My old pal, the Texas Tornado, has forsaken his exemplary blawg, Defending People, in favor of his occasional substack, which is an odd way to start a year whose word is “write.” But blawgs are old, long, boring and take effort to read. Is there really any interest in reading something longer than a twit?
Mark Bennett was obviously way ahead of me, as reflected by the fact that I’m writing this blawg post and he has a substack, which I do not. Then again, I’m older than he is and still feel the need to write thoughts down at some length. But Mark is kind enough to have me on the list of recipients of his substack, so I still get to enjoy and learn from him. This morning, he struck a nerve with me when he wrote about the Harris County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
In about 1998, Troy McKinney and I started the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association listserv on Topica.com. I was young and starry-eyed, in practice three years, serving my first of three terms as HCCLA’s Vice President. The 28-year-old organization had maybe 150 members, had suffered several years of lackluster leadership, and was mostly broke.
Things changed that year. HCCLA brought Terry MacCarthy down from Chicago to lecture on cross-examination (the recordings are available on iTunes), Lloyd Oliver’s presidency shook some more reputable members into action, and we adopted the listserv, which would be a selling point for the organization for the following two decades.
Over the years the list moved from Topica to Yahoo to its current home at discourse.org. And it grew from 100 members to maybe 600. The organization had explosive growth (reaching as high as 800 members, which made it the largest local criminal-defense bar organization in the country) largely because membership was a ticket to the listserv.
Practice-related bar associations became a thing back then, and the HCCDLA became one of the best. We have something similar in New York City, as well as the New York State Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, both of which I was a member of for a time. These associations were formed with a purpose and, as organizations do as they become increasingly popular, forgot their purpose over time until the only putative reason for their continued existence is self-perpetuation and the opportunity for younger lawyers to get elected to bar association offices so they can tell people they were president.
And that’s a problem. About 200 is the maximum size for a community of equals to function—for everyone to know everyone else well enough that there aren’t strangers in their midsts. I don’t like the direction the organization has taken (about which more perhaps later) and I don’t think there’s anything I can do about it within the HCCLA system. So I’m letting my membership lapse, and starting something new and smaller, not a trade association but a place for criminal-defense lawyers to talk about criminal-defense law with no strangers in our midst.
I remember well sitting in board meetings listening to midwits drone on about nonsense. I got tired of arguing, explaining, cajoling, and leaving meetings with absolutely nothing useful accomplished other than whatever cathartic benefit making noise provided the members who needed to talk as much as humanly possible.
Thankfully, this was before the metamorphosis of criminal defense bar associations into the social justice wing of the progressive party, which I suspect is what Bennett is talking about with the “direction the organization has taken.” As I’ve made abundantly clear here, I am not a fan of fantasy solutions to politically correct problems. I just want to save real people from real problems. That means there’s no place for me in the boardroom anymore, where radicals figure out which laws with disparate impacts must be repealed and which new laws are needed to make sure the day’s bad dudes get life plus cancer.
What this means, unfortunately, is that serious lawyers can’t talk amongst themselves anymore. Arguing with baby lawyers isn’t much fun or particularly useful, and since they know far more than we old guys know, they have no interest in learning, or even discussing, but consider it their duty to lecture those of us with decades more experience about how the new world order should be.
Chatting on twitter with randos isn’t the same thing, no matter how passionately they feel about law. Sometimes the comments here are useful, although non-lawyers often sidetrack actual thought because they’re interested and inexplicably believe their stories and questions are really fascinating.
Bennett figures the problem is numbers, with 200 being as many people as can engage in any useful discussion. Why isn’t entirely clear to me, and that seems like a lot more people than can engage in any useful discussion, but that’s not my concern. My concern is that these organizations were formed and run by lawyers of some accomplishment, experience, skill, gravitas.
I remember when, as a baby lawyer, I was first invited into the board room to sit at a table with legal heroes, gunslingers, men and women who could cross to kill. I shut up and listened, as these were the real deal, and I learned at their knees. Where are they today? We get pimple people on twitter, the worst of whom is some legal lunatic Seth Abramson, but where are the serious people who amassed accomplishment through skill, hard work and tenacity? Those are the people I want to talk to. I want to be in a room with great lawyers again. Where is that room today?