20 Questions with Bill Robinson
1. First, let me say that it is indeed an honor having yet another Fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America serve as President of the American Bar Association. Not intending to put the cart before the proverbial Kentucky thoroughbred, but how would you like your term as ABA President to be remembered by your peers?
I will consider the year in which I am privileged to serve as ABA President to have been a success if members of the Association can look back and say that we achieved some of our most significant accomplishments in the toughest of financial times – and, most importantly, we did it together!
2. You will be taking office during a time in our profession when large, historically stable firms are folding, and law school applications are down 11%. The LCA's research indicates this is the result of the overall economy and not related to any fault of the profession itself. What, if anything, might lawyers do to effect positive changes that might moderate this rather, as a banker friend of mine says, "bumptious" economic time in history?
Every day, we are reminded that the economy is creating serious consequences for our profession. However, as a profession, we must remain connected to the basics. When so many are in need of help, we must constantly remind ourselves of the essential service we provide to society and how volunteer service as lawyers continues to validate us as true professionals
Perhaps the economy is affecting young lawyers the most – those who are just out of school or early in their practice. I would encourage young lawyers to aggressively seek out opportunities not only in the private practice of law but also in government, legal services, and judicial clerkships. It can also be extremely rewarding to undertake a private practice of law in communities where lawyers are fewer in number and legal services are greatly needed. I did that in 1972, just 18 months out of law school, when I left a larger law firm in Cincinnati to go to Northern Kentucky and start a two-person firm with a former law school classmate. We did it from scratch. It was a wonderful professional and educational experience that gave us the opportunity to learn the practice of law from the ground up. Everywhere we turned, experienced lawyers were always willing to provide advice, counseling, and guidance to us.
3. When did you first start thinking of running for ABA President, and how does the progression or ascension work? We are looking for some really good, inside secrets here.
There is no set “recipe” or “time table” for running for ABA President. I first seriously considered the possibility of running for ABA President in my third year on the ABA Board of Governors, 2002-03, when I was serving as Chair of the Finance Committee; however, having come to learn and understand the complex “financial side” of the ABA, I decided that my first responsibility was to take that financial knowledge about the ABA, learned over three years of intense work on the Finance Committee, and run for ABA Treasurer at a financially challenging time for the Association. Some of my friends who wanted me to run for ABA President then were unhappy with me for doing so, pointing out that no ABA Treasurer had ever been elected ABA President. I concluded that if my highest level of ABA office turned out to be Treasurer, I would be OK with that and successfully ran for Treasurer. I was convinced that I could make a positive difference for the Association in the role of ABA Treasurer at that time and, as they say, the rest is history.
4. By the way, sorry about UK's semi-final demise in the Final Four. Any predictions for next year?
Wildcat fans are eternally optimistic – and “wild” about our ‘Cats! The best is yet to come!
5. At the LCA’s Miami Conference several years ago, we asked one of our Fellows to speak on the evolving problem of associate retention. As we all know, the retention of high quality associates can be a challenge in the law firm environment. How does Frost Brown Todd manage associate development and retention?
Frost Brown Todd is at the cutting edge of associate development issues. In 2009, while other firms were deferring or rescinding offers in the wake of the financial crisis, we reinvented what it means to be a first-year lawyer at a major US law firm. We parted ways with our competitors and dropped our starting salary across all markets to $80,000, down from the $90,000 to $110,000 range, which was top of market in our region. This alleviated economic pressure to have inexperienced first years billing clients on day one. We reduced our billable hour goal for first year lawyers from 1,800 hours to 1,000 hours and added a mandatory 1,000-hour training requirement. This allowed the associate to embrace training without fear that they would miss their billable hour goal. We would rather have the young lawyer learning from a seasoned litigator at trial in a non-billable capacity than reviewing documents in a billable capacity. At the end of the first year, the associates go up to a full 1,800-hour billable goal and have their salary adjusted to be competitive in the market based on their first year performance.
