Washington Lawyer

Strategic Leadership: A Conversation with Brigida Benitez

From Washington Lawyer, February 2016

By Tim Wells

Q&A iconSignificant changes are taking place at the D.C. Bar. During the term of then-D.C. Bar president Brigida Benitez (2014–15), a new strategic planning process, "D.C. Bar 2020: A New Five-Year Horizon," was initiated. Additionally, the Bar initiated the purchase of land to develop a new headquarters that will be designed to meet member needs and provide the Bar with a permanent home. The new headquarters will be in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood, conveniently located a few blocks north of the courts. Recently, Benitez sat down with Washington Lawyer to discuss the initiatives launched during her term, as well as the challenges that confront the legal profession in a fast-paced, ever-changing business environment.

Brigida Benitez

Washington Lawyer: Early in your term as D.C. Bar president, you appointed a committee of leaders within the Bar's membership to develop a new strategic planning process titled D.C. Bar 2020: A New Five-Year Horizon. Why did you feel a new strategic plan was necessary?

Brigida Benitez: I was fortunate to have been involved in developing the Bar's first strategic plan, which was originally adopted by the Bar's Board of Governors in 2009. I knew from that experience that maintaining a relevant and up-to-date strategic plan is vital to the success of a professional organization. We have more than 100,000 members worldwide, and we are working in a profession that has undergone enormous change in recent years. When we developed the original strategic plan, we did not know then what was in store for the profession following the 2008 recession. In the five years that followed, the legal profession underwent drastic changes. So I felt, and the Board of Governors agreed, that it was important to take the pulse of the membership and revise our plan to make sure we were in step with the concerns of our membership and the evolving needs of the legal profession. I believe that to be a good leader, it is important to lead with a sense of purpose and vision—not only in terms of the present, but for the future. You need to have a vision of where you want to be in 5, 10, or 20 years so that you are consistently and strategically marching in the right direction.

WL: What has the strategic planning process involved so far?

BB: The first step—which was key—was to reach out to the membership. We wanted to hear from our members, to have them share their views and experiences, and to tell us what they saw was going on in the profession. We conducted surveys, had direct telephone interviews with members, and organized 21 separate focus groups. That gave us an excellent opportunity to listen and learn. More than 5,000 members participated. This was an unprecedented effort and it was well worth it. We didn't simply want to say, "Here is what we're going to do." We wanted to know what our members wanted and needed, what they expected from their bar association—which is one of the premier bar associations in the country—and to ensure that this was reflected in the strategic priorities and objectives.

WL: Did you learn anything that surprised you?

BB: What was interesting was the commonality of what we heard. The one thing that kept coming up is that our members want connection, they want to feel they are part of a professional community. They want the D.C. Bar to be a place where they can connect through networking, professional development, continuing legal education, pro bono, etc. All of these options are very important. This is why one of our strategic priorities is to "foster community and connections."

One of the big changes that has taken place within the profession is that many lawyers are making career transitions—some because they have chosen to do so, others because they have been forced to do so because of changes in the economic landscape. We're no longer operating within the traditional model where you graduate from law school, then settle down with a law firm, with a private corporation as in-house counsel, or with the government and stay put for the next 15 or 20 years. That type of market stability doesn't exist the way it did for lawyers who graduated from law school one or two generations ago.

The legal marketplace has shrunk. Clients have become much more cost-sensitive. New technologies and service delivery arrangements have provided alternatives to the old ways of doing business. As a result, there is a sense of non-permanence in the workplace that did not exist for prior generations.

Two decades ago, 80 percent or 90 percent of a graduating law school class would find employment in the legal field. That number has dropped drastically. Recently, there have been years where only 30 percent of graduating students have been able to get a job in the legal profession. The 2008 recession resulted in law firms cutting back on hiring and outsourcing responsibilities that associates used to perform. We saw a rapid increase in the use of contract lawyers. This provided some lawyers with jobs, but these are temporary positions that typically do not provide much security or opportunity for advancement.

There is a lot of shifting and movement in the marketplace. Lawyers are searching for new opportunities and new ways to utilize their skills. And it isn't just young lawyers. Everyone has been impacted. Lawyers in the middle of their careers have been adversely impacted by the shrinking market, and some practice areas have been hit harder than others. Those lawyers have had to become more nimble and broaden their areas of expertise, or to shift the nature of their practice.

That said, I think it is important to note that in the midst of all this turbulence and movement, there also have been positive changes taking place. Change always creates new opportunities. We need to be able to recognize those opportunities and find ways to build on them. This is why another of our strategic priorities is "empowering individuals."

WL: You mentioned law school graduates are facing a shrinking market. A lot of them are also carrying a heavy debt load. Given this economic landscape, would you advise a young undergraduate to pursue a career in the law?

Brigida Benitez BB: Absolutely! I do encourage young people to join the profession. When I do, I also caution, "Do so with your eyes open." There's no question that high tuition and massive student loans pose a big problem. They need to be prepared for that. Meanwhile, law schools, law firms, and legal services providers need to be responsive and innovative in the ongoing development of loan forgiveness programs for students performing public service.

