It’s the adage of how to eat an elephant — one bite at a time.
That’s how Milam Howard Nicandri Dees & Gillam shareholder W. Braxton Gillam IV described his year as president of The Jacksonville Bar Association.
“On the front end, I was a little nervous about it,” he said, “But looking back, I have enjoyed every bite of the elephant.”
Gillam’s path to the presidency began in 1999, when he joined the Young Lawyers Section of the Bar association. He said that at the time, he was more interested in the social aspect of the group than a way to take on a leadership role.
“I thought it would be something fun to do – happy hours and seeing friends and having a beer after work. Then I put my name in the hat and won,” said Gillam.
Part of being president of the young lawyers group is having an ex-officio seat on the association’s board of governors. He became a full-fledged member of what he calls “the big board” in 2004 and has served since.
Reviewing his year as president, Gillam said the association and the profession faced challenges that haven’t changed for years and had to face some new issues as well.
“I didn’t have a grandiose plan to do anything special. I just wanted to do a good job,” he said.
Gillam cited the growing partnership between the Bar association and Florida Coastal School of Law as one of the successes of 2013-14. The association presented informational programs at the school on the topics of benefit memberships in the JBA, professionalism in the courts and mentoring.
A new association membership category was created to allow Florida Coastal students to join the association. More than 100 students applied to be mentored by JBA members.
“It was apparent to me that we have to do more with Florida Coastal. We have strengthened the partnership to help those new lawyers get engaged. There has been such a flood of lawyers and there haven’t been jobs for them. People are hanging shingles and trying to make a living. You have to –– you spent a lot of money.
“Three years of law school is great. You can get a bar license through that process, but it doesn’t teach you how to practice law. There are no Business of Law classes in law school,” Gillam said. “There is a lot more to be done there.”
By growing the mentoring program, the association can sustain the legal profession. The number of attorneys practicing in Florida is approaching 100,000 with 3,800 practicing in the 4th Judicial Circuit. That can make maintaining professionalism and civility a challenge due to human nature.
“People are flawed. The more people you add to the party, the more flawed people you add. You have to have make sure you have proper education and training,” said Gillam.
The past year was the first for the reorganized Jacksonville Bar Association. The staff grew from six people to 12 when the Residential Mortgage Foreclosure Mediation program was established after the housing market collapsed. The management of the program for the 4th Judicial Circuit created quite a bit of income for the association while not proportionally increasing expenses.
The Florida Supreme Court ordered the program suspended in December 2011, but it took months for the association to conclude the 10,000 cases it had in the office. After the cases were closed, the staff went back to its previous level.
Gillam said leveling off the organization was the biggest challenge the association has faced in years. Comparing the situation to a spigot being turned off would be an understatement.
“It was like a fire hose and then they cut it off. We had to manage that in a financially responsible way. That was one of the things that wasn’t fun. We have brought that program in for a landing in the past two years. That’s wound up now and we’re back to being just a Bar association,” he said. “We’ve spent a lot of time on that this year –– making sure we’re being fiscally responsible.”
Another major change for the association in the past year was the relocation that occurred over the Labor Day weekend. The office was packed up and moved from offices along the Southbank to the association’s new headquarters at Wells Fargo Center.
“I spent a lot of time on the contract side on the front end, but the staff should get all the credit for the move. They bore the burden. It was seamless because of how our staff performed,” Gillam said. “It’s not fair for me or any of the other volunteers to take any credit.”
Asked if there were any surprises connected with being president, Gillam said there were none. He credits his friendship and working relationship with his predecessor, Ray Driver, for knowing what he was getting into before he was sworn in last June.
“Ray and I met once a week. That helped me immensely. I saw his whole year. I would have been surprised at how much time it took, except that I watched him do it,” Gillam said. “It was every bit as time consuming as he said it would be, but that’s a function of the job. You see the elephant and you’ve got a fork in your hand. You’ve got to be engaged. It’s an hour a day, a half a day every week and a full day every two weeks.”
Looking ahead, Gillam said he plans to go back to work every day.
“I know my partners will be glad to have me back,” he said.
Gillam will pass the gavel to 2014-15 President Troy Smith, a shareholder with Rogers Towers, at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Wells Fargo Center during the association’s annual summer judicial reception and swearing-in ceremony.