As nomination process begins, here’s how to chart a course to an ACBA leadership role

December 22, 2017
President’s Message By Hal Coffey

At a recent conference on affordable housing, I was asked what it took to become the president of the Allegheny County Bar Association. Rather than trotting out the tired line of how you get to Carnegie Hall (“practice, practice, practice”), I took the time to explain to my colleague from Berks County. In so doing, I realized that many of our ACBA members might not be aware of the process or myriad paths to this position.

For many, the best path is a combination of (a) division or section leadership, (b) serving on the ACBA Finance Committee to learn the budget process, (c) becoming a fellow in the Allegheny County Bar Foundation, (d) chairing a non-substantive or presidential-conferred ad hoc committee for emerging issues and (e) working on various projects and sub-committees. There is no one-size-fits-all way to rise through the leadership ranks in the ACBA; rather, charting your own course is best done by finding areas you are passionate about and getting a good feel for the financial and budgeting process of entities within the ACBA and ACBF and the main organizations themselves.

Each division and section has its own process for nomination and election of council members and officers. Some like to track their leadership path out many years through automatic ascension through their officer ranks. Others elect a chair-elect each year for a mere two-year path to the top. It is best to check in with the section or division of your choice early on to find the applicable track. For committees, the incoming ACBA president actually selects the chair and vice chair annually.

Beyond the committees, sections and divisions, members seeking election to the Judiciary Committee, Board of Governors or officer positions of the ACBA (president, treasurer and secretary) must first apply to the ACBA Nominating Committee for consideration. The Nominating Committee is convened each year, selected by the president and chaired by the president-elect. The ACBA Bylaws require at least seven members to the Nominating Committee, without a cap on the total members. Generally, the president will select 19 to 25 members. Beginning in 2005, we also required that at least one-third of the members of the Nominating Committee previously served thereon, in order to maintain a degree of institutional knowledge and experience. The Nominating Committee holds the dual purpose of soliciting candidates for the available positions and then vetting those candidates for consideration of nomination.

Candidates for the officer positions come before the Nominating Committee to provide a brief presentation of their qualifications and goals followed by a question-and-answer period with the Nominating Committee. Candidates for Board of Governors and the Judiciary Committee do not follow the presentation and question process; their applications are considered on their face. However, I strongly advise each applicant candidate for BoG and Judiciary Committee to find out the members of the Nominating Committee (easily found on the ACBA website under “About Us” then “Committees, Sections, Divisions” and looking up the “Nominating Committee”) and making sure you have a member or two (or more) who can advocate on your behalf.

For BoG candidates, the Nominating Committee typically looks for candidates with a breadth of experience in ACBA leadership, a history of ACBA activity, service to the public and bar and solid background in their particular area of law. For the Judiciary Committee, ideal candidates have significant experience with the Court of Common Pleas and appellate state courts to best evaluate the candidates who come before the Judiciary Committee.

The Nominating Committee’s charge is to nominate up to two nominees for each available BoG and Judiciary Committee position. For secretary and treasurer, the Nominating Committee typically selects one nominee. And for president-elect, it has become policy of the Nominating Committee to select one candidate for nomination. This decision, codified in the procedures of the Nominating Committee, seeks to provide the best opportunity for any highly-valued candidate to succeed regardless of the ability to fund a costly head-to-head election campaign and avoid selection by the mere recognition of a person’s name.

None of this precludes anyone from running from the floor at the ACBA Annual Meeting held after the Nominating Committee presents its slate of candidates, per the ACBA Bylaws.

In the coming weeks, you will see advertisements seeking applicants for the open positions in the Sidebar, Pittsburgh Legal Journal and Lawyers Journal and also in emails from colleagues in leadership and on the Nominating Committee, itself. If you are interested, please do not hesitate to contact me or any current or past officers and governors or members of the Judiciary and Nominating Committee for advice and support.

Ideally, we want a pool of candidates diverse in gender, years of practice, ethnicity, social background, size of firm, in-house counsel, government practice, location within the county and areas of practice. And don’t be dissuaded by thinking that you have little chance. Many of us in leadership have lost several times before being successful. Myself, I lost a head-to-head election for YLD secretary and failed in my first attempts at the Board of Governors and for president-elect. You cannot succeed without first stepping onto the field.