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NABE 75th Anniversary Gala - Tim Eigo's Speech
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Remarks on the 75th Anniversary of the National Association of Bar Executives
The Press Club, San Francisco
By Tim Eigo, State Bar of Arizona

I won't mention anyone by name tonight, because there are so many great folks in the room. But I do want to acknowledge Mark Mathewson, the chair of the NABE anniversary committee … mainly so you know who to complain to after my remarks tonight.

This morning, we heard from a few terrific NABE members, for one minute each, about how NABE had changed their lives. The committee has given me twenty times that length to say the same thing, so I apologize in advance.

I also have to add: As I worked on drafts of my comments this summer, I had originally planned to be much funnier. But the more I thought about the anniversary committee's compelling question—How did NABE change your life—and watched national news regarding the presidential election, the more thoughtful these remarks got. I know that no one comes to a great bar in a great city for thoughtful remarks, but you work in bar associations, so I know you've sat through worse.

I am so looking forward to hearing the band, Pure Ecstasy. And you haven’t heard my remarks yet, so you have no idea how much you should be looking forward to the band too. I’ve never before been accused of being the lead-in to Pure Ecstasy, but maybe that’s chapter two for me.

75 years is a long time to be doing anything. And I really think we’re starting to get the hang of it.

Now, 75 years is an important number, but I’m really happy to be here because 26 years ago, almost to this day, my wife and I crossed the country and then the Bay Bridge so I could start law school, just about 8 blocks west of here.

It was at law school that I learned a few things: 1. Law school—especially civil procedure—can be taught with absolutely zero connection to law practice or even life (But I’m not bitter.). And 2. A wide variety of viewpoints and experiences yields the deepest legal education.

Little did I know I would end up nestled in the bosom of a vital and largely unsung organization firmly lodged at the intersection of three branches of government, an organization of people standing ready to advance justice, ensure transparent governance, and increase access to courts.

We've also done our part to advance the success of small business in America … and by that of course I mean bars, saloons, and speakeasys.

Working alongside lawyers is a lot like being a zookeeper: It is a symbiotic relationship, but one that requires caution to ensure success and survival. You don't want to tumble accidentally into the lion enclosure. Other NABE zookeepers will come to your aid, but there's only so much they can do when a Socratic onslaught leaves you debilitated—or worse.

On my worst days, I sometimes think that I should have skipped my legal education, parked the car before reaching campus, and invested my law school tuition in one, single San Francisco duplex. If I had, my retirement portfolio would look much huuuuuger today.

But then I’m reminded what I bought when I bought a legal education and became a NABE member: A life in the law, and a ringside seat to constitutional issues. And who doesn’t enjoy getting random questions from friends and neighbors about breaking news and televised trials? … All that is better than San Francisco real estate. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?

Eventually, I moved away from law practice and moved to Arizona. And in 2000, when I had been in my new job as bar association editor for a week, I learned that there was no cover story for our November issue, which was right around the corner. I scoured, read, listened, and learned of a young lawyer who did a remarkable thing. Angela Wilson had heard a radio story about a young girl, who had been born with AIDS, and who was trapped amidst a high-profile interstate custody battle, all while she fought for her life. My job—my bar association job—let me meet Angela and her 14-year-old client, Stephanie Ray, and to tell their story. Today, Angela is still fighting the good law practice fight. And Stephanie is a 30-year-old woman, whose life's most difficult moments were eased by her interaction with an impassioned attorney.

How privileged was I to relate the story of those change makers. And how remarkable are you, all, who are change makers yourselves.

Earlier today, we all got the chance to watch a video commemorating the NABE anniversary. It was created by my boss at the Arizona Bar, Rick DeBruhl, and I hope you’ll agree that he pretty much crushed it. It was all the things a modern video should be: brief, informative, with high production values, and filled with diverse voices.

I enjoyed the entire thing, but I remain in awe of one person: Emma Dillon, NABE’s first executive director.

Truly, Emma is why we are all here tonight. But more than that, Emma is why I am wearing my astronaut socks in her honor: She was a pioneer, an astronaut before there were astronauts. She saw a need and filled it. She spotted a problem and fixed it. And she viewed professionals in a growing field and led them.

She MacGyvered the hell out of association management better than MacGyver ever could.

