In this episode of the State Bar of Texas Podcast from the State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting, host Rocky Dhir talks to Frank Stevenson as he steps down from his role as immediate past president of the State Bar of Texas. They discuss what makes the State Bar of Texas a particularly strong bar association and what Frank’s plans are as he leaves bar leadership. They also talk about the Texas Opportunity & Justice Incubator, one of Frank’s projects that seeks to close the access to justice gap and meet the needs of both lawyers and clients.
Frank Stevenson is a partner at Locke Lord and is a past president of the State Bar of Texas.
State Bar of Texas Podcast
State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting 2018: A Conversation with Frank Stevenson
Intro: Welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, your monthly source for conversations and curated content to improve your law practice, with your host Rocky Dhir.
Rocky Dhir: Hello and welcome to the State Bar of Texas Podcast, and we want to thank our, very, very special partners Legal Talk Network. This is Rocky Dhir, your host.
If you hear that noise in the background, it’s because there is some exciting stuff going on.
Now, there are two exciting things going on. The first is I am here at the 2018 State Bar of Texas Annual Meeting. This is day two and the excitement has not stopped. Things are still humming and going.
The second reason I am really excited is I get to sit across from a legal celebrity. Oh, he is chuckling, look at this. That’s what celebrities do. When you tell them they are celebrities and they chuckle, but that’s a sure sign.
Like if somebody told me I am a celebrity, I would be like, well, yeah, you are right. And this guy, I tell him he is a celebrity and he chuckles, that tells you he is an actual celebrity.
It’s none other than Frank Stevenson. And you guys will remember him in a couple of ways. Number one is, he was our State Bar President from 2016 to 2017 and you got to see some great presidential columns from him that year.
Frank Stevenson: Wonderful to be here Rocky. Thanks for inviting me.
Rocky Dhir: No, thank you. Thank you. Are you breathing a huge sigh of relief now that you are not President or are you missing all the trappings of office?
Frank Stevenson: No, not yet. I am very grateful for the chance to have served in this capacity and really enjoyed my year as President. But I think just about anybody that has this job will tell you that when your time draws to a close, you are actually kind of relieved to have that happening.
I know Tom Vick, I don’t think this is a secret, he has an app on his phone that counts down the minutes and seconds to when his successor is inaugurated, which we like joking about, but —
Rocky Dhir: That’s something later today actually, right?
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, it happens today. And so today I cease to become the immediate past-President, Joe Longley becomes our President, Tom takes my place as immediate past. I have been grateful for this opportunity and I am eager to come back and become a full-time lawyer.
Rocky Dhir: So you are going to be back in the courtroom?
Frank Stevenson: I will be back doing my work and serving my clients and hopefully some of them will still remember my name after my having dropped off the earth for the last three years, but I am looking forward to getting back and working with my colleagues at Locke Lord and getting back to serving my clients.
Rocky Dhir: But you are not a courtroom lawyer?
Frank Stevenson: No, in fact I am not. I am I think probably the only purely transactional lawyer who has ever been President of the State Bar of Texas. There have been lawyers in the past, back before there was a lot of specialization who did both litigation and transactional work, but I am a purely transactional lawyer and we are somewhat of an anomaly in organized Bar politics.
Rocky Dhir: So let’s talk for a second about your vantage point, being a Texas lawyer and that too having led us for that year and now getting to say hey, I got to lead them, being immediate past-President, which I understand is the best job in the house.
Frank Stevenson: It truly is.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, that’s what I hear. Now, first of all, is there a way to ever run for immediate past-President and not have to serve?
Frank Stevenson: It’s a lot like my friends who say gosh, if this is the only way you could skip having children, go right to grandchildren.
Rocky Dhir: I tried.
Frank Stevenson: It doesn’t work?
Rocky Dhir: No. I have tried to invent an app for it and failed miserably. But from your vantage point, let’s first talk about what we are doing right, the State Bar of Texas, the Texas legal community as a whole, what do you think just makes us special?
Frank Stevenson: I think that’s a terrific question Rocky and one of the things that it’s unfortunate is there is only a small number of us that lead this Bar. We are the ones that go out and go to these conferences with other Bar leaders and when you are at those conferences what becomes very, very evident is that all across this country it’s the State Bar of Texas that is really viewed as the leader among all state Bars, voluntary Bars, unified Bars like ours, specialty Bars, we are universally recognized as the leader.
Rocky Dhir: So it’s not even like top three or top five?
Frank Stevenson: No, no, no, we are the best.
Rocky Dhir: Well, what is it that does that? What is it that we do?
