The Atlanta Lawyer — June/July 2012
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Remarks Of Outgoing President Rita A. Sheffey: Enhancing Our Relationships: Making.Connections For Our Future
Rita A. Sheffey

Reflecting on the past year and what I would say at our annual meeting and in my final message for The Atlanta Lawyer evoked more emotion than I had expected. I thank each of you for your confidence in me and for the opportunity to serve as the 104th President of the Atlanta Bar Association. It has been a distinct privilege and a high honor. I am humbled by the experience.

As President, I had a single agenda -- to add value to an already strong institution and to make it stronger. My focus has been on creating and strengthening enduring relationships -- on making key connections for our future.And I hope and expect those extend well beyond my tenure as President.

During the State Bar of Georgia’s recent annual meeting in Savannah, I was pleased to celebrate the installation of the State Bar’s second female president, a past chair of our Litigation Section, Robin Frazer Clark. I also was delighted to accept three awards on behalf of the Atlanta Bar Association:

• Best Website for bar associations with more than 500 members

• Award of Merit in the same category for dedication to improving relations among local lawyers and devoting endless hours to serving our community; and

• The President’s Cup Award, a traveling award presented to the voluntary bar association with the best overall program in Georgia.

I extend special, heartfelt thanks to our Board members, Section Chairs, Committee Chairs, and the Atlanta Bar Staff for making this recognition possible. It was particularly exciting to bring the President’s Cup back home. During the coming year, it will serve as a reminder to all who visit the Atlanta Bar offices of our hard work during the past year.

Of course, our real success has been on strengthening our Relationships. I want to share with you just a few reflections on the past year.

Members and potential members

As a voluntary association, we focused on membership.For the first time in several years, we turned the corner and increased our membership which had been in decline. (We also recently learned that we ended the year with a (slight) surplus for the first time since the 2006-2007 fiscal year!) We focused on identifying and delivering value to our members and potential members, and we did it one person at a time, inviting friends and colleagues to join and telling them why they should. We took nothing for granted.

We also made drastic changes in how we communicate with our members. We turned the challenge of not being able to print and mail The Atlanta Lawyer into an opportunity, establishing a regular and aggressive schedule for publication, and updating it to a new format that is easier and more fun to read online. We continue to pursue opportunities to resume printing and mailing hard copies for those who want them. For a time, we also changed our email communications to come directly from me and we made them more informative and predictable as to content.I also made it a priority to write personal messages, things I would want to know as a member of the Atlanta Bar. Many of you have told me how much you appreciated it, and I thank you for the feedback.

Often during the year, we asked for your suggestions and input. And you provided them and we listened.

We made sure we are offering programs and benefits of value, continuing with those that work and adding others to generate interest. We experimented with a new event, the Up On The Rooftop Holiday Gala, a fun and unique opportunity to showcase some of our talented members who have published books or recorded music. Thanks to David Schaeffer, Greg Presmanes and Doc Schneider, among Others, for ensuring success our first year. Planning for the second Gala is underway.

At the request of several members, we created two new substantive law committees. The Social Security Committee is planning its first event for late summer or fall 2012, and the Employee Benefits and Executive Compensation Committee held its first CLE luncheon on May 29.

Without doubt, one of the most significant accomplishments of the past year was action by the Board of Directors and the Boards of 20 Sections to approve extending free memberships to all law students, both in Georgia and elsewhere. We made this investment in our future because we believe that it is important to do all we can to expose our future colleagues to all we have to offer, to facilitate invaluable networking and professional development. Our task does not end there, however. We need to welcome and include them in our activities.

Sponsors

Our sponsors are vital to all we do. Early in the year, I made it a priority to meet with each of them, to thank them for their partnership with us. Perhaps more importantly, I asked what we could do better. Their reaction often was one of surprise that we asked for their advice. I was glad, of course, when they said they were pleased with their partnership with us and that our benefits were of value. In several cases, they surprised us by offering to do more.

For example, Esquire Deposition Solutions readily agreed to videotape some of our events without charge. They also sent court reporters and students to help with our Law Day mock trials, and we were delighted to see Cindy Brown participate personally as well.

Cresa Partners provided invaluable assistance above and beyond the annual sponsorship which Hansell Roddenbery and David Rubenstein provide. Their efforts resulted in a new lease for our office space, effective July 1 of this year, extending into 2022, adding 33% more space, with very favorable financial terms. This will enable us to offer dedicated space for the Atlanta Bar Foundation, whose Executive Director has been using one of our conference rooms for the past 3 years, to reclaim the conference room for more meeting and CLE space, and to make it possible for our Lawyer Referral & Information Service to have more room and, we hope, add staff to expand.

