What I Learned from the Conference of California Bar Associations

Editors Note:  This issue features the Conference of California Bar Associations (CCBA), not to be confused with the Contra Costa County Bar Association (CCCBA).

I confess. I am a Conference of California Bar Associations (CCBA) junkie. I attended my first conference in 1988 as an alternate for the Bar Association of San Francisco (BASF) delegation. Since then, I’ve attended every year but one. I’ve headed the Bar Association of San Francisco delegation, served on the Contra Costa County Bar Association Board of Directors, served on the Resolutions Committee, chaired the Conference, and co-chaired the Contra Costa County Bar Association delegation. It has been fun, and a learning experience. Let me tell you about some of the lessons.

  1. The Earth Will Not Swallow You Whole

When I first attended the Conference, the Bar Association of San Francisco required each of its delegates to argue at least one resolution. The BASF delegation was a recognized leader and wanted to be heard on every resolution.

Conference arguments are required to follow a particular format. The proponent always speaks first. When there is limited argument, each delegate has two minutes to speak. The delegate must state her name, the name of her delegation, and whether she is speaking on behalf of the delegation. The remainder of the time may be devoted to as many points as can be articulated before the timer ticks down to zero and the microphone shuts off.

I recall that my assigned resolution was in employment law, an area where I had handled a few matters. I was arguing against the resolution. Despite the hours of research and practice, I felt my knees wobbling as I waited my turn on the microphone. Then, I stepped up and my amplified voice filled the hall. I’ll never know whether it was blood pounding in my ear or the echo of my own voice that caused the ringing in my ears. For two minutes, I spoke. The ground didn’t shake, there was nothing that could have been measured on the Richter scale, not even a tremor. My delegation applauded in support. I breathed and was hooked.

  1. Even the Greats Make Mistakes

James J. Brosnahan, widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost litigators, is a Conference regular. His presentations are so persuasive, articulate, and engaging that other delegates schedule their own time just to be present when Jim speaks. His reputation was well-established before I attended my first Conference.

At the Conference in 1988, Jim Brosnahan came to the microphone for three different resolutions. Each time he got to the microphone, Jim launched into vigorous support or opposition to the resolution at hand. Each time, the chair stopped him. “Will the delegate state his name, his delegation, and whether he is speaking on behalf of the delegation.” Every time! The third time, the Conference Chair flashed a broad smile, shook her head, and said “Mr. Brosnahan, we all know who you are, but you still need to introduce yourself as required under the Conference rules.”

I am probably the only person who remembers this exchange, but it gave me a new level of confidence, which has allowed me to participate in the conference year after year, despite my own gaffes.

  1. You Can Become an Expert

What did I really know about employment law when I went to that Conference in 1988? Not much. I was a garden variety litigator. I read the resolution. I studied the proponent’s arguments in support of the resolution, the existing statute, and cases on the topic. The research disclosed that the proponent, an experienced attorney whose practice focused on employment law, had overlooked an appellate decision interpreting the statute. Because of that decision, the proposed change to the statute would not have the effect that the proponent intended. I convinced the BASF delegation to oppose the resolution.

I gathered my ammunition and spoke with the proponent before the Resolution came up for debate. He was not about to change his position. He had been practicing employment law for 20 years and knew that he was correct. At the Conference, I spoke to several delegations that had indicated support for the Resolution. I was able to explain the unintended impact of the proposed change. By the end of the Conference, the resolution was amended in a way that would accomplish the proponent’s goals.

Because of my work, other BASF delegates recognized me as having expertise in employment law. Although I only had four years of practice, members of the delegation who practiced in other areas of law began referring employment work to me. As a result, the Conference was key to my developing a focus on employment law and it provided a major boost to building my career

  1. One Person Can Change the Law

The first resolution I drafted was enacted as California Code of Civil Procedure section 1985.6. This Code section is designed to allow an individual with the opportunity of protecting her or his own personnel records when they are subpoenaed. Section 1985.6 was modeled on California Code of Civil Procedure section 1985.3, which provides similar protections for financial and medical records.

I recognized that an individual’s employment records can also contain medical records (relating to leaves of absence or on-the-job injuries) and financial records (payroll). I presented a resolution adding section 1985.6 to the Code of Civil Procedure. The Resolution was passed by the Conference the first year it was presented and signed into California law in 1995.

  1. People Don’t Notice Your Flaws

Speakers at the Conference are on-camera, projected on large screens at the front of the hall, while they are speaking. This was not always the case. The year that the Conference adopted the big screens, I was the proponent of the first resolution. Yep, I was the first speaker to be projected larger than life at the front of the room. Not fully aware of the new procedure, I stepped up to the microphone and began my argument. I introduced myself according to the Conference Rules. I explained the existing law. I provided details about the proposed changes, I explained the problem being addressed and started to address why the proposal would be good for Californians.

Then, I lifted my eyes, intending to look at the house to emphasize my point. Rather than seeing the assembled attorneys, I caught sight of my projected profile, towering yards above the room. I still don’t know whether I used my outside voice, but I clearly gasped. I forgot my carefully selected words. Instead, the only words that came to mind were “You have one honking big nose.”  Somehow, I managed to pull myself together and made it through the argument. When I debriefed with my delegation, no one said anything about the extended pause. More importantly, no one has ever mentioned the size of my nose when viewed in profile.

  1. The Conference is a Great Place To Meet Attorneys Who Care

Many California attorneys care deeply about the law. Because the Conference provides a forum for improving the law, the organization attracts many lawyers from around the state who are willing to dedicate time and energy to improving the laws for the benefit of all Californians. While we do not all agree, the debates are collegial and professional. We remain friends, despite having different areas of practice, different political views, and different desires about what should be changed. We come together to make the law better and, in the end, we become better lawyers.