ACBA President to focus on strategic planning, community collaboration and engagement

Aug. 12, 2022

President’s Message by Erica Laughlin

ACBA President Erica Laughlin delivered the following speech at the 2022 Bench-Bar Conference.

In third grade I was fascinated by dinosaurs and declared I wanted to be a paleontologist and someone jokingly said to me – a paleontologist?! You’ll never make any money, what you should be is a lawyer. I didn’t know any lawyers, but I had seen some on tv – they looked and sounded fancy and impressive – yes – I would become a lawyer.

Thirty-four years later I humbly stand before you as the incoming 114th President of the Allegheny County Bar Association, and the ninth woman in the history of our association to take on this role.

As I reflected on the path that got me to this stage I thought about the dinosaur conversation, I recalled putting my aunt on trial with a stuffed animal jury in the serious matter of who ate the last chocolate chip cookie, and I remember making little contracts that I made my dad sign anytime he promised my brother and I something.

I thought about the various leadership roles I’ve been fortunate to hold over the years from fifth grade class president, to sorority president, to chair of the Women in the Law Division to chair of this conference – certainly these moments and roles helped shape my path, but the real reason I stand before you are the people who have supported me over the years.

I want to first thank my colleagues at Strassburger McKenna, I have been at Strassburger my entire career because they are good people and exemplary practitioners who taught me what it really meant to be a lawyer. 

In particular I’d like to thank Harry Kunselman and David Strassburger who have always been big brothers and mentors to me and champions for women in our profession.

When I approached David about running for President knowing the impact it would have on my practice, without a moment’s hesitation he said you should absolutely do it. Thank you SMGG family for your confidence and support.

I recently met former ACBA President Art Stroyd at an event and I asked him if he had any advice for me and his response was to trust and lean on David Blaner – I can’t say enough good things about Dave and how fortunate we as an association are to have him as an Executive Director – in fact I made him promise he wasn’t going to retire before I ran for president.

Dave is too humble to talk about it, but this summer he will be receiving the Bolton Award, the National Association of Bar Executives highest award presented to a bar executive that epitomizes the highest standard of professional excellence. I couldn’t think of a more worthy recipient. I fully plan to take Art’s advice.

A special thank you to the ACBA staff who works hard to make us look good, and works tirelessly behind the scenes for our association, and to Jay Blechman and the Bench-Bar Committee for working hard to bring us all back together at this year’s conference.

To the ACBA Executive Committee this year – Dan Fitzsimmons, Regina Wilson, Elizabeth Hughes and Joe Williams – you are outstanding beautiful, brilliant people and I felt so fortunate to work with you this year. I wanted to be part of that team and I believe we made a great team.

Joe, you are the reason I ran for president. I adore you. It was my distinct pleasure working alongside you this year – I am so incredibly proud of your work on the ALLY Initiative that I know is going to bring national recognition to our association and will become a model copied by other associations.

Joe and Elizabeth the two of you have been such a shining example of what it means to handle this role with grace, integrity and innovation – I hope to continue the momentum you’ve both started. And Marla I couldn’t be more excited for you to join this team and to work with you this upcoming year. 

My little girls Ella and Tessa are here today – you are the light of my life and inspire me to do better and be better every day and in every way.

When people ask me how I balance everything – the answer is I’m blessed with an amazing support system. 

My husband Nick is the love of my life and a true partner in every sense. Thank you for making me feel loved and supported and never complaining when I have another event to attend or an event I host. I asked Nick what he wanted his title to be – second gentleman perhaps – he said he’d rather go with Mr. Awesome – and while we had a good laugh about it, I will say he is awesome in every sense of the word.

My mom and dad – my dad tragically passed away a year ago, but I know he would be so proud to see me here today, and also probably a little nervous and would go back to make sure he wasn’t in breach of any of the things I made him put in writing as a kid.

My mom Linda or Gigi. She is someone you instantly gravitate to in a room. Strong and charismatic. Always everyone’s mom and grandma. She has made countless sacrifices for me and our family. I owe everything I am and have to her. 

I believe we have great momentum to advance this association in the post-pandemic era. So where is that momentum going to take us in my year?

My focus will be in three major areas: First, strategic planning; second, community collaboration; and third, engagement.

The roadmap for my presidency has been somewhat set with the strategic plan the Board recently adopted. Over the next year you can expect to see things such as targeted marketing and branding and clearly defined efforts to increase membership, such as increasing presence in our law schools; there will be a committee on committees divisions and sections to explore what we’re doing well, what we can do better, and what we need to change to adapt to what today’s members want and need; and we will also be forming a new community service committee – which leads me to my second goal which is increasing community collaboration and outreach.

Members join the ACBA for many reasons, one of which is a desire to give back to the profession and the community. Before the pandemic the ACBA was working on a day of impact to encourage lawyers throughout Allegheny County to take the day to engage in a community service project. The pandemic of course stopped that project from getting off the ground – we’re going to bring it back. 

The new committee is going to focus on opportunities to educate and bring programming to our communities on poignant legal issues, help work to restore faith in our justice system and work towards collaborating with other like-minded organizations to really increase our footprint locally in the communities we serve. 

Thirdly we need to engage or perhaps re-engage with one another. It’s a subject that seems so simple. Our business is people. We need to engage with our clients and one another yet maintain the flexibility that people are demanding now. How do we strike that balance? I don’t presume to have all the answers, but it’s going to be a focus for our association this year. 

We need to find creative ways to incentivize people to come into the office, to come back to in-person meetings. We have two years’ worth of young lawyers who have never even seen the inside of a courtroom or perhaps even the office they work at. We need to help our law students and young lawyers, mentor them and show them what it means to practice law and be a good lawyer.

We need to have more events like this. One of the strongest attributes of the association is each of you and having opportunities to engage with one another. If you know me – you know I love to throw a good party – so, look for a fun signature event later in my term. 

A few weeks ago, I was getting ready to leave for work and my girls who didn’t want me to go asked what I did all day at work. I said well you know mommy is a lawyer. And my 5-year-old asked, “What’s a lawyer?” How do you explain that to a 5- and 7-year-old? I said lawyers help people who have a problem they can’t solve. We help enforce rules and laws that keep people safe and afford people rights and freedoms. My 7-year-old asked, “Like a police officer?”

My response was well kind of – but lawyers don’t have guns or badges or cars with lights and sirens – our tools are much more powerful – we have our voice and the written word. We have the power to advocate for and persuade people on important issues. We are the voice of our communities. We are the leaders in our communities.

We are lawyers. Lawyers in the Allegheny County Bar Association. It is a privilege to practice here. Let’s remind ourselves of our power and our privilege – and in doing so I want to challenge you. 

Set one intention for yourself to make our profession better and our association stronger. I will attend at least one affinity group event and show my support in a meaningful way. I will bring at least one person who doesn’t usually participate in association events to an event. I will encourage the members of my firm to collaborate on ways to increase diversity and inclusivity in my firm. I will take one associate out to lunch each month. 

Whatever your intention is, however big or small, it will make an impact – even if for just one person. It took one person to pick up the phone and say Erica I think you’d make a great president of the association you should run. 

Thank you, Joe, for making that call. I told Joe and Dave that I was hoping to get a tiara today but being President of our association is not about having a fancy title. It is a position of service.  It is my distinct privilege to serve you as president through the next year. 

I am humbled to be joining the ranks of the legal legends that have held this role, a number of who are in this room. For the eight trailblazing women who have held this position in the last 113 years before me, thank you for paving the way – I hope I can do the same for MANY more qualified women to come. 

You have my heart and my passion, and I’m asking you for your help, your intention and your engagement this year. Thank you so very much.