Butte attorney Bob Carlson was confirmed Tuesday as president of the American Bar Association, making him only the second person from Montana to lead the largest professional association of lawyers in the U.S.
Carlson had served in many national and state bar leadership positions over his 38-year career before the ABA’s House of Delegates made his new post official during the association’s annual meeting in Chicago. They voted him president-elect last year.
Carlson, a shareholder in the Butte firm of Corette Black Carlson & Mickelson, P.C., told The Montana Standard that the ABA is truly a “big tent” but that’s not always how it’s viewed.
“The perception is that it is seen as a big-firm thing,” he said in a phone interview from Chicago.
Some in the ABA encouraged him to seek his new post, he said, because they wanted “a little bit of a more rural-state, smaller-town lawyer practicing in a small firm to lead this association” for a time.
Carlson succeeds Hilarie Bass, a Miami attorney who is president of the international law firm Greenberg Traurig.
Since the ABA was founded in 1878, the only previous president from Montana was William J. Jameson from Billings in 1953. He was a federal judge and his name is on the law library at the University of Montana. Carlson got his undergraduate and law degrees from UM.
Carlson was born in Billings, where his father worked for the Montana Power Co., but they moved “back” to Butte when he was in grade school. Both of his parents were from Butte and Carlson graduated from Butte Central in 1972.
Carlson’s wife, Cindy, was also at the meeting in Chicago this week. They have three grown children – sons Jim and Darin and daughter Mikael.
The ABA is a voluntary organization with about 400,000 attorneys and law students as members, and its influence is significant. It adopts association policy positions on national and legislative issues, accredits law schools and it created and maintains a code of ethical standards for lawyers that has been adopted in 49 states, including Montana.
California is the exception, but some of its rules of professional conduct were drawn from the ABA.
Carlson, who was president of the State Bar of Montana from 1993 to 1994, addressed the ABA’s 600-member House of Delegates on Monday.
He pledged to be the profession’s “most consistent single voice” over the next year while working to advance its goals, including protecting and ensuring “an independent, impartial and adequately funded judiciary.”
He thanked the delegates for voting Monday to lower membership dues and told the Standard they would be rolled out next April along with expanded benefits and services. Both should increase membership, he said.
“We challenged ourselves and the House (delegates) to get active and be more active … to really get out and market this and sell this,” he said. “We have really made it a much greater value.”
Among other things, Carlson said the ABA is devoting more attention and resources to mental health among lawyers and law students. An ABA study shows they suffer from depression and addictions and die by suicide at disproportion rates, he said.
Suicides are a big problem in Montana among its general population, he noted.
“For such a beautiful state we are one of the top two or three states and Butte has a significant problem with it,” Carlson said. “Every year, we have had a number of Montana lawyers who commit suicide.”
An ABA working group has explored practices that firms and law schools can implement to curb those problems, he said, and the ABA has published a “Well Being Toolkit” for attorneys and others in the legal profession that’s available on its website.
It cites a 2016 study of nearly 13,000 practicing lawyers showing that between 21 and 36 percent qualify as problem drinkers, 28 percent have some level of depression and 18 percent have elevated anxiety, among other problems.
The toolkit includes plans for identifying and addressing the problems, ways to track progress and lists resources and organizations that can help.
Carlson also noted ABA initiatives to make it easier and less expensive for lawyers to get practice management technology, including software programs and “virtual receptionists.”
They will benefit lawyers who know they need the technology but don’t have time to pursue it or “aren’t techies,” Carlson said.
The initiatives will be expanded to include more vendors and allow users to give the ABA feedback on how to improve the efforts.