ABA president at Elon Law: 'Be prepared to outwork everyone else'

American Bar Association President Linda Klein visited Elon Law on Monday for a special luncheon with some of the school’s top students and legal leaders from the North Carolina Bar Association and the Greensboro Bar Association.

When she was a new associate in her Atlanta law firm, she handled the cases no one else wanted. She managed the pro bono work no one else volunteered to take. She accepted professional association committee assignments for which no one else raised a hand.

And Linda Klein made sure she gave each client or task the attention they deserved. As she built a record of success, Klein was quickly appointed to more prestigious positions with even greater responsibilities.  

“You need to be prepared to outwork everyone else,” Klein, who today serves as president of the American Bar Association, said Monday to Elon Law students and community legal leaders at a special campus luncheon. “I discovered that the harder I worked, the luckier I got.”

Klein’s visit on Oct. 10, 2016, marked a milestone event in what has been a milestone year for Elon Law. She is the first sitting ABA president to visit the law school since it first opened in 2006, and Elon Law is celebrating its 10th anniversary year with a number of programs – Klein’s visit included – that demonstrate its commitment to leadership in the law.

In her remarks to an audience that included the presidents of the North Carolina Bar Association and the Greensboro Bar Association, Klein charged listeners with using the law in service to communities and underserved populations.

“The law is vital to our democracy and the rule of law ensures each of us has access to justice,” she said Monday. “Some say there are too many lawyers, but at the same time, there are millions of Americans who need lawyers but can’t afford them.”

Klein discussed several themes central to her tenure as president of the world’s largest voluntary professional organization: expanding access to legal services for veterans, advocating for early childhood education, and growing the ABA’s capacity for helping solo practitioners and small firms.  

Many attorneys in small firms or their own practices find they spend less time than they would like serving clients because they are busy with administrative tasks of running small businesses, she said. That needs to change as the demand for legal work grows. “I’m really proud of the way the ABA is investing so heavily in the next generation of lawyers,” Klein said of ABA Blueprint, an online resource for attorneys to run their own firms.

Also of note to the ABA is the shrinking number of attorneys who serve in state legislatures across the United States. Klein said she hopes more lawyers consider serving as elected leaders who bring a fuller understanding of how the judiciary safeguards democracy.

“Lawyers used to be a good part of the legislature and they looked out for the third branch of government,” Klein said. “There are fewer lawyers in the legislature today who understand the importance of an independent judicial branch.”

Klein is the senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, an Atlanta-based practice that includes most types of business dispute resolution.

In 1997, Klein became the first woman to serve as president of the State Bar of Georgia. As president, she advocated for the state to allocate funding for Georgia Legal Services and Atlanta Legal Aid to hire lawyers to help indigent victims of domestic violence. She organized a statewide group of community organizations and local and minority bar associations that convinced the General Assembly to appropriate $2 million. Since then, annual appropriations have helped thousands in Georgia with legal issues related to domestic violence.

Klein was one of the first women to lead a prominent Georgia law firm. She served as managing partner of Gambrell & Stolz beginning in 2001 and led the firm’s 2007 merger with Baker Donelson, becoming a Baker Donelson board member and Georgia managing shareholder.

From 2010-2012, Klein served as chair of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates, the second highest office in the organization. She has also served as chair of the Tort Trial and Insurance Practice Section, chair of the Committee on Rules and Calendar of the House of Delegates, chair of the Coalition for Justice, and chair of ABA Day, the Association’s Congressional outreach effort. She is a member of the Council of the ABA Section of International Law and also serves as a columnist and on the Board of Editors of Law Practice Management Magazine.

In 2004, the ABA honored Klein with the prestigious Margaret Brent Women Lawyers of Achievement Award.

“Thank you, Linda, for all you have done to advance our profession and to lead by example for the next generation of American lawyers,” Elon Law Dean Luke Bierman said in his introductory remarks.

Bierman described Elon Law’s relationship with the ABA as “nothing short of remarkable.” The school received full ABA accreditation in 2011, which is the shortest amount of time possible for new law schools, under the leadership of former dean George Johnson. Two years later, the ABA recognized Elon Law with the E. Smythe Gambrell Professionalism Award for its leadership program, which has been guided by Associate Dean Faith Rivers James.

The school is already leading national discussions in what the future of legal education should be. Beginning with last year’s incoming class, students complete their legal education at Elon Law in 2.5 years and are the only law students in the nation required to complete a course-connected residency-in-practice as part of the redesigned curriculum.

“We are proud at Elon Law of what we have done in that short amount of time,” Bierman said. “We are not afraid to do things differently.”