IST offered to help us tackle organizing our files and documents in anticipation of Diane O’Steen’s retirement, by providing their DocStor product and staff to scan our files for easier access in the future. Then, shortly after completing my year as President, we concluded negotiations which, among other things, increased IST’s sponsorship from Gold to the exclusive Platinum level and provide additional equipment for our expanded office space

And these are just a few examples. Not only did we gain additional support from our sponsors, but we strengthened the personal relationships and, most likely, in turn, strengthened the business relationships as well.

The Judiciary

We also made it a priority to be more proactive with our judiciary to identify ways we can support them better, without waiting for some crisis or specific need.

It has been an honor to serve on the Fulton County Court Improvement Task Force, thanks to Fulton County Chief Judges Cindy Wright (Superior Court) and Patsy Porter (State Court). I look forward to seeing that work through to some meaningful recommendations and positive change.

We have some very special, dedicated public servants among our local judiciary and we are fortunate to be their colleagues. The Atlanta Bar has a history of supporting our judges and we must always work to ensure adequate funding and an independent judiciary.

We particularly appreciate all of the judges who are actively involved with our committees and special projects, as their input and insight are invaluable and it is wonderful getting to know them. I cannot recall an instance when any of them declined an invitation to participate in one of our efforts.

At the risk of omitting someone, I want to specifically acknowledge a few who have gone the extra mile this year with the Atlanta Bar:

• Judge Susan Edlein, co-chair of the Pro Bono Committee and Celebrating Service and member of the Reputation and the Public Trust Committee;

• Judge Diane Bessen, co-editor in chief of The Atlanta Lawyer and outgoing chair of the Judicial Section;

• Judge Sara Doyle, co-editor in chief of The Atlanta Lawyer;

• Judge Mel Westmoreland, member of the Reputation and the Public Trust Committee and the Executive Director Search Committee ;

• Chief Justice Carol Hunstein and Justice David Nahmias, and Judges Chris McFadden, Brenda Cole, and Al Wng on the Reputation and the Public Trust Committee.

We also facilitated conversations between the court and the media to discuss challenges and opportunities. A recent meeting with Chief Judge Wright and Publisher Ed Baker of the Atlanta Business Chronicle resulted in an invitation for Judge Wright to write a series of ViewPoint articles. The first, entitled “When Your Business Becomes Our Business,” was published in early May. More articles will follow, and we look forward to more meetings between media and judges, and perhaps legislators. The Atlanta Bar can play an important role in helping dispel some of the mistrust and fear, fostering healthy relationships that expand and enhance accurate reporting on our courts and educate the public to help elect an independent judiciary.

Finally, we made a special effort this year to strengthen our voice in the process of candidates seeking judicial appointments in our state courts. When there are judicial vacancies to be filled by appointment by the Governor, our Judicial Selection and Tenure Committee evaluates And rates each candidate. This year, the Committee was chaired by Peggy Brockington, who did a wonderful job.

Each time, after the Committee evaluated the candidates, Peggy and I met with the Atlanta Bar Board which reviewed and voted on the ratings. Then, one or both of us presented our ratings to the Judicial Nominating Commission which hears from other interested bar associations, interviews the candidates, and makes a recommendation (short list) to the Governor. Everything discussed in our meetings is confidential. In the past 12 months, we evaluated candidates for 5 appointments, two positions on the Fulton Superior Court and one each for DeKalb Superior Court, the Georgia Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court of Georgia. Each time, we solicited input from our 6000 members and the Committee and the Board included that in our evaluation.Also, in some instances, Committee members contacted candidates directly to ask questions. Based on feedback we have received, we succeeded in making our process more robust and meaningful. I encourage my successors to continue that process.

The Media

We have continued to enjoy a strong relationship with the Daily Report. We value their ongoing sponsorship of our Celebrating Service Luncheon and Pro Bono Fair and Law Jam, and the many other ways they have worked with us.

We were delighted to strengthen our relationship with the Atlanta Business Chronicle. They offered free issues to our members and highlighted our award recipients in articles in a special insert in the June 1-7, 2012 issue. We also were pleased to see several articles about the work of the Atlanta Bar, including one about the work of our Reputation and the Public Trust Committee.

Our outreach included the broadcast media as well. In October 2011, we invited 11Alive news anchor Brenda Wood to speak at our Celebrating Service luncheon. And recently, we met with representatives of 11Alive and AllNews 106.7 radio to discuss community service opportunities.

