This weekly feature offers questions answered by newsworthy business leaders. Louise Michaux Gonzales has been elected the first female president of Maryland State Bar Association in it's 95-year history.
Q. With a membership of 15,000 attorneys, why did it take the Maryland State Bar Association so long to elect a woman as president? What does your election indicate about the status of women lawyers in Maryland and elsewhere?
A. Let me start with why did it take so long. For most of the time, there simply were not women lawyers. I remember when I graduated, which would have been in 1976, about 15 to 20 percent of the people in my class were women. After 1976 there was a very dramatic increase in the number of women applying to law school and becoming lawyers. Now the statistics for graduating classes are about 50 percent. Once you become a lawyer, there are certain professional developments that must take place. And, certainly before you become the leader in the Maryland State Bar Association, you have to develop as a lawyer in your practice and also develop in leadership positions. . . .
L Q. How long have you been involved with the bar association?
A. My involvement with the state bar association really began in 1980.
Q. Isn't it still true that very few women head law practices or are partners in major law firms in the state?
A. Yes, there seems to be a fewer number of women who have made partners in law firms, but not just in the large law firms. Everyone tends to focus on the large firms, but most employment in the legal field is in medium and small firms and the solo practitioner. There are fewer women attorneys who have attained partnership status in those organizations as compared to the number of women of an experienced age and level of expertise in practice. The reasons for that, I think, are numerous. One, I think fewer people period are making partner in the last several years. There are more attorneys than there are the need for legal services, at least paid legal services. There was great growth in the 1980s and now everyone is cutting back and so that's going to be a continuing problem. There is not quite the accommodation for the needs of many women attorneys. Many women attorneys try to balance family with work and some law firms try to make that accommodation and make adjustments for women on a partnership track, and others do not.
Q. Has that been a problem in your case?
A. As I mentioned to you, I started this firm with Bill Hylton in 1980 so I have been a partner since 1980. Also in my firm women are not discriminated against.
Q. Do you have an agenda for the year? What do you hope to accomplish during your term as president?
A. I have a number of goals, or at least aspirations. The first is the broader inclusion of women and minorities in both the state bar itself and in the legal profession as a whole.
Q. How do you intend to do that?
A. Well, there are a number of things that can be done. For instance, within the state bar one of the privileges the president has is to appoint committees and committee chairs to see that various projects either get done or are initiated. I've been careful in my appointments to make sure that women and minorities are included in those appointments. The more women and minorities are involved in the committees, the more that they'll become familiar with the work of that committee and advance through merit to the chair. And, they can advance through the hierarchy into leadership positions. I think that kind of visibility is important, because I think other lawyers, the more they see women lawyers acting as lawyers and acting in leadership positions either within the bar association or in the community or in a host of other activities, the more their acceptance grows, the more their respect grows.
Q. What are some of your other goals?
A. I would like to see more services rendered to solo and small practitioners. There's been some discussion in recent years that the small practitioner who's very often a general practitioner is going to phase out of the profession, that the profession is going to be all specialization and the general practitioner isn't going to exist anymore. Well I think the demise of the general practitioner has been greatly exaggerated. I would like to see our services provide the small practitioner with means of adapting to the practice of law in the 1990s. My other major goal is a little more difficult to measure. What I'm looking for is a change in attitude among attorneys. Many accept the status quo as far as how our legal system operates. Many even defend the status quo. I would like to foster a change in that. I think the public feels that the legal system, and of course when you say legal system it has many different parts, doesn't deliver what it thinks it ought to deliver. The public wants a system that gives them justice, that gives them fairness. They want access to a system that provides the prevention and resolution of disputes in a fair manner at an acceptable cost. And when I say acceptable cost, I don't mean just money, although that certainly is a factor.
Q. What is the fastest growing area of practice? What's your impression on the growth of legal services?
A. Right now there's a non-growth of legal services except in the areas of bankruptcy and international law is a growing area here in Baltimore. I think you're always going to have family law issues, divorce, adoption, guardianships, all those sorts of things. I think business law is a continuing growth area. I think real property is not going to grow for a while but all those real property attorneys are busy doing bankruptcy now.
