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Jax Daily Record Tuesday, Jan. 26, 202105:10 AM EST

Bar leaders must face challenges in 2021

"Another curveball could be thrown,” says the president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents.
by: Max Marbut Associate Editor

The Jacksonville Women Lawyers Association partnered with the Greater Orlando Asian American Bar Association on Jan. 14 for a combined membership meeting.

Presenters of the live stream meeting were JWLA President Cyndy Trimmer and Greater Orlando Asian American Bar Association President Onchantho Am.

Aurora Austriaco, president of the National Conference of Bar Presidents, was the virtual guest speaker.

Trimmer, a partner with the Driver, McAfee, Hawthorne & Diebenow law firm, practices land use and zoning and government relations law.

Am is vice president of quality and chief legal officer for Impower Inc., a nonprofit mental health and child advocacy organization.

The topic for the discussion was gender and minority equity in the legal profession.

“We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a way to go,” said Austriaco, a partner with Valentine Austriaco and Bueschel, a business law firm in Chicago.

Born in the Philippines, Austriaco’s mother emigrated to the U.S. and worked as a nurse. She then brought the rest of the family, Austriaco’s father and her seven siblings, to America over 10 years.

After working full time to put herself through college and law school at night, Austriaco was hired as a junior associate in a father-and-son law firm.

The partners were active in the Chicago voluntary Bar association and performed a lot of pro bono work. She was expected to be active in the association. 

Much of the volunteer legal service work was shifted to her, along with having to bill paying clients for the firm every month.

“It was overwhelming,” Austriaco said.

She hesitated talking to her boss about the issue, afraid she might lose her job if she broached the subject, but it eventually had to be addressed.

“I decided that if I don’t say anything, it will just keep piling up. I finally got the courage,” Austriaco said.

“He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘I was wondering when you were going to say something.’”

Her billable hours requirement was reduced on the condition she would take over the firm’s pro bono work.

“I learned to appreciate my Bar association and pro bono work. That’s where you can make a difference in people’s lives,” Austriaco said.

The National Conference of Bar Presidents members are leaders of state, local and special focus Bar associations in the 50 states and three U.S. territories. The organization helps its affiliates better understand issues such as membership expansion, continuing education, access to justice, community outreach and education, diversity and finance.

Austriaco said 2020 was one of the most challenging years in history with COVID-19’s financial impact combined with mental health issues associated with isolation along with national social justice issues.

“We all face the same issues. As Bar leaders, we have to talk about it,” she said.

It’s up to local Bar association to serve members by promoting diversity, mentorship, the balance between work and a personal life and the changes in law practice brought on by the pandemic, such as increased reliance on technology.

“The voluntary Bars have the resources and we have to collaborate,” Austriaco said.

She advises women and minority lawyers to find ways to promote each other, from recognizing each other’s contributions in meetings to nominating peers for awards.

“Refer business to each other. That’s the best compliment you can give a colleague,” Austriaco said.

Her advice to Bar association leaders:

“Be honest. Be flexible and involve your members to find creative solutions. Face the challenges because another curveball could be thrown.”

The next JWLA virtual meeting and CLE is scheduled at noon Feb. 11. It will feature guest speaker David Garfunkel, president and executive director of Lift Jax, an initiative of business and community leaders working to eradicate generational poverty in Jacksonville.

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