And that’s why today, in 2016, I’m with her … Emma Dillon.

I also was thinking I could tell you how we all can make NABE great again. But NABE is pretty great already! The reports of the legal profession’s demise, a crumbled heap on the dustbin of history … Premature.

Which reminds me again of our band tonight. I am so pleased that we’ll hear from a Motown band. Because although I love San Francisco, there is no better city than Detroit to be the legal profession’s mascot and mantra. Great times? We’ve had ‘em. Hard times? You bet. On the road to excellence and leadership again? Just try to stop us.

But I’ve got to say, to get there, we in this profession and in NABE have to get out of our own way. A few stories, one from my own experience, and another from the national news, remind us why that is.

First, the personal story: As I said, the anniversary committee of NABE really stepped in it when they asked me to deliver some remarks. And knowing that I should at least try to look festive, I was pleased to find a vintage tuxedo, and one that bore the label of a storied downtown Phoenix department store that is long gone. If any look could be the visible message that we honor the past, this 1960 tux would be it.

This past summer, I chatted with some friends and colleagues around the country by email, and I mentioned I’d be at NABE, and I’d be wearing a tux. Almost immediately, an urgent sidebar conversation erupted, asking me an important question: Would I wear a cummerbund? You know, that old crumb-catcher so many of us remember from prom or being in a wedding party.

I was a little surprised at the specificity of the query, and I replied, No, I wasn’t feelin’ it, and I wasn’t even sure a cummerbund was necessary in modern formal wear. I won’t throw shade on those who wear one, but I voted no.

And I thought we’d move on to other topics. But I had forgotten that the email thread was populated by lawyers and association professionals. The males in the group—always the males—began weighing in with their unsolicited advice.

Mainly, the group thought that I was making a tremendous mistake, that I was misunderstanding the value of tradition, and that I was undermining the very notion of what formal wear means—though I got credit for tying my own tie.

Of course, I told them to step off, and I stand before you tonight un-bunded. But it reminded quite a bit of our day job: How quickly our peers, in the bar and in the bar association, take up arms over tradition and its value. How vehement can they be whether the stakes are high or low. How insistent are they—are we—that we know what quality legal services looks like, and anything different is a travesty—of justice.

We’ve heard the same arguments, all of us, over new tools that don’t match tradition. I’ve heard the same anger about certain companies—hypothetically, let’s call them LegalBoom and MissileLawyer, often without a solid understanding of what the issues are.

So my takeaway: No cummerbund, and in fact I’ve added a lei. Too bad, electronic peeps.

And the news story: By now you’ve probably heard the news that they’ve developed a robot that can do a lot of the things a lawyer can do. One of those bots is helping a law firm on bankruptcy matters. And a new app has helped hundreds of thousands of people who have parking tickets.

That’s all good, but it's not quite lawyer-like. Apparently, they’re having a hard time programming the robot to mutter about how great the old days were.

As great thinker Gary Vaynerchuk says, people like to hang on to the way things used to be like an old boyfriend or girlfriend. They want the world to spin a particular way so, so bad. So we—and the lawyers we assist—need to not be so romantic about the way we do things, and about the tools to get the job done.

I mean, we squawk about disruption of our industry, but it carries the hard lesson that the future doesn’t care about our feelings. In fact, the future cares only a little about our past successes. And for those of us who have decades of experience that is largely robot-free, we’d better start looking around for new ways to provide value.

My takeaway: I’m making friends with the robots, and NABE is very good at locating value in the new. We are sweet on it; we don’t pooh-pooh the new.

I thought about all those things as I considered our anniversary theme: “Honoring Our Past, Celebrating Our Future.” After 75 years, there is much to celebrate. But as we look ahead, holding our past like a high school sweetheart is unlikely to be of service. We need to follow our better instincts.

And because NABE is about the future, I am confident that these remarks at the 100th anniversary will be delivered by a robot. But, because we are about tradition too, that robot will also be White, middle-aged, and male. And wearing a cummerbund.

Of course, that won’t be true. I’ve already mentioned Emma Elizabeth Dillon, who had a drive and intelligence that infiltrated the very DNA of this organization.

In addition, NABE has a long history of naming awards for remarkable and pioneering people: E.A. “Wally” Richter, Anne Charles, and of course Fred Bolton, the namesake of NABE’s highest award. But on your best day, are we—am I—a Wally? An Anne? A Fred? An Emma?

