By Rawan Bitar
At the pinnacle of her career, when many of her women colleagues have already left the profession, Miami’s Hilarie Bass has taken on a new role as American Bar Association president.
One of her goals is to study why so many women at the height of their experience abandon their careers in the law by age 50.
On August 15, Bass, 62, co-president of Greenberg Traurig, began her one-year term at the helm of the 400,000-member national organization, with a busy agenda ahead, including working on a nationwide pro bono initiative for homeless youth; and pushing an online resource, ABA Legal Fact Check, to clarify misinformation about the law.
“I’m very excited about taking over as ABA president because there’s a tremendous amount that we can accomplish,” Bass said. “My focus is on addressing the future of the profession, including the future of legal education, the future of how we provide services to our clients, as well as how we can use technology to more effectively minimize the justice gap.”
Bass has been involved with the ABA for over 30 years, having begun in the ABA Young Lawyers Division, as a YLD representative to the ABA Board of Governors, and moving up the ranks in various capacities to eventually chair the 70,000-member Litigation Section (2010-11), the largest section of the ABA.
She said as a young lawyer, a term as YLD president of the Miami-Dade Bar sparked greater interest and involvement in national bar association work.
“It was a great opportunity that I very much enjoyed,” Bass said. “You’re learning to be a better substantive lawyer. You’re helping to make the justice system better. You’re getting the opportunity to work with top lawyers throughout the country and creating a network for yourself, which has personal benefits to your practice. You work with other really smart, hardworking people who are all committed to improving the justice system. So there are lots of very valuable benefits to it.”
When it comes to her career, Bass said, “Solving people’s problems is something I find very satisfying.”
In addition to serving as co-president and a member of the executive committee for Greenberg Traurig, which has 38 offices worldwide and 2,000 attorneys on board, Bass is vice chair of the University of Miami’s Board of Trustees.
She is a 1981 graduate of the University of Miami School of Law, where she was law review editor, and earned her bachelor’s degree at George Washington University.
Bass said she is most proud of representing two foster children in a pro bono case that led to the legalization of gay adoptions in Florida. The children were placed in a foster home with a gay couple, who were barred from permanently adopting them. She said the court determined that the barrier to those children being able to be adopted by the foster parents, with whom they developed an emotional bond, was a violation of equal protection.
Bass said, “I still have people I don’t know, who come up to me on the street and tell me that ruling changed their life.”
While serving as ABA president, Bass said the two most critical issues she will face that have direct relevance to Florida are access to justice and low bar passage rates.
The access to justice problem is not only limited to the Sunshine State — the problem spans across the U.S. — and Bass said the ABA wants to use technology to find more efficient ways to bridge that access gap completely.
She said close to half the population in the U.S. at any time has a legal problem without retaining a lawyer; they might have landlord problems, a dilemma with a bank, or making sure a health surrogate adequately directs the care of their hospitalized parents. Either way, “People don’t realize these are the kind of problems lawyers could easily solve for them,” Bass said.
Bass also noted, “A vast majority of Americans don’t realize they have a legal problem when they have one,” but even if they know, many of them either don’t know how to find a lawyer, or they assume it will be too expensive to hire one.
When it comes to the future of legal education, the ABA has a number of projects in motion, according to Bass.
“We have a commission that has been appointed to look at the future of legal education. One example of what we will look at is why the bar passage rate is going down across the country, and how the ABA can help analyze the problem and find a solution across 50 states,” she said, noting the California Bar agreed to lower the cut rate because their passage rate was below 40 percent for their February exam. “It’s a significant issue impacting law grads everywhere. It’s not just California. It’s not just Florida. The bar exam passage rate is going down across the country.”
When it comes to studying the low bar passage rate, Bass said the Texas Supreme Court and the State of Nevada established entities to find solutions in their own states, but the ABA wants to provide some support and avoid 50 states each undergoing their own study. The ABA’s 10-member Commission on the Future of Legal Education will help lead the discussion on the issue.
Women in the Profession
Also, as president, Bass will be involved in a research study “to figure out why women are choosing to leave the practice of law” at the peak of their careers.
She said although The Florida Bar has looked at gender bias in the legal profession, this kind of study is different: “We will launch a groundbreaking longitudinal national study that will involve a Harvard summit, focus groups, and a research study to figure out why women are leaving the practice in huge numbers and what we can do to help stem that tide. We need to look at the kind of structural changes that can be made to ensure that half the women who enter the profession don’t end up leaving by the time they’re in their 50s.”
The ABA’s Achieving Long-Term Careers for Women in Law Initiative seeks to understand career dynamics of women lawyers, who tend to leave firms in their 40s and 50s. The ABA will co-sponsor a research project with the American Bar Foundation, and later this year, the ABA will co-sponsor a summit with Harvard Law School. The goal is to find solutions for long-term retention of women lawyers, in order to preserve talent and expertise in the profession.
During Bass’ presidential term, the ABA will also launch a nationwide pro bono initiative targeting homeless youth. The plan will be to pair the more than 350 homeless shelters throughout the country that serve homeless children with legal groups, bar associations, and in-house counsel groups, to provide direct representation for children. The children’s issues, Bass explained, might involve runaways trying to get back in school, or children looking for ways to obtain their birth certificate or to qualify for benefits.
“The plan is to have these groups commit to visiting a homeless shelter at least once a month in order to provide free legal advice to these children,” Bass said, adding the ABA would provide both online and hard-copy materials to assist lawyers in how to address pertinent issues, so even non-litigators can easily participate in the project.
Two days after Bass was sworn in as ABA president, August 17, an online portal launched that she will promote — ABA Legal Fact Check, The website is a resource for citizens and the media, she said, so if someone publicly makes a false statement about the law, the ABA will provide clarity.
“The goal is to provide the facts to address inaccurate claims that are made about the law. For example, if an individual says, ‘we should revoke the citizenship of someone who burns a flag,’” Bass explained, the ABA website would offer a response to the statement, such as, “In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that burning the flag by a U.S. citizen is a First Amendment right.”
When Bass’ year as ABA president is over, she plans to remain on the scene.
“I will remain active in the ABA for many years to come, continuing to focus on the issues that have long been my passion, like access to justice and diversity in the profession.”