Frank Stevenson: I think we have had an enormously capable staff, a committed staff. I think we have a large and vibrant Bar. We are obviously growing. We haven’t raised our dues in 27 years, which means when we welcome in new lawyers at the big swearing-in down in Austin, most of those people weren’t alive the last time we raised dues.
So it’s just —
Rocky Dhir: That’s pretty crazy. I never thought of it that way.
Frank Stevenson: It’s very, very true. You can’t talk to any of them about the last time we raised dues because they weren’t on the earth then. So it really has something to say about how well-run we are.
I think the number was — I think we have three times as many lawyers as — there is a certain day where you go back, we have three times as many lawyers and we have 3% fewer staff. So we have actually added all these additional lawyers and we have actually contracted our staff. We just really are blessed with a terrific staff, very dedicated, very capable, people who really are trying to advance the profession in Texas.
I was at a meeting where one of the rising ABA officers was asked to question how does my Bar Association, person from another state, how does my Bar Association do something to help our veterans, their legal needs, and she said simply look to Texas, and that look to Texas is — it’s a leitmotif at all these.
Rocky Dhir: Three words, look to Texas.
Frank Stevenson: Look to Texas. And they always want to know what we are doing and I don’t mean to be critical of other Bars, but oftentimes other State Bar executives will come up and they all talk about their new program and it’s something we have been doing for 20 years. Texas lawyers need to understand how blessed we are having the State Bar that we have.
Rocky Dhir: Well, I have got to give a shout out to the staff, because I have had a chance over the years to work with the State Bar of Texas staff and I can’t think of a more dedicated group of individuals, they are phenomenal.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah. Rocky, you have nailed it. You are absolutely right. Presidents come and go, we may have our initiatives. We may make our contribution, but then we vanish from the scene. What really defines a State Bar is the staff. They are the people that make it great and ours has made ours great.
Rocky Dhir: It has made it the greatest in the country apparently.
Frank Stevenson: It truly has.
Rocky Dhir: This is phenomenal. Now, you talked about how we are usually leading some initiatives, but I know during your year we actually borrowed, I think it was from the City of Chicago Bar Association.
Frank Stevenson: We did.
Rocky Dhir: And one of your leading initiatives was and let me make sure I get this right, it’s the Texas Opportunity & Justice Initiative.
Frank Stevenson: Incubator.
Rocky Dhir: Incubator.
Frank Stevenson: The keyword —
Rocky Dhir: Oh, it’s like three out of four.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, you did very well. But there is an easier way to remember it. It goes by TOJI.
Rocky Dhir: TOJI.
Frank Stevenson: I came up with that acronym. I wanted that name because it really sums up what the program is all about.
Rocky Dhir: It sounds like a videogame character.
Frank Stevenson: It really does.
Rocky Dhir: It’s like oh, I am going to be — I am going to play Super Mario and I want to be TOJI.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, walk into the Target and ask them, do you have any TOJI costumes here and they say sure, aisle 3.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah. I am going to go with TOJI for Halloween.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, I really am. I think I am going to too. But yeah, we didn’t so much borrow, we coached, we stole, it was the Justice Entrepreneur Project, which is sponsored by the Chicago Bar Foundation and we went up and toured the JEP in February in the middle of a blizzard and six of our flights were canceled, but it was still a —
Rocky Dhir: Not that you are bitter, not that you remember.
Frank Stevenson: No, no, no, this stuff is all in the past Rocky, I don’t recall any of that stuff ever, but we went up there and we saw what was happening there and we saw lives being changed. We happened to be there on a day when two of their alums came back and talked about the practices they have built with the skills that they have learned in that incubator.
Rocky Dhir: Now, let’s talk about what it is though, what do you mean by an incubator?
Frank Stevenson: Well, the premise behind the Legal Incubator is that you provide your young lawyers with opportunity and you provide your citizens with justice. That we focus a lot on how only one out of five poor American ever finds the civil legal help that he needs, what people don’t realize is for middle income Americans the number is not that much better, it’s two out of five, it’s still pretty abysmal.
Rocky Dhir: Incremental.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, exactly. So what an Incubator does is it trains lawyers to be able to serve that need, and at the same time, it trains them to do it to be able to provide for their families and the people that they love. You can build a sustainable successful practice if you are equipped and trained to do it, and that’s what incubators do.
Rocky Dhir: Now, TOJI has been alive in Texas for what, I guess two years now, a year-and-a-half?
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, it was first announced two years ago. It’s been up and operating for about 16 months.
Rocky Dhir: Is it too early now to see how successful it has been or do we have an idea?