And we continue to work closely with our pro bono public relations sponsor, Poston Communications, to identify appropriate opportunities to inform and educate the public about the work of the Atlanta Bar and its members.

Other Bar Associations

We have always valued our relationships with other bar associations and we continue to look for ways to work with them.

In October 2011, we played a key role in celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Multi-Bar Leadership Council, begun by my predecessor Seth Kirshenbaum during his year as Atlanta Bar President. Following that retreat, we organized a summit of the Presidents and Presidents-elect of area bar associations, on Presidents’ Day, in the Presidents’ Board room at the Bar Center. It was such a wonderful gathering, full of energy and ideas for collaboration, that we immediately agreed to make it an annual event, with periodic lunch meetings during the year. The second annual Presidents’ Summit is scheduled for February 18, 2013.

In April 2012, we hosted a special presentation about the soon-to-be built National Center for Civil and Human Rights, co-sponsored by the Gate City, GABWA, GAWL, and Stonewall Bar Associations. It was a special evening and motivated us to do even more together. And we joined Gate City, GABWA, GAWL and Stonewall for other events during the year.

And at the national level, for the second consecutive year, we participated in a panel before the National Conference of Bar Presidents on our initiatives to enhance public trust in our profession, and we have urged leaders to continue those programs on at least an annual basis.

Public Interest Organizations and Community Service Partners

In May 2011, I challenged 100% of our Sections to become engaged in pro bono. Many are engaged in pro bono efforts, but we have not achieved 100%. We have more work to do and our Pro Bono and Community Service Committee, chaired by Judge Susan Edlein and Melody Richardson, continues to work hard to achieve that goal.

Our numerous pro bono activities continue and are strong, including the Celebrating Service Luncheon and Pro Bono Fair, and Pro Bono March Madness CLE. And through our Foundation and Lawyer Referral Service, we continue to provide grants to support our pro bono programs and public interest organizations. As I wrote in the May 2011 issue of this publication, individually and collectively, we need to do more to support our public interest and pro bono providers financially. Several of our Sections, particularly including Litigation, are leaders in this regard, as are many of our Members.

I hope you have seen our increased focus on promoting our three Community Service Partners: Everybody Wins!; Atlanta’s Table, the Atlanta Community Food Bank; and our newest partner, ServiceJuris. We intend to expand our efforts to promote their activities in the coming years.

Our Bar Family

Although we focused on external relationships, we did not neglect our bar family this year. In addition to the new lease for expanded office space, largely being furnished by generous donations from several law firms, we approved amended and restated bylaws replacing the ones first adopted in 1978 and amended 78 times since. Through our amended agreement with our sponsor IST, we will have printers and copiers for the new space at no additional cost, and we recently hired a fabulous new employee. And, we continue to work toward an orderly transition resulting from the retirement of two long-time valued employees.

Importantly, we also focused on our related organizations.Members of our Lawyer Referral and Information Service (“LRIS”) Board began reaching out to our Sections to inform them about the LRIS. This “free” marketing helps drive more clients to our panel members and, in turn, will generate increased resources to support the much needed expansion both of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service and our Modest Means Program, as well as our many pro bono programs and organizations.

We also paid particular attention to our charitable arm, the Atlanta Bar Foundation. Thanks to the hard work and commitment of the leaders of the Foundation, over a number of months, we created a document, approved by both Boards, outlining a healthy working relationship and allocation of responsibilities. This sets priorities for funding charitable programs and will serve as the framework for ensuring that we are doing the best we can to serve our members and to support important charitable initiatives.

Reflecting the Association’s commitment to work with and to support our Foundation, in our recently adopted bylaws, we approved including the Foundation Board President as an ex officio non-voting member on the Association Board. And at this year’s annual meeting, for the first time, we installed Foundation Board when we installed the Association Board and Section Chairs.

Recognition of Staff, Specifically Retiring Members

One of the most wonderful things about serving as President of the Atlanta Bar Association has been working so closely with such a dedicated, competent, professional and caring staff. They have truly become family to me this year. In fact, I am confident that I have spent more time with them than my own family. So, when one of our staff members lost her Mom, we were all there for her. When another was expecting her first child on the day of the annual meeting, our best wishes were with her. I also enjoyed joining them On several special occasions during the year. I thank each and every member of the Atlanta Bar staff for their support, cheerfulness, and assistance throughout my 366 days as President. Each is listed below:

Michele Adams, Financial Assistant and Membership Coordinator
Carla Brown, LRIS Director
Kari DeLoach, Receptionist who recently became our newest employee.
Amber Johnson, LRIS Assistant
Lucia Keller, LRIS Assistant
Byron Lomas, Office Administrator
Joe Madden, Copy Center Manager
Mary Lynne McInnis, CLE Director
Mariana Pannell, Committee and Special Programs Coordinator
Brantly Watts, Marketing Coordinator, Sections and CLE
Tanya Windham, Sections Director
Denisha Wise, Administrative Assistant to Sections and CLE

And, deserving extra special mention are two valued longtime employees who are retiring this year -- Financial Director Nita Wilson and Executive Director Diane O’Steen.

