Georgia Bar Journal
April 2021, Vol. 26, No. 5
I began writing this article after watching the live stream of the last five hours of Sine Die in the Georgia Legislature last month. That was an experience! I have always understood the importance of the Legislature and its direct and powerful impact on my life as a citizen. However, after following along with the process as it unfolded and watching the inner workings over the 2021-22 regular session while serving as president of the State Bar of Georgia, I now have a greater appreciation for the work that it does and how it not only impacts me as a citizen, but our profession as a whole. That’s the benefit of transparency.
In that vein, I endeavor to give you, my fellow Bar members, some insight on the inner workings of our State Bar for greater transparency. I will answer the questions I am often asked about the State Bar when speaking with local bar associations and working with fellow Bar members, judges and members of the public. It dawned on me then, watching these public servants handle the business of our state on behalf of our citizens, that many of our members, despite our efforts, don’t have a clear understanding of the organization and functions of the State Bar, why it is important to the practice of law in our state, and what its duties and responsibilities are to both the members of the organization as well as the public we serve.
The State Bar of Georgia is a mandatory bar and a self-governing body, meaning we govern the practice of law in this state and require every lawyer who wants to practice law in Georgia be a member. We are an arm of the Supreme Court of Georgia; the Supreme Court ultimately has final say as to the rules promulgated by the State Bar and the disciplinary actions taken against members of the Bar. The leadership of the Bar includes the Board of Governors, which essentially serves as the “congress” of the State Bar. It is comprised of members representing 50 specific judicial circuits, some of which have multiple representatives dependent upon the total number of active Bar members in a particular circuit. The post number associated with each post in any given circuit only serves to identify that particular position. It has no purpose other than to identify the number of representatives in the circuit. Board members serve two-year terms, with about half of the Board being up for election or re-election each election cycle, usually even-numbered posts one year and the odd-numbered posts the following year.
Rule 1-303 states that “the Board of Governors shall hold at least three regular meetings in each year ...” The Board currently gathers four times a year, with meetings in the fall, winter, spring and two in the summer. The Fall and Spring Meetings are smaller and less likely to have associated CLE components or larger functions. The Midyear Meeting, held in January, is the second largest meeting of the Bar. The largest meeting of the Bar is referred to as the Annual Meeting, and its format allows for two Board meetings to be held over the course of two days, Friday and Saturday. The Friday meeting is chaired by the outgoing president and includes a general members’ meeting where all Bar members may participate; reports and updates on work that has occurred throughout the year; awards presentations; and end-of-the-year addresses. The Saturday meeting is chaired by the president-elect who will be formally installed as president, along with the other new officers, that evening. This is the unofficial start of the new Bar year, which is officially defined as July 1 through June 30. The president-elect will address the body prior to conducting the business of the Bar, including the election of Executive Committee members, addressing any rule or bylaw changes, and other items of note.
Over the course of the 12 years that I have served in leadership of the State Bar—as a Board member, an Executive Committee member and as an officer—the question of why the Board meetings are sometimes held out-of-state is often posed. I’d like to share that reasoning with you now, for additional transparency.
In addition to Board of Governors meetings, there are a significant number of other meetings and events put on by Bar committees, Bar sections, ICLE, and Bar-related organizations including the Georgia Legal Services Program, the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism, the Institute for Continuing Judicial Education and the like, that occur around and lead up to each scheduled Board meeting. The total number of meetings that often occur at the same time, especially during the Annual Meeting, requires several large meeting rooms in addition to sufficient space to accommodate the Board members, past presidents, Supreme Court justices, Court of Appeals judges and guests who attend Board meetings, as well as associated dinners and events. Atlanta, Savannah and Jekyll Island are currently the only locations able to provide enough space for four full days of multiple, simultaneous activities, including necessary ballrooms and hotel rooms, while also offering attractive, high quality venues to attendees and their families. Put simply, it comes down to the issue of space. In order to accommodate all of our attendees and guests and their meeting needs, we periodically host meetings in neighboring states, which are within driving distance for most people. We have posted information regarding hosting meetings outside the state, along with a schedule of upcoming Board meetings and minutes from previous meetings, on the website at www.gabar.org/bog.
Pursuant to our bylaws, which are available for review on our website at www.gabar.org/rules, when the Board is not in session, its powers to govern our Bar lies with the Executive Committee of the State Bar of Georgia. The Executive Committee consists of 14 members, including the president, immediate past president, president-elect, treasurer and secretary of the State Bar; the Young Lawyers Division (YLD) president, immediate past president and president-elect; and six members who also hold Board posts and essentially serve as members-at-large.
Officers of the State Bar, who run via statewide election, and the YLD officers who are elected by the YLD membership, all serve one-year terms on the Executive Committee. The six non-officer members of the Executive Committee all serve two-year terms and are elected by the Board during the Annual Meeting as I referenced earlier. Nominations for officer positions of the State Bar occur during the Midyear Meeting, and those who are nominated and approved are included in the annual State Bar of Georgia Election, managed by the Elections Committee, that begins in late March and ends in late April. For more specific information about the process of State Bar elections, you can access the rules governing the process at www.gabar.org/election_rules.
Most officer positions are uncontested due to the nature and responsibilities required of the positions and the time commitment required to serve in this more specialized, elected volunteer role. The position that is usually contested is that of secretary, as it is the first officer position in line. Once an individual is elected as an officer of the Bar, the usual progression is treasurer, president-elect and president. It is rare that someone comes in and challenges a seated officer position, but it does happen from time to time. And to clarify, once someone is elected president-elect, they will be the next president, so their name is not on the ballot. Most presidents of the Bar were first elected to the Executive Committee, and then to the secretary, treasurer and president-elect positions, in that order. After their year as president, they serve as immediate past president, with special duties and responsibilities, too.
