Hilarie Bass is president and founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, and was a prominent attorney...
Kristoffer Butler is the SBA Executive President at University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.
In this edition of the ABA Law Student Podcast, host Kris Butler sits down with Hilarie Bass to discuss her career highlights and advice for today’s law students. Together, they explore her chosen path and what led her to become president of the American Bar Association. In addition, Hilarie reviews some of her notable cases, encourages young lawyers to pursue pro bono work, and offers insight into the issue of mental well-being in the legal profession. They end with a brief talk about her 2018 shift from lawyer to founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, which works with C-Suite professionals to develop strategies for creating gender parity in the workplace.
Hilarie Bass is the immediate past president of the American Bar Association and current president and founder of the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion.
ABA Law Student Podcast
Wisdom from Immediate Past ABA President Hilarie Bass
Intro: Welcome to the official ABA Law Student Podcast, where we talk about issues that affect law students and recent grads. From finals and graduation to the Bar exam and finding a job, this show is your trusted resource for the next big step.
You are listening to the Legal Talk Network.
Kristoffer Butler: Hello everybody and thank you for listening. I am your host for today’s podcast, Kristoffer Butler. Before we get started with today’s podcast I would like to make a dedication to Judge Damon Keith, who as of this podcast passed away a couple of days ago.
Judge Damon Keith was born and grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He attended Howard University School of Law in 1949 and Wayne State University Law School in 1956, where he received his Bachelor of Laws and Master of Laws respectively.
Judge Keith was nominated by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 to the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan. He served as Chief Judge in the Eastern District Court from 1975 to 1977, when he was then elevated to the Sixth Circuit where he was nominated by President Jimmy Carter. He served on that court from 1977 until his death in 2019, and he assumed senior status on the court in 1995.
Over the course of Judge Keith’s notable career he had a few notable cases. One was United States v. Sinclair, which turned into the United States v. United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, also known as the Keith Case. In that case Judge Keith famously ruled that President Nixon’s Attorney General John N. Mitchell had to disclose the transcripts of illegal wiretaps that Mitchell had authorized without first obtaining a search warrant. This ruling was later upheld by the Sixth Circuit and then the US Supreme Court. This decision helped inspire President Jimmy Carter to sign the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, also known as FISA.
In 2002, after the September 11 2001 bombings and terrorist attacks, in the Detroit Free Press v. Ashcroft, Judge Keith wrote for the unanimous panel of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals that the absolute closure of deportation hearings and special interest cases was unconstitutional.
This sparked the famous quote by Judge Keith which said, “Democracies die behind closed doors. When government begins closing doors, it selectively controls information rightfully belonging to the people. Selective information is misinformation.”
Judge Keith has inspired generations of governors, lawyers, law students, judges all across the United States, and he has left a legacy for civil rights and for justice.
Judge Keith, we thank you for your service and may you rest in peace.
Today I am honored to have with me President Hilarie Bass. President Bass is currently the immediate Past President of the American Bar Association. During her time she was President of the international law firm Greenberg Traurig and was a prolific trial attorney with a highly successful 30 plus year career.
While she was at Greenberg Traurig, she helped chart the course for the firm to become a multi-practice firm with approximately 2,000 attorneys across 38 offices worldwide.
During the course of her career as a trial attorney she represented many high profile corporate clients in jury and non-jury trials involving hundreds of millions of dollars in controversy.
She is widely recognized for her pro bono work on behalf of the two foster children that led to the elimination and declaration as unconstitutional Florida’s 20 year old state ban on gay adoption.
President Bass highly believes in mentorship and mentoring others in the legal field and giving back to the community has always been a top priority for her. She has dedicated herself to support the mission of the ABA for more than 30 years when she began as a young lawyer. She previously served as Chair of the Section of the Litigation of the ABA’s largest section, where she spearheaded the creation of a Task Force on Implicit Bias in the Justice System.
In 2018, President Bass founded the Bass Institute for Diversity and Inclusion, where she works with senior management of companies, law firms and institutions around the world to identify and create effective strategies to retain women throughout their careers and elevate them to senior management roles.
President Bass, thank you for joining us. We are honored that you are here today.
Hilarie Bass: Well, thank you, it’s my pleasure, and thank you for that lovely introduction.
Kristoffer Butler: I do my best. So I know that you have had a very extensive career, you have done many wonderful things, so can you talk about some of the highlights of your career and what some of those things have taught you?
