July 2010 President's Column
Can We Master the Art of Listening?
By A. Todd Brown
The 98th Annual Meeting of the 26th Judicial District, Mecklenburg County Bar on May 20 has come and gone. The weather was perfect, Bubba's barbecue was tasty and member turnout was slightly above average. Pat Kelly welcomed all those in attendance and reviewed some of the highlights from his year as Bar President - a very successful year marked by his bold leadership and outstanding service to the MCB. As presaged, the proposed membership dues increase became the focal point of an otherwise great program. Our Bar treasurer read aloud the Board of Directors' Resolution (download the pdf) supporting a $75 dues increase and moved for approval. Then, with the advocacy lawyers would expect, opponents and proponents of the motion zealously made their case. The Bar voted for the dues increase - the first in a decade. The tally was 207 for and 158 against. The motion carried, history was made and the practice of law resumed. Or so we thought.
The vote that day brought into sharper focus a growing divide between the public and private sectors of our Bar. After the vote, we recognized the outstanding societal contributions of many of our members through the annual Pro Bono Awards. State Bar President Bonnie Weyher came from Raleigh and presented the North Carolina Distinguished Service Award to our own S. Luke Largess for his exemplary service to the profession. Not many members were present for that; many left right after the vote. As the incoming President, I delivered a few remarks on the Bars mission to serve its members, a newly approved strategic plan and goals for the future. Not many people heard that either. But as many have heard me say, it's not about me, it's about the MCB. The larger question was: had we simply stopped listening as colleagues?
Misassumptions occurred on May 20. I am informed that a fellow Bar member repeated a story from the Annual Meeting that went something like this, I had no idea the starting salaries for public interest attorneys were so low. I was ready to ask my firm to help offset the cost of the dues increase for this group until they walked out of the meeting in a huff. Several members nearby heard this comment and assumed that public interest lawyers had stormed out because the dues increase passed. Then, a Bar member who had voted for the increase said, I think they just had to get back to court and that's why they left. But by then, most of the members had departed and didn't hear the more likely explanation: The post-vote exodus of a large group of our fellow members was not a staged walk out, but rather due to the fact that court was starting back. After all, the vote tally concluded closer to 1:30 p.m. and court usually resumes about that time. How many of us who stayed for the entire meeting appreciated this fact?
Healthy and constructive debate among our membership over our Bar's future always has been and should be welcomed. It avoids complacency. It drives improvement. It serves to remind Bar leadership and staff that we must advance the MCB's unwavering mission of service to all members of the Bar, as well as the public, in improving and preserving the administration of justice. Still, passage of the Board's carefully considered and recommended dues increase is bittersweet, for divisiveness within the MCB over any issue is undesirable.
A recent 2009 ABA study found that solos, judges, government lawyers and legal services lawyers are less willing to pay membership dues than other lawyers within the same dues class. Some may argue that this study is evidence that our Bar is already fragmented. Some of our members have questioned the relevancy of the Bar, the procedural fairness of the dues vote process, the size of the dues increase, the potential size of the future Bar Center. These are legitimate inquiries. Each can be addressed -- objectively, factually, and satisfactorily -- if the propounder is willing to listen.
When we can hear each other without preconception or raw emotion, perhaps then we will be more responsive to each other as colleagues. For the Bar to endure, we must work together in a collaborative and constructive manner, with a goal toward understanding and hearing -- really hearing -- each other. Lawyers understand that some days we win, some days we lose. But if we fail to listen to each other as colleagues and refuse to come together in service of our shared allegiances and our common obligations to the profession, we all lose. MCB leadership intends to help create a win-win scenario, and we have already started the process of bridging the apparent divide.
A few days after the Annual Meeting, a small group of Bar leaders met with Chief Public Defender Kevin Tully to ask what can be done to start the healing process. We discussed tangible ways the Bar and his office can collaborate going forward, such as supporting the NC Legal Education Assistance Fund, forming strategic partnerships among large firm and public interest attorneys, and, in the fullness of time, perhaps meeting face to face with the most vocal dues increase opponents. We addressed broadening the good work of the Bar's Ad Hoc Committee of Public Interest Lawyers. The discourse was thoughtful and principled. A similar meeting is being scheduled with Chief District Attorney Peter Gilchrist. My goal is for these meetings to produce more targeted and enhanced services to certain segments of our Bar to narrow the gulf.
A Bar that endures, a strong rule of law, a judiciary that is independent and a profession that inspires are all critical. But in this time of unprecedented challenges to our practices and the Great Recession, Bar leaders must find efficient and effective ways to deliver the benefits members want most: quality services, networking opportunities, legal education discounts, access to substantive legal information and tools to improve their skills, better manage their practices and serve their clients. And we must do so for all segments of our membership. This will be a key message as the year progresses&and I will be asking for your help in fulfilling it.
The MCB is here to stay. In just two years we will celebrate our 100 year anniversary as a testament to that fact. Can we spend some quality time before the celebration collaborating on ways we can better support each other's practices? Can we build strategic partnerships so the Bar can become more relevant to us all? Can we focus this year getting to know and appreciate each other better, addressing legitimate concerns with civility, and mastering the art of listening -- really listening?
"The greatest compliment that was ever paid me was when someone asked me what I thought, and attended to my answer." -- Henry David Thoreau