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President’s Column: Inaugural Speech of Robert Tobey

An Outsider No More President's Column Robert Tobey

February 2020 – Inaugural Speech of Robert Tobey

There is no more important time in American history to be a lawyer than right now. But there also is no more challenging time to practice law. The DBA is a critical source of support for Dallas lawyers—and my goal is to ensure that continues to be true. To illustrate how the DBA can help you the way it helped me, I want to tell you a little about my story.

I was born at Baylor Hospital as a third generation Dallasite. My dad Nathan was a general surgeon, and my mom Rose was an artist. My parents were raised during the Great Depression and didn’t have much in the way of material things.  My Dad served in the Army in World War II and my parents were hard working and the toughest people I have known.  They were also very loving and always stressed the importance of education.

Martin, Rena, and I grew up on Lupton Drive in Preston Hollow and attended Preston Hollow Elementary, Ben Franklin Junior High, and Hillcrest High School. After starting at SMU as a pre-medicine major with the intent of following in the footsteps of my dad and Martin who became a cardiologist, I wound up graduating as a finance major from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. Despite graduating as a finance major, I had no interest in working on Wall Street, which was the typical career path for Wharton graduates. Since “gap years” were an unknown concept in the late 1970s, I decided to go to law school which seemed like the only other viable option.

I graduated from the University of Texas Law School in 1980. I thought law school was interesting, but I was tired of school by the time I graduated.  I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I assumed in law school that I would be a transactional lawyer with my business background. As it turned out, I handled litigation early in my career and really liked it.

I bounced around three different firms early in my career before I joined Randy Johnston and Bruce Budner at their commercial litigation boutique in 1987. In the early 1990s, we decided to handle legal malpractice claims on behalf of plaintiffs. No one else in Dallas was doing that work, and few lawyers anywhere in the country were handling those types of cases. We knew that representing plaintiffs against lawyers would not make us popular with other lawyers, but we felt it was wrong that injured clients could not find legal representation.

Randy and I continue to practice together today. While our practice has changed and grown over the years, we are still best known for handling legal malpractice claims for plaintiffs. As such, we are still considered outsiders to some in the legal community.

Because of that, I always assumed I would never be involved in bar leadership. I was wrong, and that is the point of this story.

From the time I was a baby lawyer, I loved visiting the Belo Mansion and attending the Friday clinic. It was a great way to meet other lawyers and learn about something new in the law while having lunch.  These were the days before the Pavilion was built, and the parking lot was very small and tree filled, such that if you got the last spot, you needed a car wash by the time lunch was over.  Over the years, the Dallas Bar has grown to more than 11,400 members, but the spirit of community and camaraderie has not changed.

Despite my worries about being an outsider, in 2005, I learned about an opening on the board of the Tort and Insurance Practice Section.  Randy had chaired the Business Litigation Section and encouraged me to pursue the opportunity. I got the position and moved up through the leadership ranks to become chair of the section in 2011.  I also volunteered to be on the council of the Business Litigation Section and became the section’s chair in 2010.  After that, I started getting called on early and often.  I went on to chair the Trial Skills Section and several committees. I also made numerous CLE presentations at the Belo on ethical issues, malpractice avoidance, and other topics. Simply put, bar service became my passion, and there are times where I wish I didn’t have to do legal work too.

I was encouraged to run for the DBA Board in 2011. When I saw the slate of candidates, I thought there was no chance to be elected, but I was. Once elected, I found the same passion for bar work while serving as a director. As a board member, I was honored to serve as Co-Chair of the Equal Access to Justice Campaign with Laura Benitez Geisler. That was truly the most rewarding position I have had with the DBA and spurred a desire to help people who would otherwise face insurmountable challenges dealing with the legal system.

It has been an amazing and awesome 9-year journey from the time I was first elected to the Board to becoming President. I cannot describe all the benefits of bar service, but it has, among other things, helped build my law practice through the relationships and referral sources I developed along the way, and it has made me more social and a better speaker. Bar service can enhance the personal and professional lives of all our members, regardless of experience, goals or ambitions, whether it’s a solo practice or Big Law. If you raise your hand, you will be called on. With 30 Sections and 27 Committees, there is something for everyone.

We are doing great at the DBA, especially when compared to other voluntary bar associations around the country.  We have challenges though, the greatest of which is serving the unique needs of thousands of lawyers in a metropolitan area that encompasses nearly 1,000 square miles in Dallas County alone.  At the DBA, we want to meet the needs of our lawyers.  We want to be relevant in their lives, and we want them to be proud of their participation in an association that is making a difference in the lives of their colleagues and the community.

Who are these lawyers?  When I first joined the Board in 2012, President Paul Stafford had a new member orientation.  At that time, I learned who the DBA is.  I want to share information with you about our more than 11,000 members.  Nearly 20% of our members are solo practitioners.  An additional 43% practice in firms with less than 24 lawyers.  Only 23% are in firms with 61 or more lawyers.

Forty-two percent of our members have been licensed 10 years or less and 29% have been licensed more than 25 years.  Fifty-six percent of our members are under the age of 50 and 44% are 50 and older.  Their practices are varied and include everything from trial to appellate, litigation to transactional, civil to criminal, law firm and in- house practices and more.

So, how do we meet the needs of such a diverse group of lawyers?  One of my objectives this year is called Project 2020. The goal of Project 2020 is to look ahead five years and determine what we need to do to ensure that we remain the best bar association in the country – a bar association that provides value to its members and serves and supports each other, the legal community, and the greater community.  A bar association that is on the cutting edge of programs and services to all members.  A bar association that listens, notices, and thoughtfully responds.  I hope that you answered the Project 2020 survey that was sent to the entire membership.  With the feedback from the membership, the Sister Bars, the Board and our Sections and Committees, we will figure out where we need to steer this big ship to keep it on course – on course with what you, our members, want and need from their Dallas Bar Association.

The Dallas Bar Association’s mission is not only to serve attorneys and the legal community.  We also have the lofty challenge of serving the public.  In 2020, one of my major initiatives is on the right to vote.  On February 27, we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the 15th Amendment guaranteeing that the right of United States citizens to vote shall not be denied on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.  Eric Foner, an American historian and professor from Columbia University will be our speaker and help us reflect and celebrate this important anniversary.  On August 26, Nina Totenberg of NPR will come to the Belo to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment ensuring women the right to vote.  On May 8, we will celebrate Law Day with a debate between the right and the left on current day voting issues.

Statistically, only about a third of people between the ages of 18 and 29 exercise their right to vote.  As a result, the Dallas Bar Association will support the League of Women Voters and March to the Polls with their efforts to register and educate high school students.  We are soliciting volunteers—– to go to the high schools for this outreach.  We must get young people involved in the process, if our country is to thrive in the future.  And, alongside our sister bar associations, we will support vote protection efforts, helping to ensure that all eligible voters have the opportunity to exercise their right to vote.

In closing, my involvement in the DBA has made me a better person, a better lawyer, and a leader.  It can do all of these things for all of you. There are no outsiders at the DBA, so come on in, the water is fine!  Please let me know how I can help you this year.  Together, let’s make 2020 a great year!