Hilarie Bass: Well, sure. Obviously I have loved being a trial lawyer. I started at my firm as a summer associate and worked there continuously until I left January 1, so more than 35 years of working up the ladder from summer associate to associate, partner, head of Miami litigation, then I became the head of the international litigation group and eventually the Co-President of the firm for the last six years I was there.
So starting with a firm of 70 lawyers in one office and working towards being a Co-President of a firm that had 39 offices and 2,000 lawyers was obviously quite a ride. And of course I loved being a trial lawyer, so it made it not feel like work most of the time.
But I also at an early age got involved in both Bar work and community service, and I suspect that those two things have been really defining as far as my career and what led to being a satisfied lawyer.
Bar work I started when I was a young lawyer and I worked up to being President of the Miami-Dade Young Lawyers and I strongly advocate for law students and young lawyers that this is a great opportunity to meet other people with similar interests, to find people to network with and to develop leadership skills, because it’s relatively easy to become a committee chair or a board member or even the president of a Bar organization at the local level, and it can prove to be very, very satisfying and it also gives you some street credibility, because suddenly you are the chair of a class action committee or the healthcare committee or any one of a number of other activities.
And I think it helps give you credibility both within the firm as well as with clients and with judges. So it’s a great path for young lawyers to really help develop their skills, develop their reputation and develop their leadership skills.
I also got involved very early in community activities, starting with United Way and that was something I just found as a great way to give back to the community, focusing on people who had less than I did, and of course as I have said all the time, it’s really something that allows you to feel very, very good about a contribution you are making to the community in exchange for all that you have gotten.
And obviously as lawyers we do hold a very esteemed position in our communities and community organizations are desperate for people like us, and you can be a real superstar by committing just two, three hours a month, so yet another way of really helping develop as a community leader.
And of course the third prong of that stool is pro bono work. I never expected when I was in law school that I would end up in a big commercial law firm, but I had the opportunity to work there as a summer and I loved the people, I loved the opportunity to work on complex litigation and so I stayed. But getting involved in pro bono work at an early age was something that proved to be a continuing source of satisfaction in my career.
And I always say that the case I am most proud of, despite many commercial trials involving hundreds of millions of dollars, is a pro bono case, and that was a case where I represented two foster children and led to a finding that the 20 year state ban in Florida on gay adoption was unconstitutional, and that’s something that people still meet me on the street and thank me for helping them to put their family together.
And so it’s something that again I stress to young lawyers is that I know it’s hard to find the time, but I promise you, if you just commit to do one pro bono case a year, you will end up finding it among the most satisfying parts of your career.
Kristoffer Butler: I know this is one thing that law schools are trying to do working with Bar Associations and doing pro bono work when we do clinics or other programs like that, and it’s one thing to be talked at during class versus hearing someone’s experience about why is it more valuable to be satisfied in doing that work than just working to pay off student loans and paying the bills and doing things like that. Why is it so satisfying to be able to do pro bono work and to be involved in Bar Associations?
Hilarie Bass: Well, I think the difference between the daily work you do for a fee to help you pay your bills and pay off your student loans, which obviously has to be something you love, otherwise you are not going to be good at it and you are not going to enjoy it, but when you do pro bono work, you are doing it basically without any expectation of remuneration, without any expectation of anything other than a personal satisfaction that you are helping someone who desperately needs your help.
And I think that’s the kind of thing that when you go to bed at night, you can put a smile on your face, because you know you did it purely because someone else needed your help, and as lawyers we have unique skills. I mean the courthouses are only open to those who understand how to use them and such a high percentage of our population does not have the economic capacity to hire lawyers and those at certain levels are able to get access to legal services or legal aid, but there is an enormous gap in the kind of access to justice that we have in our community.
So anything we can do, even in some small way, is going to make a huge difference in the life of somebody who you really touched by virtue of using your expertise to help them solve a problem that’s very personal to them and that but for you they would not be able to solve.
Kristoffer Butler: I think I agree with that 100%. I hope people are able to appreciate that as opposed to just saying like yeah, as we get in professional responsibility, yeah, you know you are required to do pro bono work for your job as opposed to no, this is you giving back to your community and this is your service of the community; it’s not just about you, it’s about other people.
Hilarie Bass: Exactly.
Kristoffer Butler: And so you have, as you talked about, and I touched on a little bit in your bio, and you have talked about in your previous answers, you have done various work in different Bar Associations and different committees and things like that. So can you talk about how you got to those places and how that sort of led you to becoming the ABA President in the 2018-2019 Bar Year?
