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Melvin White, a partner at McDermott Will & Emery, took the reins of the D.C. Bar presidency this June. A corporate and trial attorney, White has been practicing in the District for nearly 20 years and has been active in bar administration since 2000, when he was elected to the D.C. Board of Governors. White is also making history by being the first openly gay president of the D.C. Bar. He spoke with Legal Times reporter Attila Berry last week about his goals as president.
LT: What kind of changes have you seen in the bar since you joined in 1989? White: I think we’ve seen pro bono initiatives just take off as pro bono has become more important to our members. The bar has itself provided more pro bono opportunities for our members to take advantage of.
LT: What are some of the major issues that are facing bar members in the District these days? White: Our membership is very broad and diverse. We have 85,000 members doing many many things, but if I were to offer something that cuts across all areas, I would say that all of our members deal with work-life balance issues as work demands steadily increase, as the pace of practice steadily picks up as a result of technological advances. We all struggle with how best to meet our work obligations while balancing that with a productive life, which everyone should have. And I would add to that that incorporating our new attorneys into our profession is also a major issue. For the same reasons that we have work-life balance issues, we also have less time to do mentoring of young attorneys, so I think, across the board, we struggle in this current environment with those two issues.
LT: What are some of the things that you would do as bar president to alleviate those issues? White: Well, I certainly can speak to them using what we call the bully pulpit of the bar president.
LT: What are some of your goals specifically as bar president? White: We have on my watch the changes to the disciplinary system that have been recommended by the committee made up of the bar and the Board on Professional Responsibility. Those went up to the court some time ago, and just recently the court came down with its recommendations as to what should happen with those. We’re in the process actually of expanding our pro bono initiative to the firms that are ranked by size as numbers 50 through 100. It asks law firms to commit in writing to do a percentage of their billable hours in pro bono work, 3 to 5 percent. We saw a number of firms, 42 of those 50 firms, sign on, so now we kicked off on June 19 the initiative to go to the next 50 firms. So that’s going to be a major push of my administration.
LT: How are you going about persuading another 50 firms to join the pro bono initiative? White: We held a kickoff breakfast meeting that was attended by many of the managing partners of the next 50 firms, was also attended by many of our legal service providers, and all of our chief judges. It was probably the best-attended 8 a.m. meeting I’ve ever been in. And we are actually well on our way to having those next 50 firms sign up. I believe we’re at about 18 firms right now, and that’s just since June.
LT: You’re the first openly gay D.C. Bar president? White: That’s my understanding. I haven’t really polled the prior presidents.
LT: Are there any specific challenges that gay and lesbian attorneys face in the District? White: The bar about 10 years ago actually performed a study on sexual orientation in the workplace and found that gay and lesbian attorneys, at that time, did face some issues that were different from other bar members, including a feeling of a lack of inclusion, a feeling that being open could be detrimental to their careers. I believe that there were some findings that gay and lesbian attorneys don’t progress as well through our legal organizations. Here we are 10 years later, and I think what we ought to be looking at is where are we now.

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