President’s Column: 2020 The Year That Was

Robert Tobey DBA President's Column 2020 The Year That WasBefore this year, several DBA Past-Presidents told me: “There is the year you plan for, and then the year you get—expect the unexpected!”  I could start and end my column with those statements, but this is my opportunity to thank all of you for making this an incredible year despite all of the trying circumstances. So, here goes.

The year began as planned with a wonderful inaugural gala at the Westin Galleria.  This celebration was followed quickly by our MLK Justice Award celebration honoring Richard Stewart.  The DBA Board Retreat in Austin at the end of January focused on Project 2020, which was strategic planning for the DBA through 2025.  Little did we know that just a few weeks later, everything would change, and our lives would be dominated by COVID-19 for the rest of the year.

At the beginning of March, things were still going as planned when storm clouds began to gather.  Our Executive Director, Alicia Hernandez, and I watched the news reports, which accelerated hour by hour until we decided to close our headquarters on March 12.  Our first closure was scheduled to end on March 31, and I truly thought all of this would be over in a couple of weeks.  It is a good thing I didn’t go to Las Vegas with that prediction!

After a few days, it was clear that things were going in the wrong direction.  Our DBA Board Chair, Bill Mateja, came up with the idea of a COVID-19 Task Force to get resources, news of closings, courthouse developments, mental health resources, and CLE presentations focused on COVID to the membership.  Thanks to the amazing work of the DBA staff, we converted the DBA—which for years had been anchored by our amazing headquarters building—to a virtual bar association.  Since those first presentations in March, we have provided our members with more than 200 CLE presentations, including our traditional Bench Bar Conference and our inaugural Criminal Law Bench Bar Conference.

The DBA responded to the crisis in the community with a program sponsored by the Probate Section to prepare wills and other estate-planning documents for first responders.  Our members did numerous drives to benefit North Texas Food Bank and other charities.  And, in response to law students and young lawyers losing their job offers and clerkship opportunities, the DBA—in partnership with the Sister Bars—formed the STEER Committee to help those in need.  To date, the STEER program has helped more than 30 young lawyers and law students.

What I noticed about the pandemic is that every time I thought we had a handle on things, something else would happen.  From legal challenges to “shelter-in-place” orders to disputes about whether lawyers and other workers were “essential,” every day was a new adventure.

For me, while this year has been faced with constant challenges, our one true setback is when we lost Karen McCloud on April 9 after a lengthy illness.  Karen served as President of the Dallas Women Lawyers Association, the Dallas Association of Young Lawyers, and the J.L. Turner Legal Association. She would have been President of the DBA in 2022. But what made Karen truly special was the friendship she bestowed on so many people in the DBA, thereby vastly enriching their lives.  Planning is underway for a memorial for Karen at our building when we can safely gather there in 2021.

Another momentous societal event occurred in late May with the killing of George Floyd and the social unrest that followed.  At that time, JL Turner Legal Association President, Koi Spurlock, and I discussed how to respond.  Out of that conversation, the DBA and the Sister Bars formed the Allied Dallas Bars Equality Taskforce. While I did not come into this year focused on working on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging issues, I altered course to make it my focus during the second half of 2020.

The Taskforce has issued its “Call to Action,” and it hopefully will be approved by the DBA Board in its December meeting. There is a long list of ideas, some of which can be done by our Bar Associations alone, some require partnerships with groups in the community, and some are aspirational.   The Task Force has already put on CLE presentations, a Town Hall, is supporting Project Unity on a program called “Together We Can,” and is working on the results of a law-firm survey on diversity.  The work on the Call to Action will begin in earnest in 2021.

In July, we received an application for a Board seat from the Dallas LGBT Bar Association.  The Board granted the application in October, and the membership approved a bylaw amendment to grant the seat at the DBA Annual Meeting on November 6.  I am so proud of the diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging steps that our Bar Association is taking!

Of course, we can’t forget the Presidential election, which will be talked about for years!  We had two wonderful programs celebrating the right to vote: 1) Professor Eric Foner spoke in February on the 150th Anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment and the reconstruction amendments generally, and 2) Judge Tonya Parker interviewed Nina Totenberg on the 100th Anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment in August.

In response to the fact that only one out of three people between the ages and 18 and 29 votes, we supported the efforts of March to the Polls and the League of Women Voters to educate and register high school and junior college students to vote.  Together with our Sister Bars, we engaged in efforts to help people who were properly registered to vote to participate in the process.  I hope that we repeat these efforts in future election cycles.

I have had quite a few people comment to me: “What a year to be President of the DBA!”  I responded that in an odd way, this year, with all of its challenges, has been everything I could have wanted and more.  We are doing things with our virtual presentations that I thought were years away.  When the pandemic ends, and we find a new normal, I know that the DBA will be prepared for whatever it will be based on everything that we have done this year.

Looking forward, the DBA is in great shape for the future.  I am excited that Aaron Tobin will become the 112th President of the Dallas Bar Association on January 1, 2021.  He will do a fantastic job!  He will be followed by Krisi Kastl, Cheryl Camin Murray, Bill Mateja, and Vicki Blanton, so the DBA will have great leadership for years to come!

I have been truly honored and privileged to serve our members as the 111th President of the Dallas Bar Association in 2020. Our members make us great. So, please continue making the DBA the best bar association in America!