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ABA Leaders to law students: ‘We hear you’

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Judy Perry Martinez and Trish Refo
ABA Past President Judy Perry Martinez (second from right) and current President Trish Refo (right) are leading the ABA in an effort to make the future less uncertain for law students. (ABA Photo)

In August, Trish Refo was interviewing a law student for a 2021 summer associate position at Snell & Wilmer in Phoenix, where she’s a partner, and one of the messages she had to send was that the position was contingent on safe conditions on the ground when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We expect to have a program, but long-term planning has become what’s happening next Monday,” admitted the ABA president. “Nobody has any crystal ball to know for sure what next spring or summer will look like. We all have hopes. The key is to be flexible and resilient as we go forward.”

That message isn’t intended to minimize students’ worries about their future. “They’re concerned, rightly, about what the future holds,” said Refo. “This is a time for them of great uncertainty, and the ABA is trying to do everything it can to address the concerns the law students are raising with us.”

Refo’s predecessor as ABA president, Judy Perry Martinez, sent a similar message in a Facebook Live chat with students nationwide.

“We know there’s a lot of frustration and concern and fear, and rightfully so, among law students,” said Martinez, of counsel at Simon, Peragine, Smith & Redfearn in New Orleans. “Whether we’re talking about educational debt, economic recessions, or other hard times, what we know is that lawyers have faced some of that in the past.

“But the pandemic is a truly different type of challenge because it’s affecting all of us, and it’s affecting you as law students in ways we haven’t seen before,” Martinez added. “We’re getting every day a better understanding of what’s happening to law students across the country, and the most important message is that you’re not alone in this, and the profession and the ABA are here for you.”

What the ABA is doing

“The ABA is absolutely listening to law students and their concerns,” said Refo. “The ABA had a meeting in August, where we passed a resolution urging all state licensing authorities to not hold in-person bar exams until and unless it’s safe from a public health perspective to do so.

“I sent a letter shortly thereafter to every chief justice in the United States incorporating the points that were in that resolution,” she stated.

The ABA also passed in August a resolution aimed to guide the accreditation body on handling emergency measures law schools might take to keep law students and faculty safe during the pandemic, such as when law schools needed to abruptly shift from in-class scheduling of courses to distance learning.

Back in April, the ABA also passed a resolution providing for supervised practice for those whose bar exam has been canceled.

“The ABA issued a guidance with regard to those states, if they didn’t hold the July bar exam, that they could, in fact, possibly create a rule or modify the existing rules on bar admissions to allow law grads who hadn’t taken the bar before to actually practice under the direct supervision of an attorney in good standing,” explained Martinez. “That had the support of the ABA Law Student Division Council as well as the other entities in the ABA. That affords a path for someone to practice under the direct supervision of an attorney as far out as the end of 2021.”

Refo said: “Those are concrete and important actions the ABA has taken to address the pandemic.”

Your future requires flexibility

As Refo noted, there’s no sugar-coating that the legal job market is in flux and hard to predict. What can you do to adapt and succeed?

“I really think the key in this moment is around demonstrating flexibility, resilience, and forward-looking thinking as you approach the practice of law,” advised Refo. “We won’t be practicing law in the same way going forward, and we don’t yet know which of the changes we’ve experienced will become permanent. We just don’t know yet.

“So students and law graduates who embrace that uncertainty and who demonstrate their flexibility to work in whatever environment comes I believe will have a leg up,” she said.

If you’re among the probably thousands of law students or graduates whose job was eliminated or postponed, Martinez offered empathy and advice. “I can only imagine the kinds of concerns law students have right now,” she said on the Facebook chat.

“Those were sources of income you were expecting to have. I can’t even have a real sense of how that’s making things more difficult in these difficult times. It’s adding to the stresses that so many of you are feeling.

“The job prospects, to be candid, are going to be very difficult,” she reported.

“I owe you that to say we can’t underestimate what the challenges will be. We’re hopeful that as firms see more of what’s happening to them and how long it may be before getting back to whatever that new normal is that they’ll be able to step up again or, if not, to help people find something, maybe not full time but some other alternative.”

Martinez suggested you check in with the ABA Career Center, which has resources for tweaking your resume and an app for resume building. “It really does have some good information on how to pursue careers,” said Martinez. “The ABA LSD website also has great resources.

