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The Right Equation

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The ABA House of Delegates will consider proposals this summer regarding the association’s governance structure.

It’s too early to say whether the process will simply tweak the structure that already exists or create further-reaching changes.

But the issues are likely to come into sharper focus when the ABA holds its midyear meeting Feb. 9-15 in Salt Lake City.

The ABA Governance Commission plans to distribute a first draft of recommendations before the midyear meeting, says commission chair William H. Neukom of Seattle. The commission will hold a public hearing on the draft proposals in Salt Lake City. “We think we’re in a position where we have something that will be useful for discussion,” says Neukom.

The feedback is likely to be extensive, especially since two of the key groups involved in ABA governance–the state bar associations, and the sections and divisions–have begun to carve out positions on governance issues that are likely to reflect conflicting priorities. So far, they and other key players, such as entities representing the interests of women and minorities, have expressed agreement with Neukom’s assertion that the process must seek to achieve “what is in the best interest of the association as the representative of the legal profession in the United States.”

They also say the kind of contentious debate that took place in 1995, when the ABA’s governance structure last underwent revisions, should be avoided.

At that time, the sections made a concerted push to gain more representation in the policy-making House; on the Board of Governors, which directs ongoing association operations; and on the Nominating Committee, which selects candidates for the ABA presidency and other officer positions. Those efforts largely failed because the sections were unable to muster enough support to gain the two-thirds-vote majorities needed in the House to amend the ABA Constitution, which sets forth the association’s governance structure.

“This us-them thing that sprung up 10 years ago strikes me as unsupportable,” Neukom says.

Opening Dialogue

Harvey P. Levin, who chairs a committee drafting a governance position paper for the Section Officers Conference, expresses agreement with Neukom’s view. “We cannot have the divisive fight we had,” says Levin of Dallas. “We will need a spirit of cooperation. We really must sit down. We must. It’s an imperative. We will open a dialogue with everyone and listen as much as we speak.”

But Levin says finding what he terms “symbiosis” in the process must involve recognition that “governance of the ABA affects the sections much more than it affects the states” in such areas as finances, general operations and project priorities. Most ABA members belong to at least one section, division or forum committee (a hybrid entity that conducts educational programs on a specific topic), says Levin, and they have the highest membership retention rate. Section members also are the source of more than half the ABA’s dues income, he says.

L. Jonathan Ross, the immediate-past chairman of the National Caucus of State Bar Associations, shares Levin’s commitment to cooperation, but he questions whether giving the sections a stronger role in ABA governance is necessary. He maintains that the sections are seeking more influence over association decision-making, while they generally segregate their own finances from the larger ABA budget process. But Ross of Manchester, N.H., adds, “People of good faith can always find room to compromise.”

While the commission’s recommendations still are evolving, Neukom says it is inclined toward finding some middle ground. “We hope for a general consensus that fairly modest enhancement will be considered in the best interest of the association and its constituents.”

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