Frank Stevenson: I don’t think so. I had the honor to serve on a panel yesterday with two of our current, they are what are called cohorts, there are three groups of 10 that start six month staggered terms and they started talking about what they have learned and the clients that they are already serving. They get into an incubator and you give them these skills and you teach them how to do the business aspect of a practice and how you can automate your practice to be able to save time and money, how to have a virtual practice, and they start serving clients right away.
And they are all in there together Rocky, so they are all learning from each other in addition to learning from the veteran lawyers that come in and will teach them skills.
So they start representing people, and when I was up in Chicago and judging from the two that I was on the panel with yesterday, you end up with the world by the tail, you really end up being able to build a successful practice where you are helping these people and you are helping yourself.
Rocky Dhir: Now, first of all, you said you were on a panel with two other, I guess they are TOJI alums?
Frank Stevenson: Our program is an 18-month program and so every six months a new group called a cohort of 10 will start within the program and then they all follow each other. We just brought on in March our third cohort. So now, just for a matter of months, we are at capacity. We have roughly 30 people in our cohort.
What is remarkable — and again this gets back to look to Texas, what’s remarkable is, we announced that we were going to do this two years ago and within two years we now have the largest legal incubator in the United States out of 75 incubators.
Rocky Dhir: Wow.
Frank Stevenson: We built the largest one in two years.
Rocky Dhir: Wow, okay.
Frank Stevenson: Most take over three years just to start. We now have ours fully complemented. It’s now at capacity and it’s working, it’s working.
Rocky Dhir: Have you graduated a cohort yet, I guess, if it’s only 16 months you are two months shy of your first cohort graduating.
Frank Stevenson: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: I did math in my head.
Frank Stevenson: That was very, very impressive. I did see you sort of counting your fingers though.
Rocky Dhir: Well, I did, and I will probably need an aspirin after this, but that’s okay, that doesn’t really concern anybody, that’s fine. Well, good.
Frank Stevenson: I was still impressed — I was still impressed. We are close to having the first cohort graduate, you are absolutely right, and what’s remarkable is the legal access division that’s run by the State Bar of Texas and coordinates with our Texas Supreme Court and putting a value on people’s pro bono and modest means hours, if you use the formula that they use, which I think is $100 for an hour of modest means service, that sort of thing, the dividend, the benefit. The group that’s in there every year provides a $1.1 million access to justice dividend between the pro bono hours that they’re required to contribute in the modest means hours that they choose to contribute.
So, every single year the TOJI operates $1.1 million access to justice dividend. But what we’re doing, Rocky, of course is, we are training these people for a whole career full of modest means service. And so, if you use very conservative assumptions about how many of them are going to actually go into that practice, which is probably about 55% long-term, how long they are going to practice 25 years very conservative estimation, you figure out that the overall access to justice dividend from TOJI every year is $9.5 million.
Rocky Dhir: Wow.
Frank Stevenson: $9.5 million closing the justice gap.
Rocky Dhir: Now that’s money that’s going back into the community.
Frank Stevenson: That’s the value of serving people who otherwise would either or would almost certainly just not have their legal needs met at all. So, that’s the pro bono hours these people will contribute, the modest means hours they will contribute, serving Americans who otherwise simply had no access to justice.
Rocky Dhir: Now, let’s talk about it from the flip-side, from the attorney’s side so they come out of TOJI and they have been in this incubator program and then they go out and start their practices.
Frank Stevenson: Correct.
Rocky Dhir: Do we have any metrics on their ability to make a living doing this?
Frank Stevenson: Yes, yes we do. The JEP, the Justice Entrepreneur Project of Chicago is essentially the same incubator that we have in Texas. So, its experience can be very reliably applied to what’s going to happen to our incubator in Texas. Their numbers indicate that about 55% of these people stay in solo or very small modest means-focused practices and that they make that a career decision and that they are successful at it.
We happened to be there on a day when two of their alums came back and explained their practices, and they talked about what they did in order to make the finances work and what sort of success they were achieving —
Rocky Dhir: Do you remember anything about what they did?
Frank Stevenson: Yes, these people have to be very entrepreneurial and very creative and very technologically savvy. One woman came back and said, everyone when they talk about landlord-tenant modest means everyone thinks tenants, but the truth is, there are a lot of mom-and-pop landlords that when there’s a default they go to legal edge, try to get help and the tenants already been there. So, they don’t they don’t have any word or term.
Rocky Dhir: They conflicted out, okay.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah. So, what this person does is she does a landlord-tenant practice focusing on modest means landlords and she’s not going to like so.