“Use those to the fullest, but also become individually thoughtful and creative about where you can look,” she recommended. “It can get really discouraging when you get turned down and more so when you had something in hand. I remain hopeful you’re going to find something and that you’re going to do your best to search for it. What we can do is stay ready to try to assist you as you go about the searches.”

The ABA remains committed to hearing and helping students, and Refo is encouraged that she’s able to do more of that now due to the shift to a virtual approach. “I’m visiting more law schools and getting more feedback from law students,” she said.

“I think this is a real opportunity; I wouldn’t be able to go to that many law schools if I had to get on a plane and fly anywhere.”

The women leading the ABA

Neither Martinez nor Refo knew they were meant to be lawyers.

The profession wasn’t in their blood. Martinez’s father owned a furniture store for 30 years in St. Bernard Parish, a suburb just Southeast of New Orleans. Refo grew up surrounded by Navy pilots. Her father, grandfather, and brothers served their country for more than 80 years collectively.

When it came time for Refo to follow family tradition, her older brother talked her out of a Navy career because she wouldn’t have been able to fly on aircraft carriers. She decided to pave a new family tradition.

“Being a lawyer seemed to me to be, and has been, an opportunity to serve—to serve our country, I hope, but certainly to serve clients and the public,” said Refo.

Both women joined the ABA shortly after their careers began. “I was often the youngest one in the room,” said Refo. “I took full advantage of that because I stuck out.”

Refo even met her husband at a bar association meeting And Martinez hasn’t missed an ABA Annual Meeting since 1983, save for the year when she was delivering her fourth child.

“It has been my home away from home,” said Martinez. “It has been where I’ve made the most extraordinary of friendships, but also where I’ve been fulfilled and enriched as a lawyer.”

Being president has widened Martinez’s lens into the vast impact the ABA has in influencing domestic and international policy. She’s taking that newly discovered view and using it to continually progress the ABA’s goals: serving the profession; improving the profession; eliminating bias and increasing diversity; and advancing the rule of law.

She’s also working to show new lawyers the ABA is invaluable to them. “We’re making a statement that we know new lawyers are our future and that we need to be here for you now so we can have you among us in the decades to come,” she stated.

For law students and new lawyers striving to find their own paths, the pair advised getting involved early on. Refo suggested joining every bar association possible. She credits her early involvement with her career accomplishments.

“I’m continuing today to reap the benefits of the connections I made as a very young lawyer being involved in the ABA,” she said. “If you don’t invest in yourself, who will?”

Shaping the country’s future

The past year has allowed Martinez to serve during a unique period in the country’s history. “I think the ABA has had a big year and an opportunity to show what it’s all about,” she said.

“It hasn’t shied away from difficult issues. It has stood up and spoken on issues where we know we can make a difference.”

Refo also views the current moment as one in which the ABA can shape the country’s future. “Anytime there’s great change, there’s also great opportunity,” she said. “And I think this is a real opportunity to be a change agent and make some things happen.”

Together with other members of the bar association, the pair has already helped to institute change. They traveled together to the border to help people seeking asylum into the United States. “If I were going to ask lawyers to do pro bono work, I wanted to understand what I was asking them to do,” Martinez explained.

The experience for Refo further bolstered her faith in the influence lawyers can have for the betterment of society. One story of an asylum seeker now working at a shelter in Harlingen, Texas, stays fresh in her mind.

The night before her first hearing, the woman prayed to God to send her an angel to help her. “When she got to the courtroom the next day without a lawyer and seven months pregnant, a lawyer who was there representing someone else saw her condition, represented her that day, and got her asylum.” recalled Refo. “When she gave birth to her son, she said to me, ‘So I named him after my angel.’”

The woman named her baby after the lawyer who helped her. “I can barely tell the story without tears coming to my eyes,” Refo said. “It’s all about the energy of committed lawyers trying to make our profession and our country a better place.”

The country is still wrestling with challenges at the Southern border, but it’s also facing racial issues after the killing of George Floyd sparked protests demanding change nationwide.

“It’s absolutely clear that the legal profession has a very important role to play in helping to lead our way toward true racial equality in this country,” said Refo. “We’re not there, and we have a long way to go. And we’re going to do our part.”

Both women say the ABA creates a certain kind of lawyer, no matter your position within the organization.

“What I know more broadly about people who spend time in the ABA is that they care about something that’s bigger than themselves,” stated Martinez. “They want to be a part of something that will drive change.”