Hilarie Bass: Sure. Well, I mentioned that I started as a Miami-Dade Young Lawyers President and from that point went to my first ABA meeting as a representative of the local Young Lawyers. And as I said, it’s amazing, if you show up and you agree to take on any kind of responsibility, there are all kinds of opportunities for you.
So I got very involved in the Young Lawyers Division and ended up getting a stint on the Board of Governors of the ABA as a Young Lawyers representative, and when I finished that, I went into the Litigation Section, which is the largest section of the ABA, and eventually, after many years, worked up to become chair of that section.
And obviously over time I developed a whole network of close friends, some of the closest friends in the world to me are people I met in the American Bar Association, and at each step of the way I had additional opportunities to either chair a committee or take on an initiative or become chair of a section. And at some point I was provided the opportunity, would this be something I would be interested in, that being running for President of the American Bar. And I jumped at the opportunity. It turned out I was lucky enough not to have opposition.
So I moved forward, and as you mentioned earlier, I just finished my one year term in August of 2018. But during that 18 months or so when I was President-Elect and President, I mean I had the most amazing opportunities of my life, whether it was meeting with women in the Port Isabel Detention Center in Texas, who had been separated from their children, to testifying at the US Senate about immigration reform, to meeting with the Prime Minister of Vietnam and talking about legal ethics, to working on lawyer wellness and focusing on issues like the future of the Bar Exam, doing a research initiative on why women leave the practice, I mean the list goes on and on and on.
But just unbelievable opportunities that I never would have been able to take advantage of but for the fact that I got involved in Bar activities when I was 23, 24 years old, determined I really liked it, and just kept showing up.
Kristoffer Butler: And during the course of your work, like when you were the Chair of the Section of Litigation, you helped create a Task Force on Implicit Bias in the Justice System. As ABA President, you started a Task Force on Lawyer Wellness and Mental Health and Well-Being, as you talked about, why women leave the practice.
These are conversations and things that people aren’t having normally, or if they are having them, they are having them behind closed doors, but you really work to get those out there in sort of the mainstream of — in the conversations of Bar Associations, things like that. Why were those things so important for you to get them out in front of people?
Hilarie Bass: Well, one of the great things about being a Bar leader is that everybody in the room is for the most part focused on making the justice system better, making the legal profession better, we are all there to sort of move the ball, whether it’s narrowing the justice gap. And so when you come in as a Bar leader, you are really given your choice of an array of different issues that you can focus on.
So for me, let’s take wellness, that became an issue for me, because just as I was coming in the ABA completed a multi-year study that they did in partnership with the Hazelden Association that focused on lawyer wellness. And the data was just shocking, that basically lawyers have double the rates of depression, anxiety, and addiction than other professionals.
I think that the statistic that bothered me the most was about law students, because law students enter law school at about the societal rate of depression, anxiety, mental health issues, which is 10-11%. By the time they leave, it’s up to 40%. And that’s before they have tried their first case, billed their first client, had their first professional challenge. And so that’s a real eye-opener.
And I have been told by some student deans at law schools throughout the country that if we could just guarantee everybody they would have a job at graduation, that would probably be cut in half but until that time we have got a real issue.
So one of the things that the ABA has focused on, in part under my leadership with this Task Force on Well-Being, is to create a toolkit of what our associations can do to assist, what law firms can do to assist, what judges can do to assist, because it really takes a multipronged effort as far as what the profession needs to do to make progress on these numbers.
Kristoffer Butler: So what can law students do to help assist in that area? I know we are not the ones in power to make these sort of decisions, but we are definitely a big part of the legal profession and we are the future of the legal profession, so how can we take charge and also how can we effectively use our voices to help make change.
Hilarie Bass: Well, I know many law schools have already moved into action on this topic. So a number of law schools now have their own mental health counselors and people who teach mindfulness, for example, to help law students make the adjustment into professional life.
But I think first and foremost, law students need to recognize that their personal, physical, and mental health are prerequisites for being a top-notch lawyer. You cannot be in a position to give top quality legal services if you don’t have your head screwed on right. And we are all going to face challenges in our professional life, whether it’s we are not making partner or our firm goes bankrupt and we have to start over someplace else or we don’t get the job offer we want, I mean any professional life, whether it’s law or any other is going to create challenges, and they are also very demanding.