Rocky Dhir: That’s kind of counterintuitive but I see where she — that makes sense now that you say it.
Frank Stevenson: Exactly, Rocky and that’s what you need to do.
Rocky Dhir: That’s what entrepreneurship is — like why didn’t I think of that?
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, exactly, but it’s people who have this kind of drive and this kind of intellect and this creativity and they are given these tools so that all their costs are cut to the bone and they are highly automated practices. Another guy does nothing but Fair Debt Collection Practice work and he has this very creative way of developing business and he’s flooded with clients and —
Rocky Dhir: And they are able to pay him?
Frank Stevenson: And they are able to pay him, and they are not able to pay at the rates of the tall building lawyers but you know what, his practice is set up, so they don’t have to. He is able to meet their needs, he is able to provide for his family and he is able to do it because he uses technology and automation and cut costs to the bone, and he is knocking the lights out.
Rocky Dhir: Now, let’s talk about kind of a little I guess juxtaposition or an irony that it’s kind of coming out of this. You just used a word “tall building lawyers”, you are a tall building lawyer, right?
Frank Stevenson: Yes I am.
Rocky Dhir: So, as a tall building lawyer, you were spearheading this TOJI initiative, how did you manage to kind of bridge that gap because have you ever been in a small firm or a small practice?
Frank Stevenson: No.
Rocky Dhir: How did you kind of get it to where you could identify with what these folks were going through?
Frank Stevenson: It actually was very easy. The talk in every Bar Association everywhere is about competition from non-lawyers, and our reaction to that has typically been to man the battlements and try to fight with them, and some bars have done that and it typically isn’t very successful.
The better approach, and in fact, the more — the infinitely more obvious approach is to beat them at their own game. My point is the fact that although a rocket lawyer, any of these other people are coming in and taking legal work, they are not doing anything wrong. What they are doing is they are holding up a mirror to profession and showing what we are doing wrong. We are not meeting that need and it’s very distressing to me that we have non-lawyers who don’t have our training, who don’t have the same code of ethics and they are coming in and they are dispensing advice and they are doing it in a way that I think is ultimately very damaging to the public.
But, to me what we need to do, is go to school on what they do and beat them at it and things like legal incubators, are equipping lawyers to be able to meet that need, and what I wanted to do is when we started TOJI, the number was that 40% — now this is in 2014, the number is a little bit better now. 40% of law school graduates, 10 months after they graduated had jobs that didn’t even require a law degree, 40%, and it’s better now, but not that much better.
Rocky Dhir: There’s still a lot of work to be done.
Frank Stevenson: Exactly. What I wanted to do is I wanted to equip that group so that they could serve their fellow citizens and also support their families.
Rocky Dhir: So, is this a viable model now for young lawyers coming out of law school looking to see what they can do, can’t find a job or can’t find the job they want —
Frank Stevenson: Right.
Rocky Dhir: Is this a good avenue for them?
Frank Stevenson: It is, and one of the beautiful things about it is, it’s so prodding. Word like “incubator” picks up so many things. Baylor has something called Legal Mapmaker, it’s an incubator, it’s an intensive course that they will take all around the State and allow people from every law school to participate in. Again, lawyers get trained on a much briefer period but they get trained on how to run an efficient successful —
Rocky Dhir: Financial management and all those things that we never learn about in law school.-
Frank Stevenson: Exactly, and just common sensical things like you are setting up a practice, the last thing in the world you want to do is rent space, you don’t need to do that until you get to this stage in your practice and then at this stage —
Rocky Dhir: Work from home, that’s right.
Frank Stevenson: Exactly. So Legal Mapmaker is one, Texas A&M Law School in Fort Worth has the Texas Apprenticeship Network, it’s very successful, relatively small program between graduation and when you get your Bar results. But, we met yesterday, there was a — after the panel discussion there was a group, a roundtable and we want to take incubators all across the State. There’s no reason this can’t be replicated and they don’t have to look just like TOJI. They don’t have to be 18-month brick-and-mortar incubators. They could be like Mapmaker or they could be like apprenticeship network, they could be like any of a number of other forms, but this is how we are going to change the dynamic. This is how we are going to try to close the justice gap particularly with modest means Americans and it’s also the way in which we are going to try to provide opportunity. Opportunity needed by our lawyers, justice needed by our citizens, we meet them in TOJI.
Rocky Dhir: What’s next for you? So, today you were — in what — one another for hours or so after we do this taping, you are not going to be the immediate past-president, and so, I guess, at that point you were officially off the leadership roster of the State Bar, right?