Executive Committee meetings occur more frequently than Board meetings, usually every other month or more often when needed and, like Board meetings, are scheduled by the president. Sometimes special called meetings are scheduled to address a particular issue or concern that may come up in between the scheduled meetings. For example, during the 2020-21 Bar year, we have met as often as three times in one month due to special called meetings, in addition to more scheduled meetings than usual over the past Bar year. Executive Committee meeting schedules and posted minutes can be found at www.gabar.org/ec.
State Bar Committees, Programs and Sections
Your Bar is made up of approximately 50 standing, special and program committees, with many of those appointing subcommittees as well. Bar committees conduct much of the work of our Bar. The make-up and membership of each committee, including the number and type of committee members who serve, is also outlined in our bylaws. The president-elect of the State Bar, several months before the presidential term begins, starts the detailed process of assigning committee membership. President-Elect Elizabeth L. Fite has completed the process, but there is always room to add more if you are interested in serving on a particular committee. If so, you are strongly encouraged to go to www.gabar.org/committees; read the committee description; contact committee members to find out more information, including how often the committee meets and what duties and responsibilities are involved; and then indicate your interest to President-Elect Fite. Keep in mind that committee terms differ, so be clear of the commitment you are making when offering to serve. It may also help you to know that all committees are supported by an Executive Committee liaison and one or more State Bar staff liaisons to provide assistance, support and guidance.
Many of you actively participate in one or more Bar Sections. Membership in and funding of section activities come from section dues that you pay separately and apart from your State Bar of Georgia license fees. Each of the 52 sections of the Bar has a particular legal focus or practice area, elects its own leadership, and determines how often it meets and what work it will accomplish during the year. Many sections routinely hold robust CLE events, like the General Practice & Trial Law Institute, the Family Law Institute and the Real Property Law Institute, all with multi-day educational offerings. These institutes, and all section programs and events, are a great way to connect and network with fellow practitioners and judges while earning CLE credit.
The Bar offers a number of programs that benefit you as a member, as well as the general public. A few examples include the Fee Arbitration program, which provides a convenient mechanism for the resolution of fee disputes between attorneys and clients; the Clients’ Security Fund, which fulfills, in part, the duty of the legal profession to keep faith with the public and serves to maintain the profession’s collective reputation for honesty and trustworthiness; the Client Assistance Program, which serves both the public and members of the Bar by providing information and communication assistance; and the Military Legal Assistance Program, a joint program between the State Bar and the Georgia Legal Services Program, which assists service members and veterans by connecting them to State Bar members who are willing to provide free or reduced-fee legal services. There are many other Bar programs offering a wide variety of services geared toward supporting you in your practice and the profession as a whole, all of which are managed by Bar staff. You can find a full list of Bar programs at www.gabar.org/programs.
The Bar Center, Bar Staff and Satellite Offices
The Bar Center, located in downtown Atlanta, houses Bar operations and serves as headquarters for the organization. The building was purchased in 1997 and paid off in 2011. Owning the building outright eliminates the high cost of leasing space to conduct Bar business. We also maintain satellite offices in Tifton and Savannah to serve our members in those areas. Each of the three Bar offices offer meeting and conference space, and audio-visual support for those members of the Bar who may not have the capacity or technology to meet or conduct business virtually, an offer particularly helpful to members pre-pandemic. Although COVID-19 has caused us to close all three offices and required our staff to work remotely, we look forward to moving back into our offices and opening them up when it is safe to do so and under the appropriate safety protocols, so that we can once again offer the numerous amenities that provide opportunities for learning and conducting business.
Currently, there are 106 Bar staff working to serve you in our three offices. Executive Director Damon Elmore effectively serves as CEO of Bar staff. The Office of the General Counsel, led by General Counsel Paula Frederick, handles all Bar grievances and disciplinary actions, and regularly provides legal advice to the Executive Committee and Board, as well as providing ethics advice to members who reach out for guidance. For a listing of the departments and a staff directory, visit www.gabar.org/staff.
The Bar’s Relevance
Now that we have talked about Bar leadership, committees, sections, programs of the Bar, and staff, let us briefly talk about how the Bar impacts you and your practice.
The Supreme Court of Georgia promulgates the rules for the organization and governance of the State Bar of Georgia, but did you know the State Bar often plays a role before the Court changes those rules?
Typically, the Office of the General Counsel drafts the proposed rules and amendments and shares them with relevant committees. The proposed changes are presented to the Executive Committee for input and then to the Board of Governors. If the Board of Governors approves the rule or amendment, the Bar posts a notice regarding the proposal on the State Bar of Georgia website. The State Bar welcomes all comments, feedback and input, so please take the time to review the notices, offer comments and share those notices with your work colleagues and local bar members to encourage them to do the same.
During the Spring Meeting every year, the Board determines the license fee amount for the next Bar year along with any related Bar assessments that may also need to be established, like the Clients’ Security Fund assessment, just in time for your Bar license fee notice to be sent to you. At the Annual Meeting, the final budget for the next Bar year is voted on by the Board, which includes funding for various Bar programs, committees and other work of our Bar.
I hope this information and increased transparency have provided you with a broader insight as to the important work we do as a Bar and its relevance to you, your practice and your clients. I hope to have motivated you to take advantage of the opportunities to serve on Bar committees, in Bar sections and with Bar programs. I hope to have encouraged you, my fellow Bar members, to seek elected leadership positions within our Bar on the Board of Governors or on the Executive Committee. Your input and leadership are necessary for our Bar to move forward. We must work together to make our Bar and our profession even better. With more volunteers like you, we can continue to #SustainASoundBar well into the future.