The 1,000 hour training requirement has three components – structured learning, coaching from experienced lawyers and secondments with clients. In the past two decades, high starting salaries and correspondingly high hourly rates created client pushback that forced new lawyers out of guest chairs in a partner’s office during conference calls, out of client meetings and off litigation teams. However, these are the best opportunities through which most lawyers learn the profession. So we removed the institutional barriers that were preventing these opportunities. Each associate is assigned a coach who sees to it that these rich learning opportunities are provided to the new attorney. Our clients have enthusiastically welcomed the young lawyers onto project teams in a non-billed capacity and frequently turn to these young lawyers with billable assignments thereafter. Client secondments at client facilities have provided our young lawyers even more invaluable insight into the daily demands our clients face so they are better trained to handle client matters and know the client’s business. Our associates see the firm investing more than money in their long-term success and the program naturally builds strong personal relationships on many dimensions within the firm and with our clients. We believe it is these relationships and non-monetary investments that most effectively address retention.
6. What impact do you think the discovery process has had on the number of cases being tried continuing to decline?
Statistics are clear that the number of cases being tried are continuing to decline annually. One can make a logical argument that the extensive discovery, which characterizes current litigation, produces so much factual disclosure on all sides of most cases that settlement through mediation and negotiation becomes almost inevitable when the potential outcome of so many cases is so apparent to the skilled eyes of the litigators involved.
7. What was your evolution toward litigation, and did it begin before, during or after law school? That is, did you want to be Perry Mason growing up, or did you want to become a trial lawyer after getting out of law school and reading contracts all day long for the first six months of your career?
The lawyers in my community whom I met and looked up to before I started law school were all litigators. I, therefore, saw them as the “real” lawyers and wanted to be like them from the start of my legal education. I was fortunate enough to win the trial practice award at the College of Law, University of Kentucky, in my third year and that, along with my law journal and moot court credentials, positioned me to get a job as a litigation associate right out of law school. I have been primarily a civil litigator ever since. For 40 years this year, I have been representing clients – individuals, companies, government agencies and the like. From the beginning through today, my greatest privilege as a lawyer is the opportunity to do something that lawyers all across America do every day … that is, to stand before a judge in a courtroom and say: “Good morning, your Honor, William Robinson representing Jane Smith.
I never tire of that or take for granted the responsibility that goes with it. I mention that because – more than anything -- it symbolizes my view of what the ABA President should be. First and foremost, our President represents the ABA; speaks for the Association; speaks for the profession as a whole.
8. I once practiced with a fantastic, though legendarily difficult trial lawyer named Olin Zeanah. One of my partners, beginning when we were associates, kept a list of “Zeanahisms.” They were little gems of knowledge that Zeanah would occasionally impart. Did you have a trial icon or mentor in your early years of practice who shared with you the wisdom of years of practice? If so, please tell us about them.
For as long as I can remember, I have always had several more experienced lawyers who were heroes to me in the practice of law. Lawyers who set the standard for professionalism and ethics, and who set the standard for excellence in the courtroom and across the negotiating table. Lawyers whom I looked up to as professionals to be emulated and consulted when questions of difficult complexity arose and when my experience at the time did not allow me to fully analyze and resolve the issues involved. I found that more experienced attorneys were consistently and generously available to me with their advice and good counsel. That advice was very valuable to me as I improved in the practice of law and stretched for a higher level of expertise and responsibility.
I used to think when I was a young lawyer competing with other lawyers for clients that experience was just part of a sales pitch that senior lawyers would point to when convincing potential clients to hire them. Over time, I came to learn and appreciate that experience really is a valuable factor for every professional to factor into one’s level of expertise in order to continue to grow and expand the scope of one’s practice.
9. Do you read legal fiction? Which author in particular do you think nails the practice of law more closely than anyone else does?
Yes. Scott Turrow.
10. What has been the biggest change in the way law is practiced between the time you first began until now?
The ever-increasing use of technology.