Frank Stevenson: Correct.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, stop crying, Frank, it’s okay.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah. Well, I am keeping it hidden, nor did I?
Rocky Dhir: Yes, you are, and you are keeping it real, which is good, we are doing both.
So, what’s next for you at that point because you seem very passionate about TOJI and the idea of trying to find entrepreneurial ways, around the access to justice and the legal employment problem? So, is that going to be your focus? Are you going to take a break? What’s Frank Stevenson going to look like over the next year?
Frank Stevenson: Well, I was honored. I was appointed to the ABA Standing Committee on the Delivery of Legal Services which is their committee that addresses innovative delivery of legal services, incubators being one thing. I was appointed to that by the President of the ABA and I am honored to be serving on that. I was appointed at the Texas Bar Foundation, it does terrific work. I am honored to be involved in that and I was picked as the Vice President and in two years will be the President of the Western States Bar Conference, which is the 15 states Texas and states west, and so I’ll be the — only the second Texan to be President of that in two years.
Rocky Dhir: So, you are going to stay busy. You are not giving up any time soon?
Frank Stevenson: I am not, no, I am giving back.
Rocky Dhir: No riding off into the sunset.
Frank Stevenson: No.
Rocky Dhir: Do you even know how to ride a horse? Have you ever ridden into a sunset?
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, yeah, I can’t recall of riding into a sunset, I do remember holding onto a saddle horn with enormous trepidation, yeah.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, the sweaty palms trying not to fall up.
Frank Stevenson: That was, I was that guy.
Rocky Dhir: That was you, that was you? Okay.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, I was that guy.
Rocky Dhir: Yeah, you’re the stunt double on the westerns.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, I really I am. The one that falls off.
Rocky Dhir: Hey, that’s why you became a lawyer, right? I couldn’t make it as a stunt double.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, I remember that. The rodeo thing was just not working for me.
Rocky Dhir: No, no; I tried being a rodeo clown once but even that, they said your face is just too funny.
Frank Stevenson: Yeah, absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: So, I had to give that up too.
Frank Stevenson: Absolutely.
Rocky Dhir: Well, Frank, it is fascinating and I always enjoy our talks together.
Frank Stevenson: Well, it’s always terrific to see you and thank you for doing this. I think there’s an awful lot of misinformation being spread about our Bar. I mean, I hate to be that blunt, but it’s simply true, and it’s just — it’s just false. And if people want to know about the Bar, then they ought to reach out to officers or past officers and find out what the real story is.
Because our State Bar of Texas is when you’re in the middle of something you really have the worst view. When you go outside of our State and you see how we’re viewed by others, literally everybody else, then you come to understand what a precious thing we have in the State Bar of Texas.
Rocky Dhir: With a platinum standard across the country, it sounds like.
Frank Stevenson: They really are.
Rocky Dhir: Let’s say somebody wants to reach out to you either to find out more about the Bar, they want to get involved in leadership or they want to find out about incubator projects, either if somebody wants to start an incubator or they want to maybe be in one of the cohorts, how do they reach out to you? What’s the best way?
Frank Stevenson: I’m at Locke Lord in Dallas, (214)740-8469, just call me, email me. The job that I have now for the State Bar is to find my successor and it may be the successor three years from now, it may be the successor 30 years from now, but that’s my job now.
And so, if anybody is interested in pursuing opportunities with the State Bar, they want to be a part of an incubator, they want to do any of these things, all they have to do is give me a whistle.
Rocky Dhir: And getting involved, we will help their careers, and will help their personal lives and everything.
Frank Stevenson: When I think back on the aspects of my practice that have provided me with the most satisfaction, they all involved Bar work.
Rocky Dhir: Wow. Well, I hope you, dear listener, have enjoyed this because you’ve gotten to hear from somebody who is just — he’s not only been a leader of our Bar, he’s been a leader for those of us that know him personally.
Frank, you’re awesome.
Frank Stevenson: You are very gracious, Rocky.
Rocky Dhir: So, thank you for being here and I hope you’ve enjoyed this. I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from Frank, hearing his story. And, if you or anybody else you know might be interested in learning more about TOJI and other opportunities like that or getting involved in the Bar, reach out to Frank.
And certainly, if you would, please find us and rate us on Apple Podcasts, on Google Play, on your favorite podcast app. I want to thank you for helping to make this such a special edition of the State Bar of Texas Podcast. And I want to thank our friends at Legal Talk Network for all that they do behind the scenes.
Guys, you know, our State Bar is going places and we want to thank you for being along with us for the ride, because after all, life is a journey, folks. So, thank you for tuning in.
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