ABA Midyear Meeting

Meeting the Moment: ABA leaders call for lawyers to respond to current challenges and look to the future

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ABA President Mary Smith

ABA President Mary Smith addresses the House of Delegates at the 2024 Midyear Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. Photo by Mitch Higgins/ABA Media Relations.

ABA President Mary Smith is urging members to “meet the moment” by helping the next generation of lawyers, protecting democracy and addressing how technology will change the practice of law.

Speaking to the House of Delegates at the 2024 midyear meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, Smith harked back to the founding of the American Bar Association in 1878 and its first meeting in Sarasota Springs, New York.

“We have come a long way since our founding,” said Smith, acknowledging that the legal profession today would be unrecognizable to the ABA’s founders at a time when “the cutting edge of technology enabling the practice was a printing press.”

“While we plan for the association’s future, we need to stay ahead of the trends affecting the profession,” Smith told the House. She cited artificial intelligence technology, remote work and the mental health needs of young lawyers as challenging but important trends within the legal profession.

“We have to do this, not only for the lawyers who actively participate in the ABA, but especially, especially, for the vast majority who never attend meetings but who will still benefit from what the ABA offers,” she told the House.

Smith emphasized the need to consider the lawyers just entering the profession. Generation Z grew up with technology, the internet and social media, and the ABA is in the unique position to help these new lawyers become better lawyers.

“Are we doing that effectively?” she asked. “Just as that group of lawyers who founded the ABA communicated in 1878 by meeting in person, we need to meet the next generation where they are.”

The ABA has the ability to mobilize lawyers and urge members to go back to their states and stand up for secure elections and the rule of law, she told the House. She touted the work of the Task Force for American Democracy.

“I urge you to meet the moment of helping the next generation,” Smith said in closing. “Meet the moment of securing the future of the American Bar Association. Meet the moment to uphold the rule of law. Meet the moment to be protectors of democracy.”

Future leaders

Also at the midyear meeting, the ABA Nominating Committee announced its selections for future leadership positions. Michelle A. Behnke, who ran unopposed, has been named the ABA president-elect nominee. In her acceptance speech, Behnke said she is committed to developing and implementing a “robust strategic plan” for the association.

“We all want an association that leads on important issues like the changing nature of the practice of law; diversity, equity and inclusion in our legal profession; and maintaining an independent judiciary that is neither beholden to nor fearful of the other two branches of government,” Behnke said.

Behnke, who served a three-year term as ABA treasurer and has also served as chair of the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, said that the ABA must find “new ways to ensure diversity, inclusion, fairness and opportunity.”

The work “will not be easy,” said Behnke, who is principal of Michelle Behnke & Associates in Madison, Wisconsin, and focuses her practice on business mergers, estate planning and real estate and property law. But “we’re lawyers—we’re used to doing hard things.”

Behnke mentioned that as a sole practitioner, she hopes to reach out to solos and small firms to stress the benefits the ABA can provide.

“I’ve heard from some of them. They think that the ABA is just for big-firm lawyers and people doing cutting-edge litigation. But I experienced firsthand the resources that this association provides, and I want to make sure that I’m communicating that to them.”

Behnke’s nomination will come before the House at the 2024 ABA Annual Meeting in August. She would succeed the current president-elect, William R. Bay, whose term as ABA president will begin at the close of this year’s annual meeting, and her time in office would be for the 2025-2026 term.

Among other selections by the nominating committee, Jonathan Cole was chosen to be chair of the House of Delegates for the 2024-2026 term. Cole, a shareholder of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell & Berkowitz in Nashville, Tennessee, has been chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services and the Young Lawyers Division.

This story was originally published in the April-May 2024 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Meeting the Moment: ABA leaders call for lawyers to respond to current challenges and look to the future.”

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