And so for each of us, we have to figure out what’s required to keep us mentally and physically healthy. So whether it’s ensuring that you find time to work out twice a week or get enough sleep or not drink alcohol other than in limited quantities, everybody has to make their own decisions for themselves. But this is a marathon, not a sprint.
And so when you think about a long-term career, you have got to create for yourself some healthy habits, because it is just so easy to get into a competitive environment, to have pressure from clients and to perceive that you need to be working every night till 10 and you don’t have time for whether it’s that yoga class on Saturday or walking to a park or whatever else it is.
And it may be something as simple as committing that every day at lunch you are going to take 15 minutes and walk around the block. I mean there are some great studies out there about how little it can take to try and defuse the stress and get your mind on something that will always be more positive. I just read a recent study that those people who will take a 20 minute walk in the park, immediately it elevates their mood.
So whatever it is that works for each of you, you need to figure that out and ensure that no matter how busy you are, and even when you are under the most stress, like when you are in a trial and you swear you don’t have time to sleep, let alone take a 15 minute walk, it’s all the more critical to find some time to work on your own physical and mental health.
Kristoffer Butler: And I know that different studies and different people have different experiences, but one of the things that help people when they are struggling or need help is having an accountability partner. And so one of the things that helps definitely in professional areas is having a mentor.
So I think that’s one of the good things that Bar Associations are able to do, but I think law students don’t really know how to take advantage of that. So how should law students go about seeking an effective mentor?
Hilarie Bass: Well, getting involved in Bar Associations are a great way to do that, just showing up at their happy hour or their Saturday events where you get free legal advice at a shopping center. There are many studies that show that just developing relationships with people who have similar issues as you do can help tremendously. Just having somebody whose office you can go in and shut the door and say I can’t take one more minute of this, whatever this is for you, can really help defuse the situation.
And of course worst case is recognizing the need for a mental health counselor and Bars have gotten much more lax about asking questions about mental health, from the perspective that they recognize that for years they created impediments to law students who might otherwise seek the help or assistance of a psychologist or a psychiatrist because of concern about whether it would cause an issue in their Bar admittance, and so most states have gotten much, much better about only focusing on behavior. Meaning, if you have a mental health issue that’s impacting your ability to practice law, that is an appropriate subject of their concern, but the mere fact that you are going through an emotional breakup with your significant other and decided to go talk to a social worker for six months is not something that’s appropriate to speak about or ask about.
And certainly one of the things that this whole wellness effort is trying to do is destigmatize the need to seek mental health counseling, because there are very few of us who are so lucky that at no time in their life are they challenged with a significant psychological issue, whether it’s dealing with grief over the death of a parent or a spouse or a loss of an important job or a business opportunity, whatever it is. I mean life is full of those kinds of challenges and most people find it exceedingly beneficial to be able to go sit down with a neutral third party who you can completely open up to and feel like you can benefit from their feedback.
So that’s certainly something that I know many law schools are now trying to provide to ensure that law students have the opportunity to go talk to somebody when they are really stressed and need to vent.
Kristoffer Butler: I know in my personal experience being able to talk to professors about things has definitely been helpful and I think just law students, because there is such a sigma to it that law students and then just people in general don’t want to go talk to someone because it’s a sign of weakness or people will know what I am going through and I don’t want people to be able to look at me like a victim or something like that.
Hilarie Bass: Right. And that’s the benefit of an independent counselor that you feel like you can say anything and be as open and transparent as you possibly can without fear of being judged or second-guessed or questioned about your judgment.
Kristoffer Butler: I know one of the initiatives that this ABA Law Student Mental Health Cohort that we have has sort of been trying to work on, and we know this is a long-term goal, will be hopefully accomplished well after we are out of law school, would be trying to get mental health counselors on every single law school campus. And I know that is so far in the future because everyone has different resources, but is there a way that you could see that the ABA would be able to assist law schools, especially smaller law schools that don’t have large budgets to be able to help accomplish something like that?
Hilarie Bass: Well, I don’t think the ABA has the money to pay for it, but they certainly have the power of advocacy to convince deans and university presidents that this is money well spent. And I think you have seen evidence of that in the last year as more and more law schools are recognizing the benefit to them of having that service available, because not only does it minimize stress for their law students, therefore allow them to perform better both in school and as interns and certainly as new young lawyers. So the long-term benefits are quite significant.
