Maybe Helen Reddy would be the entertainment at the Association of Trial Lawyers of America convention even if Roxanne Conlin weren't its president.
But Conlin is president. She is booking Reddy. And, most definitely, she is "changing the face of the Association of Trail Lawyers of America," as she will merrily point out.
The face of ATLA is an important one. It is the world's largest trial bar with 60,000 members. It has a budget of $19 million. Its political action committee is considered among the most powerful in Washington.
Promoting Women, Minorities
Conlin is the first MIA president ever from Iowa and its first female president. In that position, she has aggressively promoted women and minorities.
She is the driving force behind the creation of special seats for women, minorities and young lawyers on ATLA's board of governors.
She pushed for the creation of a directory of female trial lawyers to promote networking among them.
Before Conlin's term, perhaps two or three committee chairpeople were women or minorities. Now, nearly half are.
"She's really started a revolution in ATLA," says Pamela Liapakis, a New York lawyer who serves as ATLA secretary.
Conlin's efforts to diversify ATLA are similar efforts at the American Bar Association to make sure women and minorities have a voice.
Louise LaMothe, a Los Angeles lawyer and chairwoman of the Bar Association's litigation section, says she, too, is trying to ensure that formerly excluded groups are included.
LaMothe says both she and Conlin have been struck by the emerging clout of women in the profession.
"Finally there are enough of us old girls around to impart some wisdom," said LaMothe. "We're now seasoned enough that we've worked our way up and we can do what we want to do."
Nonetheless, persuading trial lawyers to agree on changing the way things are done can be a prodigious task, the trial lawyers admit. When trial lawyers — people who thrive on the inherent conflict of the courtroom — oppose something, they oppose it tenaciously. If they debate something, they debate with vigor.
Conlin learned that long ago. When she ran for ATLA parliamentarian several years ago, it developed into a hotly contested fight that pitted relative newcomer Conlin against a man whose father and other relative had long been powers in ATLA. Conlin won by a very narrow margin.
So why did they fight so passionately to be parliamentarian, a position that on its face would seem as utterly non-controversial as refreshment chair?
"Why?" cries Liapakis. "Because we're trial lawyers, that's why!"
Howard Nations, ATLA treasurer and a Houston lawyer, says that Conlin has won many supporters among men in the organization because her definition of inclusion doesn't mean excluding white males.
"She's really the most democratic — uh, and I mean that with a small 'd' — person. She's had a huge influence," says Nations.
Nations, who leads membership drives, says having Conlin at the helm is an immense recruiting tool for young female lawyers considering joining ATLA.
"I can't tell you the number of people I've signed into membership because of her," says Nations. "She's an absolute role model."
Resistance to Change
Not everyone in ATLA, however, welcomes the changes. Conlin will be the first to tell you of the grumping among some members because of her diversity policies.
Leaders in ATLA say the resistance isn't overt, however. And LaMothe says she finds in her own efforts to give women and minorities a greater role in the Bar Association that there tends to be a core group that resists change.
"They mainly just try to ignore you," says LaMothe. "But Roxanne is a very hard person to ignore."
Conlin says she was puzzled over why anyone would resist diversity.
"This is not a perfect world and Fm just trying to make it perfect," she says.
Diversity was the topic of her first column in ATLA's monthly publication. In it, she makes an impassioned argument about why diversity among trial lawyers is essential.
"Diversity strengthens us by increasing our numbers. Diversity strengthens us by broadening our ideas. Diversity strengthens us by opening our eyes and our hearts to all that needs to be done," wrote Conlin.
Conlin's columns have been anything but dry scholarly tomes on esoteric legal issues. Among some of the themes:
- Her own experience with sexual harassment.
- A lawsuit she handled that won a settlement for a baby boy born with cerebral palsy Conlin says was inflicted at his birth by a negligent doctor.
- The often lousy public image of lawyers.
- The personal pain of losing a case, complete with details of wanting to raid the fridge and crawling into bed and pulling the covers up over her head.
When the July ATLA convention comes around, it will probably be the number of women and minorities in leadership that Conlin will be noted for.
Conlin supporters say that she has put the same decidedly human face on ATLA as a whole.
She's been instrumental in a fund-raiser among ATLA members to coiled money for the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse. She's been a major supporter of the ATLA Civil Justice Foundation, which gives grants to citizens groups. It gave $8,000 to a woman in Indiana who was organizing a challenge to hazardous landfill sites in her areas.
The foundation also gave $12,000 to another woman who was working to create local laws that would require fencing to make swimming pools safer after her toddler drowned and another child suffered a severe head injury.
Still, when the July ATLA convention in San Francisco comes around, it will probably be the number of women and minorities in leadership that Conlin will be noted for.
"When she announced that she'd gotten Helen Reddy, everyone just roared," says Liapakis. "I have a vision of Roxanne getting up and singing with her."
Conlin talks of the convention with relish. It will be thrilling for her as ATLA's first female president to look around and see the number of trial lawyers. ATLA's membership is now 12 percent female. She compares that to the 1960s, when Conlin was in law school and just a tiny percentage of her classmates were women.
"So you'll permit me to indulge in a Helen Reddy festival," says Conlin. "Won't you?"