Midyear Meeting

ABA President Mary Smith urges members to protect democracy and help the next generation 'meet the moment'

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ABA President Mary Smith warned the House of Delegates that we are "living in a time where our very democracy is in peril." (Photos 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 on Monday at the 2024 midyear meeting in Louisville, Kentucky, Smith harked back to the founding of the ABA and how it met the moment in 1878 when technology meant a printing press.

“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.

The ABA needs to “stay ahead of the trends affecting the profession,” Smith told the House. Smith cited artificial intelligence technology, remote work and the mental health needs of young lawyers as challenging but important trends within the legal profession.

Generation Z is the most ethnically diverse generation in American history, Smith said. Generation Z, which is just entering the legal profession, grew up with technology, the internet and social media, and the ABA needs to adapt to meet their needs and the ways that they communicate.

Follow along with the ABA Journal’s coverage of the 2024 ABA Midyear Meeting here.

The ABA is in the unique position to help new lawyers become better lawyers, Smith said.

“Are we doing that effectively?” she asked. “Are we meeting them where we are?”

Smith said that the ABA should be “helping young lawyers navigate the practice of law,” and recognize that we are “living in a time where our very democracy is in peril.”

The ABA has the ability to mobilize lawyers and urged members to go back to their states and stand up for secure elections and the rule of law, she told the House.

The association needs to “meet the moment” by dedicating “ourselves to be the defenders of democracy,” said Smith.

Future leaders

Michelle BehnkeMichelle A. Behnke served as ABA treasurer from 2017-2020.

In the afternoon session, 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. Behnke said she is committed to developing and implementing a “robust strategic plan” for the association.

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. “We’re lawyers. We are used to doing hard things.”

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.

In a news release announcing her nomination, the ABA notes that Behnke “primarily practices in the areas of business mergers and acquisitions and real estate and estate planning” and “has dealt with issues of cross-border asset acquisition, real estate refinancing with insurance companies and annexation of property into city limits.”

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 Young Lawyers Division.

Updated at 3:56 p.m. to add the ABA Nominating Committee’s selections and Michelle A. Behnke’s remarks.

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