Kristoffer Butler: Before we let you go, we really thank you for your time, but do you want to talk a little bit about what you are doing now and if anybody wants to, how they can get involved in your Institute for Diversity & Inclusion?
Hilarie Bass: Oh, sure. So after doing this research project or overseeing this research project last year on why women were leaving the legal profession, it was made abundantly clear that many of the issues that we have been talking about for 30 years, we haven’t made all that much progress in, and the number of women who are leaving the profession by age 50 is quite stunning, it’s almost 50%.
So my view of it was that we really are at an inflection point because I think there is a real recognition that having diverse attorneys at any decision making table is critical and most law firms now get the fact that not only is it the moral thing to do to ensure they have diverse attorneys, but also the business case is pretty strong, not just because your clients are demanding it, but also because study after study shows that having those diverse views around the table makes for a better business environment, better solutions.
And so many managing partners have reached out to me over time and said, well, I am so shocked by these statistics because I really thought we were doing much better in this area. We have had a women’s initiative for 20 years, we have had a diversity committee, we have been focusing on pipeline, and those are all great things, but what we now know after years of sophisticated academic research is that as helpful as those things are, you need to create a hospitable environment within the firm for people to feel like this is some place they want to invest their time and career and stay in the profession.
And we haven’t done quite as good a job in tamping down what we now know are implicit biases that people don’t realize they have. So much of what I am trying to do in the Bass Institute is really work with C suite level people, as well as managing partners, to focus on what kind of structural changes are required within their place of employment to ensure that implicit bias is not impacting the ability to be objective in evaluating diverse attorneys, in elevating diverse attorneys, and in compensating diverse attorneys.
What we know is that this idea that the pipeline in and of itself would take care of it, meaning just having more diverse attorneys coming into law would mean that we eventually overcame this problem is not the answer, because gender is a perfect example. We have had a comparable number of women and men in law school for more than 20 years getting their preliminary jobs, the same women and men for 20 years and yet at every step of promotion in law firms, there are fewer and fewer women who are promoted. So the numbers for diverse attorneys are just as bad or worse.
And so if we really care about this issue, it’s going to take some fundamental changes in how we perform these tasks to ensure that the legal profession is as hospitable to diverse attorneys and to women as it is to the men, the White men who have been controlling it for hundreds of years. So that’s what the Bass Institute is focused on.
Anybody who wants to hear more information about it can look up bassinstitute.org, and you will have a chance to read a lot more about the specifics that we are advocating.
And the next thing on our agenda is on May 21 we have an Am Law 100 Inaugural Conference for Managing Partners on Gender Parity, and that’s going to be at Georgetown Law, again, May 21, it’s a one day conference, where we are trying to get as many of the top 100 managing partners in the room to talk about how do we do things differently going forward, to ensure that we reach gender parity in the legal profession sooner than the current projection, which is 2150.
Kristoffer Butler: Wow.
Hilarie Bass: Yeah, a pretty distressing number.
Kristoffer Butler: Yeah, I thought you were going to say like 2050 or something like that, but 2150 —
Hilarie Bass: Yeah, not quite, not quite. If it was 2050 I might not have left the practice of law to commit to do this full-time, but if you were to ask me 35 years ago when I graduated law school if we would still be having this conversation, I would tell you that was crazy, that’s not going to happen, and yet here we are.
So I created the Bass Institute to make sure that 30 years from now we are not still having it.
Kristoffer Butler: That is definitely the goal, and I can’t speak for other women, but I am sure that they thank you for your service, your dedication to helping future generations of women attorneys in this country and also standing in solidarity as a person of color, as the need for diversity in our time, in our profession, as well as across other professions.
Hilarie Bass: Well, thank you very much. It’s really my pleasure.
Kristoffer Butler: Well, thank you for joining us today.
We hope you have enjoyed this episode of the Law Student Podcast. We would like to invite you to subscribe to the ABA Law Student Podcast on iTunes. You can reach us on Facebook at ABA for Law Students and follow us and all of our student leaders at #abaforlawstudents.
Before we go, I would like to leave us with a quote by John of Salisbury, who was talking about a portrait made by Bernard of Chartres which showed a man on the shoulders of a giant. The quote reads, “Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.”
So I leave you today with the notion that we are not better than the ones that came before us, but we are better because of the ones that came before us. So as we stand on the shoulders of giants like President Bass and Judge Damon Keith, look out further, stand up higher and be the giants for the future generation to come.
Thank you and have a wonderful day.
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