11. Litigators tend to travel a great deal. What are some of your favorite cities or places and what fascinates you about them?
Tough question … having worked my way through school, with vacations few and far between, travel is fascinating and enjoyable for me … even with two artificial hips that get me a massage every time in airport security. I particularly enjoy D.C., New York, Chicago and San Francisco.
12. Have you ever had a case in which your opposing counsel went over the line ethically in representing their clients’ interests? How did you deal with it?
Yes, but very rarely. I dealt with it head on … on the spot.
13. Has trial law’s golden age passed or have we yet to reach it? What intrigues you about prior generations of trial lawyers?
Trial Law’s “golden age” will continue as long as we continue to have outstanding trial lawyers … and we do today, as we have in the past. Trial lawyers are unique in my experience. I have never met two alike. What intrigues me about prior generations of trial lawyers whom I have known or about whom I have read is that they are consistently characterized by intense work habits offset by interesting “play” habits in many instances. It caused me to wonder if the “play” habits are simply a needed “outlet” for the intense, often endless, pressure that inevitably comes with trial work.
14. What is the first thing that comes to mind if I ask, “If you were a judge, what would you do differently from what you deal with most frequently in your practice before presiding jurists?”
If I were a judge, I would allow NO unprofessional conduct in discovery, in inter-counsel communications or in the courtroom. Only the judge can stop and preclude such unacceptable conduct by litigators. Opposing counsel can really do nothing in the face of an opponent who acts unprofessionally. Even in Kentucky, we have outlawed dueling … and most of us are too old to go “two out of three falls!” It is up to the judge to set and enforce the appropriate standard of conduct … and draw the line.
15. What is your greatest extravagance?
16. What object in your office serves to re-energize you when your mood needs an adjustment?
The telephone (for a call to my wife, Joan, who always understands!).
17. If you could meet anyone from history, who would it be, and why?
Thomas More …. A great lawyer … and a saint of great intellect with the conviction of his beliefs. His portrait hangs in my office.
18. Diversity, along with excellence and integrity, is central to the LCA’s mission and plays a fundamental role in our selection of Fellows, growth, and goals. We want to quote you on diversity in the next issue of Litigation Commentary & Review, as well as the Diversity Law Institute's new website. So in a word, sentence, or paragraph, what in your opinion is the significance or importance of furthering diversity within the profession of law and throughout our system of justice?
For the law to be respected and judicial decisions to be accepted, our system of justice must reflect our diverse national community. As with most human initiatives, progress in diversity is made one success at a time. Therefore, it is up to us as lawyers, individually and together as a profession, to make a positive difference on this critical issue.
19. What trait do you most value in your friends?
Candid loyalty (Tell me what I need to hear, when I least want to hear it!).
20. What is your motto?
Upward and onward!
Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is Member-in-Charge of the Northern Kentucky offices of Frost Brown Todd LLC. He is President-Elect of the American Bar Association and will become ABA President for a one-year term in August 2011. Throughout his career, Robinson has served as a leader in his profession and in his community. An ABA member since 1972, he has been active in the Association for more than 25 years in various leadership roles, including a three-year term as association Treasurer and seven years on the ABA Board of Governors. Robinson has also served as President of the Kentucky Bar Association, a Past President of the Kentucky Bar Foundation and founding Chair of Kentucky's Interest on Lawyer Trust Accounts (IOLTA) program.
Robinson is a Fellow of the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers; a Sustaining Attorney Member of the Product Liability Advisory Council (PLAC); a sustaining member of the American Law Institute; a founding Board Member of the Appellate Judges Education Institute at SMU; is a Fellow of the Litigation Counsel of America; member of the International Association of Defense Counsel; a Fellow of the International Society of Barristers; and a Life Member of the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals where he served on the Life Members Committee and the Judicial Conference Planning Committee. Robinson is a graduate of Thomas More College and the University of Kentucky, College of Law, where in 2004 he was inducted into the Alumni Hall of Fame.
By G. Steven Henry