The North Carolina Advocates for Justice has a new President. Bradley Bannon. Bannon is a partner at Patterson Harkavy. He has big plans as he steps into his new role. His theme for this year is diversity and inclusion. We had an opportunity to talk to Bannon about his plans for the upcoming year and his thoughts about the future of law.
LM: This year’s theme is diversity and inclusion. Why do you feel like this theme is so important and timely?
BB: It’s really past timely. But over the last year, locally and nationally, we’ve certainly seen an increase in tribalism and renewed efforts to cut everyone up into groups and marginalize those perceived to be other. We’ve seen these efforts not just in our communities, but in the law itself. And the people who win in that scenario are almost always those who fit the mold I was dumb-lucky enough to be born into: white, male, and straight. This is particularly true if they have lots of money. But if they’re everyone else--including the poor and those who, by design, lack the power and resources to fight for themselves within systems of control that have been built over hundreds of years--they tend to lose. We must be honest about that in order to change it. And we must address it within ourselves, and our organizations, before we can hope to address it effectively in the broader world.
LM: What are you most excited about in your new role as NCAJ president?
BB: It’s hard to pick just one thing.
I’m most excited about getting to share my year of voluntary leadership as president with Kim Crouch’s first year of staff leadership as our Executive Director. Those who know Kim from her days at the North Carolina Bar Association, or in any other context, know why that’s exciting. She is a natural leader and positive force in the legal profession, and I believe her commitment to NCAJ’s mission of protecting people’s rights, combined with that of the rest of our outstanding professional staff, is going to take the organization to new heights of service to our members and the people we serve.
Returning to the diversity and inclusion initiative, I’m looking forward to using my status and privilege to serve those goals. Historically, white men have had a much easier path to achievement and positions of leadership in the legal profession (like the NCAJ presidency), so I believe we’re obligated to use our time in those positions to make that path more accessible and navigable to others.
LM: What is NCAJ doing to attract new members and how valuable do you feel associations are to the legal community?
BB: Get ready for some clichés, which are clichés because they’re true.
Associations are valuable only to the extent they’re relevant.
To be relevant to current and potential members, you must recognize the changing demographics, needs, and expectations of those members. You have to listen and be willing to change. You have to treat “That’s the way we’ve always done it” as your biggest potential threat to development.
To be relevant to the broader legal and non-legal communities, an association must develop and maintain its credibility by staying focused on its core mission. The obvious example is when and how associations take positions on legal issues in the courts, the legislature, and their communities. In that context, relevance and wisdom fall squarely between fighting all battles and fighting no battles.
At NCAJ, we exist to protect people’s rights, through educating our members and the public about those rights, to training our members about how to fight for those rights for their clients at trial, to advocating in the courts and legislature for those rights. For six decades--regardless of the direction of social, political, or economic winds in this state--we have stood together with the workers, the injured, the criminally accused, and the families of North Carolina. And we have stood against efforts to limit their rights.
As long as we continue to do that, we will continue to be relevant.
LM: Most Presidents look for a signature project; prior NCAJ president Chris Nichols was involved in establishing a commission to examine mass incarceration. Have you set your eyes on a project you’re interested in pursuing yet?
BB: I’m focused on establishing more of a presence for NCAJ in our state’s law schools.
NCAJ’s founders established the organization to provide both a community and a curriculum of high-quality continuing legal education for trial lawyers dedicated to protecting people’s rights. In that sense, NCAJ has always been an extension of the best things about a good law school experience, and there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be more actively involved in creating a bridge between law school and law practice for those who want to serve the organization’s mission. In addition to the need for more diversity and inclusion, the profession needs more mentoring relationships, and I hope that establishing a stronger connection to lawyers when they are still students will address both problems.
We plan to do that by sending more of our members to the law schools to engage students on issues relevant to the practice as well as the study of law, and by strengthening our relationships with law schools and their administrators and faculty members, particularly in areas related to trial advocacy.
LM: Although you are the newly elected NCAJ president, you are no stranger to the organization. What is it about the NCAJ and its mission that led you to pursue membership and ultimately a leadership role?
BB: It began with my mother, who taught me early on to value everyone and stand up for myself and others. It continued in college, when I started to learn things about American history that they don’t teach you in high school, and when I began to meet people from different backgrounds with different stories than my own. It took root when I got a job working for my mentor and teacher, Joe Cheshire, who founded NCAJ’s Criminal Defense Section and encouraged me to join it, and who has fought his entire professional life, in courts and in voluntary service, for the rights of the accused and the marginalized. It grew into a leadership role, I suppose, when others saw value in my participation at that level.
LM: Changing directions for a moment, you’ve been practicing for quite some time. What three things would you say have helped you along the way in your legal career?
BB: It’s not really a change of direction. Having Joe Cheshire as a mentor and teacher is number one, because he taught me by example that you can and should serve your clients as well as the profession, and you should never let money compromise either. NCAJ membership is second, because there’s no substitute for being part of a community of legal professionals who overcome traditional lines of division--race, gender, political affiliation, faith, sexual orientation, and the like--to come together for the common goal of uplifting each other, our clients, and the justice system. Third: I’ve always kept in mind that everyone in the court system has a legitimate and vital role to play, and the fact that they’re not playing my role doesn’t mean they’re playing the wrong role or deserve any less respect or professionalism from me.
LM: The legal profession has changed so much over the years with new practice areas emerging as technology advances, where do you see the future of law? What excites you or worries you about the changing legal environment?
BB: The legal profession is already getting a glimpse of what technology and automation have long since done to the manufacturing profession. In products like LegalZoom, we’ve seen direct competition with lawyers for clients, and I can only imagine how advancements in artificial intelligence will impact that kind of competition. Also, regardless of whether we like it or find it distasteful, clients are more likely than ever to turn to the internet when choosing and communicating with lawyers, and everything about the legal system is gravitating further toward technology--from electronic filing and easier online legal research and information-sharing, to the ubiquity of digital evidence in cases small and large. Just as in our personal lives, these developing technologies can be good and bad. And, just as in our personal lives, I think the key for legal professionals and designers of legal systems and processes is to neither reject nor embrace any technological advance without carefully considering all of its potential costs and benefits.
LM: Is there anything you would like to add that I haven’t asked that you would like to share about upcoming events or plans for NCAJ?
BB: We just started our annual food drive and continue to be engaged in various legal clinics around the state, partnering with other organizations and helping people in efforts such as expungement, re-entry, and naturalization.
We’re screening the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Fantastic Lies,” followed by discussions with students about it at Wake Forest Law School on November 9 and Campbell Law School on November 16. We’re working to do the same at other law schools in the state.
We’re continuing our successful Sidebar Social events around the state, connecting our members with each other and inviting prospective members to join us and learn about the organization in a relaxed setting at the end of the day. The membership events page on our website is regularly updated with new Sidebar Social events, and they’re open to all current and prospective members.
And, as always, we have a ton of great CLE in the pipeline, from live seminars to webinars and on-demand programs in civil and criminal law and procedure.
Thanks for the interest in NCAJ, and thanks for the opportunity to answer all of these questions.