No Lawyer Bashing At Lawyers' Bash

IT isn't exactly Mardi Gras in New Orleans this week, but about 10,000 lawyers are there, whoopin' and hollerin' (you know how lawyers carry on) and doing their best to paint the town red.

The attorneys are in the Big Easy for the annual meeting of the American Bar Association (ABA). Like all such affairs, the meeting combines association business with a smorgasbord of speeches, seminars, trade-show displays, and furious networking.

During the week the 535 members of the House of Delegates - representing ABA members in the states, as well as state and local bar associations and other groups of lawyers and judges - will vote on various resolutions. The incoming president, George Bushnell Jr. of Detroit, will begin his one-year term.

Since 1878, when the ABA was founded, the president has always been a man. But next year a woman, lawyer Roberta Cooper Ramo of Albuquerque, N.M., will assume the post for the first time. Women's involvement in the ABA has grown rapidly in recent years, reflecting the flow of women into the legal profession: Today about 23 percent of the ABA's members are female.

ABA politicking is generally ordered and mannerly. The successive presidents are lined up several years in advance: Whatever campaigning and deal-cutting propel officers' ascent take place out of sight; ambition is politely concealed. And debate among the delegates, while it can be robust, rarely touches hot-button issues.

The ABA touched a hot subject a few years ago, though. Between 1990 and 1992, pro-choice members lobbied the delegates to endorse abortion rights. Debate was intense, and opinion flip-flopped between a pro-choice position and remaining neutral on the issue. After three years of controversy, at its 1992 summer meeting the ABA adopted an official stance in support of women's right to abortion. Since then, more than 5,000 lawyers have resigned from the association in protest.

No such heated disputes are currently dividing the members or their representatives. The big item on delegates' agenda this year is proposed restrictions on lawyers' out-of-court statements to influence pretrial publicity about a case.

Mirroring the legal profession in the United States, the ABA in recent years has had to do some downsizing, taking tucks in its $100 million annual budget as revenue has declined and laying off some members of its 700-member staff. ``It looks as though the belt-tightening will have to continue,'' says Mr. Bushnell, the new president. ``We probably will have to cut some programs, but I hope we won't have to cut any more staff.''

With these prospects, the search committee that recently sought a new ABA executive director reportedly focused on candidates' proven management skills. Last week the committee announced that Robert Stein, the dean of the University of Minnesota Law School, has been hired to run the association.

Mr. Stein says that one of his top priorities will be to increase membership, especially among solo and small-firm lawyers. (The ABA's 370,000 members are fewer than half of the attorneys in the US.) To do so, he will have to convince such lawyers that the ABA returns valuable services for fairly hefty dues.

He will be helped in this effort by Bushnell, who says that one of his chief goals in the coming year is to strengthen the support infrastructure for lawyers practicing alone or in firms of two to four attorneys. ``They are about 80 percent of American lawyers, but the organized bar often ignores them,'' Bushnell says.

To keep abreast of legal developments, ABA members can tap into 33 specialty sections and scores of committees that study and publish materials on issues from antitrust to zoning.

Some people could imagine nothing duller than a powwow of attorneys, even on Bourbon Street. But the hunch here is that the corridor and table buzz in New Orleans this week includes a lot of great lawyer jokes - told after a quick glance around to make sure no lay people are in earshot.

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