President's Message

Posted by: F. Williamson on Jul 1, 2016

On the Vision Thing

by F. Lane Williamson

I was told that my first column as president of the Mecklenburg County Bar should outline my vision for the coming year. The problem is that I don’t really have much of one.
I appreciate the opportunity to serve as president, but understand that it is not by virtue of a great groundswell of popular support. I acknowledge that our election process is only slightly more democratic than the recent Workers Party Congress that affirmed Kim Jung Un as the leader of North Korea. 
I am not by nature an extrovert and a joiner. I generally follow Groucho Marx’s dictum that, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”
I am, however, a member of the Mecklenburg County Bar. Why? Well, the short answer is because I have to. The somewhat longer answer is that, almost unique among the local district bars in North Carolina, we are both a mandatory bar to which you must belong and a bar that in many respects functions as a voluntary bar association. This contrasts with, for example Wake County, which has both a mandatory and a voluntary bar association. 
This has consequences. One is that dues are relatively high for the Mecklenburg County Bar and that you must pay them or risk having your license administratively suspended by the North Carolina State Bar. That is a source of many complaints and real difficulty for younger attorneys and those who practice in the public sector.
Another is that, like it or not, the Mecklenburg County Bar is a division of the North Carolina State Bar and by extension is an agency of the State of North Carolina. That circumscribes what we can and cannot do and restrains us in a way that voluntary bar associations like the North Carolina Bar Association are not. For example, we cannot advocate positions on political issues or spend dues money on activities that do not have some sort of legal nexus.
While those consequences might be considered to be negative, there are positive consequences as well. The Mecklenburg County Bar has the resources both in people and finances to do what we do really well. That includes, among other things, our Continuing Legal Education programs, the Young Lawyers Division, our active Sections, various networking and pro bono opportunities and the traditional regulatory activities like the Grievance and Fee Dispute Committees.  
I do not have a grand vision for the future of the Mecklenburg County Bar. I will be in this office for only one year. My vision is near-sighted, literally and figuratively. In my short time as president, I want to look critically at what we are doing and what we are thinking about doing, with an eye toward focusing our energy and resources where they are best applied. 
This is an especially apt time to do that. The Mecklenburg County Bar Board of Directors is currently working on our next strategic plan. What is obvious to everyone is that we are a large and diverse group (5,200+ members and growing) and that we need to focus on increasing member involvement in order to remain a vibrant and relevant organization for all the lawyers who practice here. 
By diverse, I mean diversity in the broadest sense: not just in the traditional aspects of race, ethnicity and gender, but also in age, type of practice, geographical location and economic circumstances. We are about evenly divided among aging baby boomers like myself, Gen-Xers and Millennials, with a smattering of the WWII Greatest Generation still out there plugging away. Studies show that there is a great deal of variation in terms of attitudes, experience and expectations depending on just when you were born, a fact that hit me hard when I mediated a case where one of the attorneys was an elementary school classmate of my daughter. When I first came to the Bar, most lawyers were still general practitioners to a degree. Those days are long gone. The variety of specialization and indeed compartmentalization of practice means that it is pretty hard for say, an assistant public defender to find much common professional interest with an in-house lawyer at Wells Fargo. When I first came to the Bar, most lawyers were clustered around either the state courthouse or uptown. Now they are scattered all over the county from Ballantyne to Davidson. And then of course there is the economic stratification from the prosperous big firm partner to the new admittee who cannot find a job, the solo just barely hanging on and the public service lawyer who trades a good salary for the satisfaction of doing good. 
But all of us, for all of our differences, are also Mecklenburg County Bar members. That is not self-selected. What is self-selected, however, is whether you are a participating member of the Bar. Like anything else worth doing, you only get out it what you put into it.  
I want to recruit those who do not participate to get involved, to make them feel a part of this legal community. But balanced against that is the realization that we cannot be all things to all people. We are literally limited by statute from doing some things that many members would like for the Mecklenburg County Bar to do. We are also limited by resources, both of money and our hardworking, underpaid staff.
The other part of my goal for this year is to not to do too much, to guard against mission creep, so to speak. Again, at the risk of sounding like the cranky old dude that I often am, when I first came to the Bar in 1978 there was no full time director. It was not until 1984 that the Bar first hired Mary Howerton as its first executive director and sole employee who was housed in a tiny office in the old Law Building about the size of a walk-in closet. Now we are in our third Bar center since then and Mary’s successor Nancy Roberson leads a staff of 15 or so.
You have to ask, how did we get here? Of course the answer is mostly we have grown so big because the Bar itself has grown so big. But part of the answer is also that those leaders with a vision of the future added layers to the core of essential activities. We frankly do a number of things that we do not have to do. The question is where we need to put our priorities and limited resources. I think this is a good time while we are developing a new strategic plan to, as an organization, pause for a moment and take heed of the maxim, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Let’s critically examine what we are doing and what is of most benefit for our members. We have some input that helps us in that examination from the recent member survey. But of course that is also somewhat skewed in that those who took the survey were a small and self-selected group, just like those of you who actually read this newsletter. 
It may be that we decide that we are doing some things that we do not need to be doing at all or that we need to be doing differently. I hope so—the profession is changing and so should the Mecklenburg County Bar.  
I also acknowledge that we have and will continue to have our critics, and that the criticism will come from all directions, from those who would just as soon abolish the Mecklenburg County Bar to those who are miffed because we aren’t paying enough attention to some pet project or other. It is apparent from the comments to the member survey that for pretty much every opinion expressed on every topic, there is an equally fervent and opposite opinion on that same topic. That is okay—after all we’re lawyers and taking sides is part of our stock in trade. We should also acknowledge that often the best ideas for improvement come from our harshest critics. But dispute resolution is also part of what we do, and I expect that we should be able to reach at least a rough consensus about the role of the Mecklenburg County Bar in our collective professional lives. There is more that unites us as attorneys than divides us.
The Mecklenburg County Bar is a big tent and has room for both the happy campers and the irritating gadflies among us under the tent. As Lyndon Johnson was known to say, “I’d rather have the camels inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in.” 
The Mecklenburg County Bar should be for our professional health what the Y is for our physical health. The Y is one of the few other organizations I want to belong to and is willing to accept me as a member. They draft dues out of my bank account whether I go there or not.  It’s my choice. If I don’t go (and there are long stretches when I don’t), I don’t get anything out of it. When I do go, there are some facilities I would never use. I can pick and choose what I want to do. I can stay a while and have a hard workout or I can do a few minutes on the stationary bike and then go get a smoothie. But no matter what I do, no matter how much or how little, I always get something out of it. 
So it is with the Mecklenburg County Bar. We can take your dues and never see you. That is your choice and your loss. Or you can pick and choose to get involved in something that interests you, a committee, a section or maybe just a single one-off event. Whatever you do, if you do anything with the Mecklenburg County Bar, it’s your gain. And it’s also the Bar’s gain. It may even be the public’s gain. The Mecklenburg County Bar is only as strong as our members make it.