Q. Has the recession badly affected legal firms?
A. No question about it. Certainly you've seen in the paper recently stories about a number of layoffs. In the legal profession that was unheard of until very recently. It was the tradition that a law firm would just struggle through hard times, but that was before the great growth of the 80s, and it's a lot easier to struggle through perhaps when you have 10 in your law firm than when you're trying to carry 120 in your law firm. There's no question, the number of attorneys I talk to say their business is down. If you don't have corporations and other source of businesses growing or making deals, land transactions and development going on, you don't have legal matters going on. So yes, I think the recession has certainly impacted law firms.
Q. Is it going to change the way law is practiced? In some industries the recession has changed the way firms do business, will that be true for the legal industry?
A. I think there will be much more mobility of attorneys between firms. Firms will feel freer to hire and lay off attorneys as needs change. Attorneys will feel freer to change firms when the opportunities present themselves. I think that has an impact on how firms will hire. It could well affect the particular training that a law firm or the investment that a law firm is willing to put in any one attorney at any given time. It could affect how clients are handled within a law firm. If you are, for instance, worried that a particular attorney is not going to be there for a long time, do you really promote the bonding of that attorney with your clients?
Q. How has technology effected the practice of law?
A. There are expectations of how quickly legal services should turn around. For instance, in the old days, a client would call me and say I have this proposed contract, let me send that to you. I knew I had two days until the mail got here so I could start lining up my other projects to make way for that. Today, the business client calls and says I have this contract, I'll fax it to you. I have approximately three minutes to schedule how that's going to fit in. Responses are expected to be instantaneous. Some of it is very good, some computers can now do the repetitive kind of work in a very quick way and often in a more efficient way and it makes it much better for the client because the cost can be lowered. Technology has opened doors. It's not unusual for a law firm to have a computer that can take all the deposition testimony and when you feed it into the computer you can than find out every time, for example, a Mr. Smith was mentioned. Well now that you have that ability to do that, do you use it? And if you don't, are you committing malpractice because you didn't use that? Technology can be a blessing or it can be a burden.
Q. What is the status of the bar's position on lawyer advertising?
A. We have a committee on lawyer advertising that, as you may know, developed a series of recommendations in connection with lawyer advertising and submitted that to the board of governors [and it has] been approved. That committee then took those recommendations to the rules committee. What they have said is what you are trying to do lawyers is restrict free speech and before you can restrict free speech, you've got to have a very good constitutionally valid reason to do that. Show us the facts that will lead us to the conclusion that there is a public interest, an important public or state interest in restricting free speech, and only if you show us that, are we going to impose restrictions on free speech. The data has to show legal advertising affects the way that they select lawyers, affects their expectations in a way that is not appropriate. So we are now spending the summer gathering that empirical data. The Daily Record, for instance, is helping us. They're doing a telephone poll to get reactions on how people feel about legal advertising. We're also gathering evidence of the various types of legal advertising that there are currently in Maryland. We'll then go back to the rules committee.
Q. What is the bar's position on no-fault insurance?
A. I think the board of governors . . . opposes no-fault insurance because we see in lots of other states where they have it that it doesn't bring the results that people think it's going to. But the bar association recognizes that some changes are needed in the tort area. We just don't know what the answers are yet. But again, we have a diverse membership. We have lots of plaintiff's attorneys and lots of defense attorneys and they generally don't agree with each other on what the answer is. But that's one thing that we're going to be looking at this year. We're going to be looking at the tort system. The tort system is broader than just automobile injuries, it covers all sorts of personal injuries. In November I plan to have what I'm calling the presidential forum in our mid-year meeting examining the tort system and I'm
inviting a representative from one or more of the groups that have proposed radical change in the tort system, for instance the American Law Institute. They came out very recently after five years of study with a report on some very radical changes in how the tort system is set up. I'm promoting that change but we've got to start looking at other ways of doing things so it works better for the public and for society as a whole.