Are we servant–leaders to our best members, those who move hell and high water to provide legal services at the best quality and cost to people who need them most, and do not turn up their nose at new tools that transform law?

Recently I came across an old commercial for DeBeers, the diamond company, which said, “Isn’t 2 months’ salary a small price to pay for something that lasts forever?” And I started thinking: In our 75th year, is the legal profession selling a flawless and expensive product, available only to the most discerning and wealthy of purchasers? Among our members, do we provide the biggest ear to our diamond-seller members? Do we offer our all, of ourselves and our resources, only to the highest-end dealers of legal gems?

What are we doing, every day, to change a legal system in which wealth is the primary indicator that controls outcomes? How do we change a world in which the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice?

And when it comes to technology that increases access to justice, how do we remove our members’ green eyeshades so they can be excited at the idea of legal services improved by robots … and websites, and apps, and holograms, and teleportation systems, and invisibility cloaks, and cars that turn into planes? And whatever?

As smart people like Vaynerchuk tell us, it's time to pick a side. Innovation vs. nostalgia. Relevance vs. whatever it is that AOL and MySpace and romance with the billable hour have become.

Because I have two daughters who are theatrically inclined, I often draw my life lessons not so much from Oliver Wendell Holmes as I do from … Broadway.

Through their incredible influence and as I think of NABE’s anniversary, I’m reminded of Hairspray and the indelible words of Mark Shaiman. And NABE has transformed this nonsinger’s life so much that I am willing to sing for you! So, as Motormouth Maybelle sings, so much better than I:

Oh oh oh
You can't stop today
As it comes speeding down the track
Child, yesterday is hist'ry
And it's never coming back
'Cause tomorrow is a brand new day
And it don't know white from black
'Cause the world keeps spinning
'Round and 'round
And my heart's keeping time
To the speed of sound
I was lost til I heard the drums
Then I found my way
'Cause you cant stop the beat

It’s true: “You can try to stop the paradise I'm (beat) dreamin' of.”

Do you know who sings those great Hairspray lyrics? Not just me, and not just the remarkable cast. No. The singers also include Wally, and Anne, and Fred, and Emma. Join in the chorus, baby. You’ll be on the better side of history.

You’ll recall that I told you I started work at my bar in 2000, and at that moment I knew nothing about bar associations. And only 16 years later, I know a little bit less.

I joke, but it’s actually true. And the reason for that is related to how complicated our role is, and related to all the things this job is NOT: It is not putting on great CLEs, publishing an awesome magazine, printing a member directory, holding engaging events. Or even letting its editors dress in vintage tuxes every 75 years. No, those things are important, but they are ancillary to our main mission. Emma knew that.

It’s really about that military servicemember who got a pro bono will. And the solo practitioner in a rural area who got resources from her bar that she never could have gotten otherwise. And the schoolkids who learned civics because of a bar program.

So what is our mission? Negotiating change, for us and the attorneys we support.

Or, as someone once wrote so well:

“People I respect have always impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say.”

I’m sorry. I always tear up when I quote Melania Trump.

Now, besides musical theater, I often think about NABE as reflected in urbanist thinking, another fascination of mine. And I’m reminded of the wise words of Jane Jacobs, who said:

“Organizations have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are made by everybody.”

OK. She was talking about cities, not associations. But as she writes, I think of Emma and all the Emmas in this room who are committed to listening to all voices.

After all, we participate in our members’ lives, and we are present as NABE, legal education and the law-firm model demand massive change. Previous generations, including mine, were taught that the law is the province of Sir Edward Coke, John Jay, John Marshall, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. But Emma Dillon reminds us that the law is given life and transformed by many other people, both willing and unwilling:

Lilly Ledbetter, Erin Brockavich, Sandra Day O’Connor, Susette Kelo, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Emmett Till, Freddie Gray, Mario Woods, Dred Scott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Larry Kramer, Roy Cohn, Carol Denise McNair and those 3 other little pools of beautiful light who were murdered in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church

The legal profession—and NABE—thrive when they acknowledge everyone’s contributions. But how do we give voice to the poor, the disadvantaged, the ones who will never get to the Press Club? Our finest members are doing exactly that, and they need our help.

