June 7, 2019
President’s Message By Bryan Neft
This is my last full president’s message before the Bench-Bar Conference and I must say that I struggled with an idea for this one. I considered writing about the Gender Bias Subcommittee, or the Finance Committee, both of which work under the radar to achieve spectacular results for our members; but decided I’ll let them stay under the radar. I also considered writing about work-life balance but came to the conclusion that it’s an oxymoron, a myth or both.
I feel that as President of the ACBA, I should say something prophetic about the practice of law, but don’t necessarily consider myself an expert. The practice of law has changed immensely since I began my practice; but in Pittsburgh many things have stayed the same. I began my career in Pittsburgh in 1990 during a recession and then, war. The profession locally was oversaturated with lawyers of which I was one. I didn’t secure a position in private practice until 1995. Things began moving up from there.
Even in the first decade of the 21st century, there were still more lawyers than available positions, and although economically the profession held its own, the bottom dropped here around 2010-11 after the great recession of 2008. The recession caused a huge disruption in the profession. To talk about things that kept me up at night, I recall reading countless stories in the New York Times about law school graduates whose first-year associate offers were rescinded, and they were struggling to pay student loans in the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. I believed at the time that we would have one, two, maybe three “lost” classes of law school graduates who wouldn’t be able to secure jobs.
It was also at that time that firms slowed their hiring of first-year associates. Clients no longer wished to bear the brunt of training attorneys. They wanted attorneys that could solve their problems efficiently. Some hourly rates dropped and litigation budgets were cut. Corporations started taking on larger in-house counsel staff. To this day, we still see the fallout from the recession. The number of ACBA members retiring is much larger than the number entering. We are working our way to a supply and demand equilibrium of attorneys in the profession; but it will ultimately be a smaller one.
And, yet here we are. Many of us are reading this article from our desks during a workday. And then we will get back to the job of remaining relevant to our clients in an ever-changing profession. So I will offer a couple of parting thoughts.
This is still a profession despite all of the economic and competitive pressures we face. Although there are a few individuals and judges who refuse to act professionally, the overwhelming majority of them are a pleasure to work with day-in and day-out. We have a Code of Professionalism. You can find it here. It sets forth everything we believe our profession is and ought to be. Even though the Code is nearly 10-years old, it really is timeless.
Treat your clients well. The key to this is good communication. I have heard that a great number of disciplinary issues arise because of a failure to communicate. Clients want to be kept informed and want to know the good and the bad. I personally contact my clients a lot with the latest developments or reminders; whether it’s through emails or telephone calls. I have one client who I frequently call in the evening on the way home from work, and we may talk for a half-hour or more to get caught up on how the business is doing and if there is anything I can assist with. Sometimes I wonder if I am being a noodge (is there a Pittsburgh-ese equivalent?); but I think my clients recognize that my persistence shows how important they are to me.
It’s just as important to give younger attorneys exposure with clients. I firmly believe that if they do a good job, their performance will reflect well on me. I call this the Nora Barry Fischer axiom.
Be flexible and open to new ideas. Over the years, I have heard rumors of the demise of the billable hour, and yet it is still with us. But, we should welcome opportunities to engage new methods of billing, whether based on a flat fee or a fee that takes into account the results achieved. Our best models exist within the plaintiff bar. The members of that bar look to maximize the fee received while minimizing the work necessary to achieve that result.
Don’t forget about pro bono. Our practices are busy enough. But, we need to recognize that it is difficult for most individuals to pay legal fees. Someone considered a member of the middle class can easily be wiped out having to pay legal fees to litigate matters. Justice should be available for all despite the ability to pay.
I became involved with the ACBA because it reached out to me first in the form of a no-interest loan to attend law school (thank you, Louis Little). Ever since then I have felt a compelling obligation to give back. As President, I feel that my largest accomplishment has been to position this organization for the long-term so that our sections, committees and divisions have the resources to do their best. Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to serve.
To talk about these issues further, please contact ACBA President Bryan Neft at 412-325-3317 or BNeft@spilmanlaw.com.
Correction: Caroselli, Beachler & Coleman, L.L.C. should have been listed as one of the firms representing Plaintiffs in asbestos litigation in Allegheny County in the previous President’s Message in the May 10 issue of the Lawyers Journal.