The following are excerpts from Stuart Plunkett’s remarks at his December 17, 2019, installation as the 2020 president of the Bar Association of San Francisco.
Lately, when I go outside, I try to feel the City beneath my feet—to renew my affection for the place where I live and work. San Francisco is a remarkable place, steeped in history yet always on the cutting edge. We are lucky to be here. It is a city defined by change, and we as lawyers are part of that change.
“Where we are” is so much tied up in “who we are.” We are at the center of technological innovation, and it is lawyers who help cut the path for these innovators and disrupters. San Francisco is a beacon of social progress, and it is lawyers leading the charge.
When I think of “San Francisco Values,” I think of a mayor, a leader, who once made an unpopular decision to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples—an effort that was struck down by California voters, the same voters who have now elected him governor. San Francisco’s values changed American history. But not before an army of San Francisco lawyers fought for years to finally achieve this civil rights victory.
This is but one example to make this point: You are part of an extraordinary community of lawyers with an outsized desire to give back to your community.
If we didn’t come to San Francisco with the “giving back” gene, or the “doing good” gene, then it was no doubt instilled in us by leaders in our law firms, companies, and agencies who did grow up in this legal community, who ran this bar association, and who pioneered pro bono legal services in this city, imparting on us the professional expectations about public service that we now understand to be, simply, “who we are.”
And let’s face it, we live in a city where our worst troubles are in plain sight; where the chasm between the haves and the have-nots could not be starker; where the needs of our community are exacerbated not just by the sheer economics of surviving here, but also, most acutely, by the war being waged by our current administration against the most vulnerable among us—our immigrant communities.
Serving as a Model
It is only in a place like this with lawyers like you that I could stand here to report that you are the supporters, and beneficiaries, of the best bar association in the country. Cities much larger than our own do not provide the size or breadth of services that we do. Our programs are nationally recognized and serve as models across the country.
We have one of the most robust and successful Lawyer Referral and Information Service (LRIS) programs in the nation, giving our community easy access to a vast pool of talented and well-vetted attorneys. Our program director is nationally recognized.
We are unique among bar associations in speaking up for constitutional rights. Most notably, our Criminal Justice Task Force, through the dedicated work of several subcommittees, has examined and weighed in on numerous important issues in law enforcement and policing.
We are the only bar association in the country to run conflict intervention services in housing cases—a program winning us national attention.
We are unique among bar associations in having exceptionally strong ties to city agencies and city leaders, allowing us to work collaboratively with them to confront difficult issues facing the community.
I invite you to visit our Homeless Advocacy Project housed at the Tanya Neiman Building at 125 Hyde Street. Each year, we serve more than fifteen hundred clients facing all manner of problems (housing, benefits, immigration) through the work of staff attorneys, social workers, and volunteers.
These are just a few examples. But this is why, when it comes to asking for your financial support and your time, we aren’t shy about it. We can all take pride in the work of our bar association.
Putting Wellness First
One of the strengths of our bar association derives from our ability, each year, to pursue a new initiative, with the full commitment of the incoming president behind it. This year’s initiative was an easy one for me to land on. It reflects the strength of the bar’s existing programs and its financial health—thanks to you, our past presidents, our boards, and most of all, Executive Director Yolanda Jackson and her devoted staff.
When your house is in order, you have the luxury of checking in on its occupants. So for 2020, our initiative is attorney wellness. I’m calling the initiative Wellness 2020.
Like so many of the best ideas, this one originated from the newest members of our profession. Former Barristers President Drew Amoroso instituted a wellness initiative two years ago. Drew is a leader in the area of attorney wellness and development, and a friend and inspiration to me. He and the Barristers Club will be equal partners in this initiative for 2020.
Drew taught me that wellness is a broad concept, addressing concerns from office ergonomics, exercise, and mindfulness—to mental health and addiction. But let’s start by acknowledging the most important aspect of the problem—stress.
Stress in our profession is uniquely prevalent and corrosive. Our jobs are difficult and time-consuming; the stakes can be high; the issues can be intense, even heart-breaking. The work can be lonely, thankless, the pressure endless. Stress in our profession leads to alarming rates of depression, anxiety, alcohol and substance abuse, and suicide. There is no secret about this anymore. The drivers of these statistics are complex, but stress is at the core.
Things have gotten worse since I began to practice law. Work is now omnipresent. Our office fits in our pocket, and we place it on the dinner table and the bedside table. The demands of our jobs are always there, and expectations about availability and responsiveness are absurd. I recently heard a supervisor tell his charges that the expectation was “24/7 service.”
Worse yet, we tend to choose to suffer in silence. If we find ourselves in trouble—when all the pots are boiling over at once—we are afraid of revealing weakness. This is a sad and dangerous cycle, and one I take very seriously. In my years of practicing law, I have witnessed the effects of stress on colleagues and friends, in some cases, with serious consequences. And I have experienced it myself.
If I asked how many people in this room felt they could go to another lawyer in their workplace and say, “I think I have a problem; I need help,” very few hands would go up. But if I said to this room full of people, how many of you would want someone to come to you with that information, all of your hands would go up. That means this is a problem we can solve.
Here’s what we are going to do.
We will have quarterly wellness summits, half-day programs focused on wellness topics, as well as a variety of lunch programs; we will also offer some programs on sensitive topics via teleconference to protect your privacy and encourage participation.
I’d like to highlight our second summit, which will be aimed at supervisors and managers. This summit will encourage the exchange of ideas about promoting wellness in the workplace, and it will tackle tough topics like navigating wellness problems in the workplace when a supervisor sees or suspects them. Most of us don’t know what to do in that situation. We will learn from experts in this area.
We will offer opportunities to join together for mindfulness programs, for meditation, yoga, and physical fitness training.
Perhaps most importantly, we will promote wellness by taking advantage of this incredible place where we all practice law.
We are going to feel the city beneath our feet. Every Friday at noon, we will meet on the steps of the Old Federal Reserve on Battery Street, where our bar association resides, for an “Urban Wellness Walk.” [Editor’s note: Urban Wellness Walks are on hiatus until the current shelter-in-place order is lifted.] And on these walks, you will meet an attorney who, like you, is stressed out about taking his first deposition, and you’ll learn that you’re not alone.
I am so honored to begin my year as the 106th President of the San Francisco Bar Association. Thank you.
About the Author
Stuart Plunkett is a partner at Alston & Bird and the 2020 President of the Bar Association of San Francisco and the Justice & Diversity Center.