipated doing any of these things when I graduated law school. But life happens, and you run with it.”
During his career, Bay has truly enjoyed spending each day with his clients and colleagues and helping them deal with difficult issues. And, he adds, once he retires, it will be these people, and not the cases or awards he won, that he will most remember.
“The law is a relationship business, and making connections that develop into relationships is one of the great rewards of practicing,” he says. “It’s also one of the great rewards of being at the ABA.”
Bay admits he was “a very reluctant convert” to the ABA. He thought he was too busy practicing and spending time with his wife, Angie, and their three kids to take on other responsibilities. But his father, who had served as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, kept encouraging him to join a national professional organization that set standards and led on issues of importance to its members.
Bay, who was active in the Young Lawyers Division of the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis in the 1980s, eventually attended an ABA Young Lawyers Division meeting—and was impressed. Not only did he get a glimpse into the difference young lawyers made around the country, but he also discovered YLD leaders were open to new ideas and promoted collaboration among their members.
“That early experience was so critical because much of what I learned at the Young Lawyers Division shaped who I am and how I approach the work in our association,” Bay says.
Advocate for change
In many of Bay’s experiences with the ABA, he sought ways to implement positive changes.
From 2006 to 2009, he served as a member and then as chair (2009-2012) of the Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, which co-hosts the ABA Bar Leadership Institute. Bay calls the annual event one of the ABA’s most important functions, as its leaders meet with new leaders of state, local and affiliate bar associations to discuss their work and developments in the legal profession.
The following year, Bay served as chair of the Section of Litigation, where he and his colleagues executed “a very member-focused strategy” to bring in new members and leaders. They expanded their reach by hosting meetings in new cities, developed different ways of sharing information and made decisions based on data, he says.
“We tried to focus on changes that could be done in a short time and would have impact,” Bay says. “The leadership meetings and the section annual meeting were some of the largest ones ever done, and that’s because we listened to people. You actually learn a lot from sitting next to new people in the back row about what’s working and what needs to be done.”
Bay took a similar approach to the Coordinating Group on Practice Forward, which he co-chaired with Laura Farber from 2020 to 2022. They worked with lawyers to identify challenges and opportunities facing the legal profession and justice system because of COVID-19. They also asked what lawyers needed as they prepared to move out of the pandemic.
“We started with listening to what people outside leadership wanted,” says Bay, who among other roles in the ABA served as chair of the House of Delegates. “We went back to that ‘back row’ concept and asked what they wanted instead of deciding what we thought they might want.”
Bay believes all this work has prepared him to lead the ABA, which he reiterates is facing “a critical time.” While all bar associations have a vital role to play in their communities, he says the ABA’s role is more important than ever for one simple reason.
“The world gets smaller every day,” he says. “When I first started practicing, I traveled to federal and state courts within 10 miles of my office. Now I travel and practice in many places, as do the vast majority of lawyers.
“Change in practice requires a more robust and active national voice, and that’s the American Bar Association.”
This story was originally published in the June-July 2023 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “‘A Relationship Business’: Bill Bay, the ABA’s president-elect nominee, hopes to attract new lawyers to the association.”