Nita Wilson began working with the Atlanta Bar Association in October 1975, to help with membership, becoming the 4th employee. Several years later, she began doing the accounting and later progressed to Financial Director. For many years, she also handled a number of Human Resource functions. Mostly, Nita has worked quietly behind the scenes, except when she has helped staff our bar-wide events. On more than one occasion, our outside auditors complimented Nita on the detailed reports she prepares, mostly manual reports, and that every penny has been accounted for.During Nita’s tenure, our budget has grown dramatically, from several hundred thousand dollars in the early 1980’s to total assets and liabilities of close to $1.3m today. We will miss Nita when she retires at the end of June 0212 to spend more time with her six children and eight grandchildren. All of us sincerely appreciate and thank her for her 37 years of Dedication and service to the Atlanta Bar Association.

Last and certainly not least, is our Executive Director Diane O’Steen. Diane joined the Atlanta Bar staff in February 1965, clearly a young woman. As one of only 3 staff at the time, she handled a variety of tasks, from accounting to sections to CLE. Diane left the Atlanta Bar for one year, June 1977- June 1978, but happily was persuaded to return, making this her work home and family ever since. Twenty-six years ago last month, Diane became our Executive Director. Many of you cannot imagine all of the things she has done and continues to do for us, many of them behind the scenes.Her dedication and loyalty is remarkable. I know for certain that Diane loves the Atlanta Bar Association and she loves lawyers. And we love her. One of the most wonderful things about this year has been working so closely with Diane. I can’t begin to count the number of Diet Cokes or Chinese lunches we have shared. Nor can I count the laughs, and no one other than us will ever know at whose expense some of those moments came!

I now understand clearly why so many of my predecessors feel so deeply about her. She knows how to make you feel comfortable and confident in a position you only pass through for 12 short months. Diane has delayed her retirement until later this year while we continue to search for just the right successor. I eagerly volunteered to chair the new Search Committee. We will have an appropriate send-off for her as that time nears, and this publication will include more reflections on her years of service to the Atlanta Bar Association and our community at large. Still, in a year focused on relationships, I could not conclude my final remarks as President without recognizing Diane. We will always have a very special bond as a result of all we did together this year. I thank her for becoming, at least temporarily, a morning person and enduring countless email, meetings, and requests to tackle just one more thing before my year ended. All of you can rest assured that this experience only strengthens my resolve to find the very best person we can to succeed Diane as the next Executive Director.

Rita A. Sheffey

Lastly, the past year has enriched my life more than I can express. I am deeply indebted to my Mom, Jane L. Sheffey, and my Dad, Wayne A. Sheffey, for their love, support, encouragement, and understanding. I was not able to spend as much time with them as I would have liked, but they were always with me in spirit. It was particularly special having them with me for both annual meetings. My long-time life partner Tom Rounds provided everyday support and love, not to mention all of the errands and household tasks he Cheerfully handled, so I could attend yet another Atlanta Bar function. He also reviewed drafts of many President’s messages and speeches, offering helpful suggestions and advice. And of course, my law firm, Hunton & Williams, where I have practiced for nearly 25 years, and so many great colleagues, provided much needed support. I will be glad to see them more now that I am in the office more.

As I continue to write thank-you notes to the many people who have written me, I am beginning to realize what a fabulous experience this has been, although the full impact may not set in for some time.

My advice to Lynn Roberson as she begins her presidency, and to those who will follow her, is to be true to yourself and be a good steward of the Association. There will be much focus on you, as President, and you should enjoy the opportunities afforded you. However, I strongly believe that our agenda should always be on what is in the best interest of the Atlanta Bar Association and all of its Members. That was my agenda during the past year. And I am confident it is yours as well. I sincerely hope that time will tell that 2011- 2012 was a successful year for the Atlanta Bar Association.

I extend my heartfelt thanks for affording me this special opportunity to serve you as President of the Atlanta Bar Association. I look forward to seeing you at Atlanta Bar events during the coming year.
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