Despite all the challenges, I think we must not lose sight of the fact that the legal profession is a great profession. It is fundamentally a service profession—and a noble one, I believe. Lawyers can make a big difference in society and, specifically, in the lives of those who need [legal assistance]. No matter the path you choose, there are opportunities to do good—whether it is through public service, public interest law, or pro bono. There are also many challenges and exciting opportunities open to young lawyers, especially here in our nation's capital.

Personally, I love being a lawyer and I feel very fortunate to be part of the profession. So, yes, I encourage young people to become lawyers. I encourage them to seek out challenges, pursue their passions, and to give back by serving the public and the profession.

WL: Is there anything the Bar can do to help lawyers deal with marketplace issues?

BB: Yes. We can't change the market, and we can't bury our heads in the sand and pretend the recession didn't happen. What we can do is help individual lawyers facilitate their transitions and help them navigate the evolving landscape. The Bar has always played an important role in the provision of continuing legal education, and it has always been a place where lawyers can join a section and meet fellow lawyers in their areas of expertise. By developing new skills, by getting out and networking, one can learn about job opportunities and become aware of new possibilities. The Bar is instrumental to that process. For example, the Bar's award-winning Practice Management Advisory Service, spearheaded by Dan Mills and Rochelle Washington, has given hundreds of lawyers the tools they need to set up a practice. Practice management is not on the law school curriculum, but it is essential if you're going to be successful as a solo or small firm practitioner. Our Bar provides a place where lawyers can come to acquire those skills.

WL: What is the Global Legal Practice Task Force?

BB: I set up the Global Legal Practice Task Force in response to the fact that we have become more global as a profession, and more global as a bar. The D.C. Bar has members residing in 83 different countries. We also have a large number of members in the United States who have international practices and who serve global clients. The task force was established to study the growing globalization of the profession and to address some basic questions about what that means to our bar: What criteria and policies should we have in place for foreign lawyers who want to practice in the District of Columbia? What can we do for our members who have global practices? What services do members who are practicing abroad need? The task force has been studying a broad range of issues, and it will report its findings and a list of recommendations to the Board of Governors.

WL: How did the decision to purchase a new building for the Bar's headquarters come about?

BB: I think the acquisition of a building is a good example of the Bar's strategic leadership.Several years ago the Bar established a reserve fund to have enough money in hand to maintain adequate headquarters space. We had learned that when moving from one lease to another, shortfalls restricted our options. So the fund was established in a forward-thinking way, not necessarily with the goal of purchasing a building, but with the goal of being able to be responsive to our organizational needs, whether through purchase or lease. Then, during my term, a combination of low interest rates and available real estate brought to the fore the opportunity to seriously consider the purchase of a building. That began an intense process of exploration and due diligence.

We went through a preliminary process where we studied the economics, toured potential buildings, looked at possible development sites, and involved the Board of Governors. We had special meetings throughout the year to make sure the Board was kept fully apprised of what was going on at each stage of the process. At the end of the fiscal year, in June 2015, the Board authorized the Bar to sign a nonbinding letter of intent and to seek financing. Tim Webster, the Bar's current president, appointed a Building Advisory Task Force, on which I now serve, to study the details and make recommendations. On October 27, 2015, the Bar signed a purchase agreement for land in the Mount Vernon Triangle neighborhood to begin the construction of a building, which is slated to open by early 2018. This marked the fulfillment of a full year's worth of work.

WL: What are the financial ramifications for building the Bar's new headquarters?

BB: The cost savings are tremendous. During the next 30 years, we anticipate saving a minimum $25 million over what it would cost to continue leasing office space. This is a huge benefit for Bar members, and that savings will be used to help keep dues lower than they otherwise would be. The question is not as simple as, "What does a building cost?" The questions we asked were, "Is it more cost-effective to own or to rent?" And, "What is best for our members?" We put a lot of study and analysis into answering those types of questions. We discovered that by becoming owners, there were a variety of ways that we could more effectively manage cost while simultaneously generating revenue by leasing to tenants seeking retail and office space.

Many people may not realize that most of the large bar associations in the United States own their own buildings. So what we are doing here at the D.C. Bar is keeping with the practice of other large bars. Given our size, our membership, and our leadership role, we believe this is a logical next step.

WL: So, long term, the building purchase benefits the members?

BB: Long term and short term. In the near future we will have a headquarters building designed to accommodate our own particular needs—facilities for Continuing Legal Education Program courses, Sections programs, Pro Bono Center trainings, Board meetings, receptions, seminars, guest lectures, and so on. We will have space where members can come and gather, as well as space where they can work on a temporary basis, both of which respond to the members' needs for fostering community and connecting with other lawyers. Our new home will be equipped with Webinar capability and other technology to enhance member experiences. Overall, the new space is being designed and developed with member needs as a priority. I am excited by this terrific opportunity.

Reach Tim Wells at twells@dcbar.org.