On role models, keeping members informed and supporting clerkship program, pro bono

July 6, 2018
President’s Message By Bryan Neft

Ten minutes from now, David Blaner will get up here and tell you that this is the biggest crowd ever to witness a gavel passing at the Bench-Bar Conference. That there are thousands of people watching this event.

Family, friends, and community all help define and mold who we are as individuals. In my case, my mother, Rhoda, who is here today, helped shape my core values. Before entering law school, Rhoda was a home economics teacher. The biggest impression she left me at that time was not how to set a table – though I do it well. Nor was it what she did when a student swore at her. (She gave that student seven hours of detention, one for each letter in the phrase.)

What made the biggest impression was what a person can do when he or she has the drive, determination and strength of character.

With my brother and me still in our teens, my mother entered law school. Her age at the time? Well, we’ll go with 29 since I’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement and fear the legal and physical repercussions of violating that agreement.

While a mom returning to school after raising a family is more commonplace today, that wasn’t the case back then. As you can imagine, it took a lot of guts, and it’s a time I’ll always remember, given the message it conveyed.

How does such an event shape a teen’s life and outlook?

Each day before she left for law school, she had my school lunch and our dinner prepared. I wouldn’t usually see her until much later in the evening, after her study group finished and I picked her up at Duquesne. Even then, she still managed to get everything done for us.

She graduated Duquesne in 1984, only five years before I finished law school. But her dedication and love of the law drew me in.

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the bicentennial celebration of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania. Many of the individuals presenting were individuals that most of us consider to be legends of the bar. As part of my own history, I recall some 20 years ago being on a downtown street corner and running into my mom, who was with some of those large personalities, Duquesne Law School Dean Maureen Lally Green and Judge Donetta Ambrose. They were all working on a project for the PBA’s Commission on Women in the Profession. It was then that I realized that my mom, among others, was a real pioneer in the women’s movement of our bar.

It was also around then that I became known, affectionately so, as “Rhoda Neft’s son.” I took it as a badge of honor, just as I suspect that others like me – Howie Schulberg, Andrew Rothey and Adam Fischer, to name a few – do with theirs.

Even today, I’m often referred to as “Rhoda Neft’s son.” We’ll always be linked not just by family, but by our passion for the law. I want to recognize both the mothers, who inspired their sons by forging ahead in a career that was once dominated by men, and the sons, who proudly say that their moms are their role models.

On the A/V screens, you will see all of the mothers and sons who are part of the ACBA family that we were able to identify. If I left anyone out, I apologize. We are part of a small but growing group. We – the sons – know where our mothers drew the line when it came to our own misdeeds, and where they draw the line as to how they deserve to be treated by our profession.

And we respect that line, which is important as we seek to tackle issues of bias. Men and women need to be part of the solutions toward inequality, but I look to these mothers and sons to guide us.

Now I’d like to talk to you about a few things that are important to me, issues I’d like to tackle in the coming year.

For more than 10 years, the ACBA has had a summer clerkship program that matches first year minority students with positions in the legal profession. The sole purpose of the program is to provide opportunities to minority law students who need to get a foot in the door. Law firms and other legal departments participate not for their own benefit, but for the benefit of those students, and the profession as a whole.

This year we expanded the program to include students that identify as LGBTQ, and to other ethnic students.

To date, we have placed 241 in positions throughout Allegheny County. This has led to increased diversity in the profession.

This year, I will be personally calling on you and your firms to help fill the gap between the number of minority students and the number of employers participating.

Our Women in the Law Division continues to bring new ideas to us including for the elimination of bias in the profession. The Board of Governors recently approved a pilot program to include implicit-bias content in legal education provided by the ACBA. My hope is that members of the bench and bar take advantage of this programming on such an important issue to the profession.

Yes, folks, one more pitch, but for a worthy cause: Pro bono representation.

Yesterday, we had a seminar at the Bench-Bar Conference to educate our members on all of the pro bono programs with which they could assist. There are many individuals and families that need your help.

Legal services have been reeling from significant cutbacks in funding over the last 10 years. IOLTA revenues that were $13.5 million in 2008 hover around $4 million today. Our Supreme Court and our legislators have tirelessly sought out new sources of revenue for legal services; but we still need help.

Today, I’m asking you to take one more pro bono case to help those in need and to strengthen our profession. If you can’t take a case, then write a check to the ACBF or to NLSA.

Let me finish with a few words of thanks. To:

• The Hon. William F. Cercone of the Pennsylvania Superior Court, my judge, who taught me more about professionalism in Allegheny County than anyone.

• Amy Greer and Jay Panzarella, for providing me with a new opportunity when I wanted one.

• The Hon. Nora Barry Fischer of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, for providing me with an opportunity when I needed one.

• And even though I am no longer at their firm, I want to thank my friends at Pietragallo Gordon Alfano Bosick & Raspanti, for giving me a home away from home for many years.

• And to Spilman Thomas & Battle and my friends and colleagues there, for my new home and all of the support I could ever hope for as I embark on my new role as president of the ACBA.

• To Melaine Shannon Rothey and Hal Coffey, for being terrific guides for how to do this Presidency right. I can only hope to do it as well as you have.

• To David Blaner, Diane McMillen and the ACBA/ACBF staff, for what you do behind the scenes to make the ACBA the finest bar association in the nation.

• To my parents, Dick and Rhoda Neft, my brother Andrew and Julie’s parents, Brenda and Martin Cohen – thank you for all of your support.

• To my children, Simon, Justin and Zoe – all of whom for good reason could not be here today, for filling my life with joy and pride for all of your accomplishments. Simon started a new job on Monday in South Carolina. Justin is studying in Germany, and Zoe has finals today.

• And, finally to my beautiful wife, Julie Cohen. You took care of the kids on those many nights when I was away or working late. You have graciously attended most of the ACBA events even when you were afraid you wouldn’t know anyone or have anything in common with them. You have shepherded the kids well, and in turn taught our German Shepherd how to shepherd me. You always text me when it’s time to come home. Your creativity and bubbly personality are an inspiration to me.

In closing, I want to hear from all of you. I want to know if you like what we are doing or if you don’t.

As one of my first orders of business, I will ask the Board of Governors for a resolution that allows us to begin posting the Board’s agendas and meeting minutes to the members only section of the ACBA website. You should be able to see in real time exactly what we are doing.

Also, posted on the screens are my telephone number, my email address and my twitter handle.

I am privileged to be here. This event and this bar association are a testament to the hard work of all of its members on behalf of our profession.