There are three things we know about the law: It's always vital, it's usually complicated, and it's often unavailable.

So we live in a world in which legal services must be delivered in new ways. And where history and lessons and legacies must be taught and learned in new ways, too.

Emma and Fred remind us that association excellence is a contact sport. It requires action. And sometimes it requires … song.

So … With my deepest apologies to you, to Lin-Manuel Miranda, to the 2016 Tony awards, and to everyone ever involved in Hamilton the musical, I ask you, tonight:

How does the calling, better known for fixin’ the problems and errors of lawyers and their fiscal catastrophes, ethical quandaries, psycho-social vagaries,

Far from the spherical seats of powerful posteriors, top judicial officers, imperious governors, and self-important entities,

End up being a ventricle, an auricle, a vital organ in the very survival of legal education and attorney respiration?

The nation said this collision, our republic and legal vision, needs a risk-taker, a change-maker, it needs a rule-breaker, a trouble-maker, a mover and a shaker, it needs those NABE makers, not a poser or a faker.

And I know that you’re excited, I can feel the very same, cuz I know this night can bring us recognition and acclaim,

For the law is what we love, it’s the world from which we came, Yes, the legal is where we made our fame, and the world is gonna know your name—what’s your name, man?

Awesome Bar Executives. Our name is Awesome Bar Executives. And there’s a million things we have to give. Just you wait, just you wait.

My experience in public speaking has told me that every time I sing, people buy more drinks. So you’re welcome, Press Club.

Truly, tonight is my first on-stage singing since 8th-grade graduation from St. Columba Elementary School. And I like to think that I’m still disappointing the nuns all these years later.

I’m sure an ABA leader is on a cellphone right now with their GC, working up a copyright-infringement defense. (“Does it legally matter that he was awful?” No, it doesn’t. You’re in deep, deep trouble.)

***

So, after all that, why do I love NABE, and how has it changed my life?

On its best days and in its brightest moments, NABE fosters a creativity and ingenuity that are remarkable. That bravery and experimentation can facilitate mistakes—as we’ve clearly seen tonight—but it also makes possible programs and decisions marked by their goodness, and usefulness. That’s why I love NABE.

Where else could we play a role not just in supporting lawyers, but in suiting up in the battle over constitutional issues? Where else could we speak publicly and loudly about basic precepts of our republic?

Where else could we sing Broadway lyrics among friends?

Of course, all citizens have a role in these things, not just us. But we have had the immense privilege of this being our day job. Maybe another calling would have allowed us to nibble around the edges of these topics. But we, we happy few, have had the pleasure of devouring this as our main course.

Bonnie Tyler tells us, We need a hero. Probably more than one. She or he is out there somewhere. She is resilient, talented in multiple areas, a communicator par excellence. She is compassionate, empathetic, and strategic. She’s an Emma for the 21st century.

Whenever she arrives, she will feel at home in this organization, which nurtures the best parts of all of us.

Everyone likes sayings, so let me offer one: Tell me who you walk with, I will tell you who you are.

I walk with the great people in this room. And we together walk with the lawyers doing good; the judges effecting justice against long odds; the lawmakers who understand the value of a superb judiciary; and the public who needs access to a system that can transform their lives.

And what does that all mean? It means we walk with Emma Dillon and other great pioneers.

We have to be ready to Emma-up. Strap on our Emma backbone; it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Emma recognized 75 years ago that those people whose job it is to foretell the future and ensure the road ahead is safe, and sound, and fair, and profitable, and accessible to all ... those people may need an association of their own ... and maybe the occasional cocktail on the veranda.

And Fred, Anne, and Wally knew it too. Those who nurture courts, legislatures, law firms, agencies, and even law schools that couldn’t teach their way out of a civil procedure paper bag—those people require their own support network.

As we gather tonight, reward these terrific bartenders for listening to this by tipping well. And then commit to three things:

1. Be an advocate for those lawyers who are truly doing good.
2. Be the leader who knows change only comes through diverse and inclusive participation.
3. And … Be an Emma.

Thank you. And happy anniversary.

National Association of Bar Executives
c/o ABA Division for Bar Services
321 N. Clark St., 17th Floor
Chicago, IL 60654
(312) 988-5408

emma.buell@americanbar.org