California Lawyers Association

What It Means to Be a Bar Leader

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March 2020

By Ona Alston Dosunmu

For decades I was a practicing lawyer. Now I, along with volunteer officers, help lead a bar association. I enjoy leading the California Lawyers Association and here’s why. Leading CLA provides opportunities to step back from the day-to-day grind of getting stuff done as an attorney and to consider the entire profession from a higher altitude. These opportunities pop up in many ways. For example, last week I attended an event celebrating Mansfield certified firms. Inspired by the NFL’s “Rooney Rule” and named after Arabella Mansfield, the first woman licensed to practice law in the U.S., the Mansfield Rule measures whether law firms affirmatively consider women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people for at least 30% of their candidate pools for equity partnership and significant leadership roles. This event allowed me the opportunity to both celebrate the efforts of the Mansfield certified firms and also reflect on our mission-driven commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in the profession.

There’s tremendous excitement about our burgeoning health and wellness efforts and our participation in research study to be undertaken by Patrick Krill and his co-author, Justin Anker, on the mental and emotional health of the profession. This project should yield concrete ideas for improving the well-being of lawyers in our state. Through its Sections and Initiatives, CLA regularly engages on issues such as the prohibitively high cost of law school and its relationship to the justice gap. And on an even broader, societal level, we are called upon to defend democracy and the rule of law. I’m very excited that CLA is convening a task force on the future of the profession as this will be yet another opportunity for our members to lift their gazes from the day-to-day business of serving clients to think about what legacy we, as a collective, want to leave the next generation of lawyers.

As the largest voluntary statewide bar association in the most populous state with the largest economy in the country, CLA’s efforts to address the challenges facing the profession will resonate around the nation and the world. What we do has broad and deep impact.

Another reason I find serving CLA so rewarding are the amazing, passionate and dedicated legal professionals I encounter. When I was in private practice, I got to know a few clients and the many excellent lawyers with whom I worked. When I was General Counsel for the Brookings Institution, I got to know my employer-client intimately and became close to some of our go-to outside counsel—not to mention my colleagues in other disciplines who helped run the organization. As C.E.O. of our bar association, however, I regularly meet a much broader array of rock-star attorneys involved in a myriad of practice areas, specialties, community projects and initiatives around the state. They run the gamut from the professional staff supporting the Senate and Assembly Judiciary Committees to our Board Representatives and volunteer officers to the selfless attorneys in the legal services community that CLA convened in September and will bring together again in a few weeks. I went to law school because I believed a law degree opened many professional paths. The amazing members and potential members I encounter every day underscore this truth.

Ultimately it comes down to this—helping to lead a bar association provides a priceless and precious opportunity to improve the profession and the lives of the people in it. The CLA professional team and I serve the association so its members can serve their clients and, ultimately, the public of the entire state.

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