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It’s always the Eve of Destruction at the ABA Annual Meeting. Anyone worried about not having enough to worry about can stock up on a year’s supply of phobias, fears and obsessions by attending a couple of the “Presidential Showcases” on variegated threats to the rule of law and the perquisites of lawyers. But since both the dot-com information economy and multidisciplinary practices make traditional bar associations look like dinosaurs, the doom and gloomsters seemed less hyperbolic than usual at the New York sessions of this year’s convention. With ABA influence continuing to wane, top tier national politicians giving the meeting a pass and the definition of “practice of law” up for grabs, some bar activists are suffering signs of fatigue. That’s part of the reason why much-hyped sessions like programs on police misconduct and diversity in the legal profession each drew only a couple of dozen attendees from the 8,000 ABA members who showed up in Manhattan. Stuck across from the Japanese Travel Bureau in the bowels of the Hilton, the panel on police baddies fretted about macho cops who were too young, too dumb and too pumped. One lawyer compared police at confrontations to Marines landing on a beach or charging up a hill. ACLU president Nadine Strossen suggested that “testosterone ought to be made an illegal drug.” She was kidding, maybe, but at least she was funny. Other speakers’ cop bashing was enough to make a civil libertarian long for the NYPD Street Crime Unit to crash in screaming, “Who wants to learn about Terry v. Ohio on Giuliani time?” — before tossing a couple of the participants. Also mostly ignored by the ABA community was a “Town Hall” session on diversity that was introduced by ABA President William Paul. Maybe the delegates had already moved on to this year’s cause, incoming president Martha Barnett’s call for a moratorium on the death penalty. The diversity program started out as a Jonathan Edwards-like sermon on sinners in the hands of an angry diversity God, with flashes of an Amway-style pep rally for government inspired people-of-color opportunities, such as Robert Johnson’s new D.C. commuter airline. As the session became less coherent and more tedious, audience members started trickling out. A half hour into it, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor headed for the exit, beefy bodyguard in tow. In contemporary ABA-speak, diversity almost always refers to race and ethnicity, but these are arbitrary classifications. Nobody explains how a blanco in Havana suddenly becomes a person of color in Miami, or talks about the implications of an increasingly mixed race society. And nobody worries about a lack of religious or ideological diversity or the traditional exclusion of Trappist Monks, PETA anti-fur activists and Osama Bin Ladin supporters from the Board of Governors. The Trappists, with their vows of silence, would be an especially exciting addition to the governing board. At least the House of Delegates meeting was well attended, probably because delegates could have trouble getting expenses reimbursed by their sponsoring Bar associations if they failed to show up. At the opening House session, President Paul was escorted into the room to a standing ovation and then made his farewell report reviewing the year’s activities –finishing up by describing the assembled delegates as “the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body.” The session came complete with aisle monitors who had been instructed to pick up the delegates’ electronic voting devices, if the latter were left unattended. This was to prevent “proxy voting” — a big no-no for no-shows. From the ballroom balcony, I watched the World’s Greatest Deliberative Body slurping Cokes, reading newspapers, answering cell phones and chatting with one another as the ABA head crowned it with oratorical laurels. The next day the House took one hour to debate MDPs before declaring war on them. The House proceedings lacked the frisson of excitement that accompanied a torts and insurance practice session on “Real Health: Practicing Fitness First, Then Law, Then Sex!,” featuring New York radio therapist and Penthouse magazine contributor Dr. Judy Kurianksy, the author of “Generation Sex and The Idiot’s Guide to Safe Dating.” Her program was held in the elegant Starlight Room of the Waldorf Astoria and taught the “alignment of fitness, sex and the law.” Kuriansky’s co-presenter — Mill Valley lawyer and well-preserved 58-year-old health educator David Hobler — told the mostly gray-haired audience that the course wasn’t “really out of the box,” because fitness to practice is “part of ethics.” I was hoping that Justice O’Connor or some other member of the Supreme Court might drop by and stay for longer than half an hour. Dr. Judy, resplendent in two-tone blond hair and a flower print suit with plastic sparkles, isn’t a lawyer herself. But she’s married to one, and she has definite ideas about how to relieve lawyer stress. The session began with an abstract, sensual video of what turned out to be popcorn popping, all done to what sounded like a Vaughn Williams symphony. This presentation was designed to trick watchers into thinking the video represented something else and make them open to seeing things differently. Kuriansky proceeded on to a short quiz that determined if we were a “blue, green, red or yellow” personality — roughly the equivalent of logical, organized, emotional or profoundly perverted. She then explained the concept of “Chakhas” which she said helped participants understand their bodies and described the most important component of New Age thinking. Meanwhile, she passed around a picture of a couple in the “yab yum” tantric yoga position. The class was invited to try some tantric breathing exercises. Not exactly dressed for excess in my Brooks Brothers suit and having already spent 45 minutes that morning with the Waldorf’s Stair Master, I had problems keeping up with the increasingly enthusiastic audience. On the way out, a Virginia lawyer wondered aloud if the Old Dominion would give him MCLE credit for the session. I told him that in California there wouldn’t be any problem. Instead of tagging along to the London session, I went back home to my work, which neither earns me MCLE credits nor improves my knowledge of Sanskrit, but does help the clients and pays the bills. For all the ABA’s talk of reform and of expanding opportunities for women and ethnic racial groups — and even with the odd tantric sex class — it remains an organizationally conservative, often reactionary group. Its chief problem is that it’s also increasingly irrelevant, especially in the most dynamic areas of the law. MDPs will benefit Big 5 accounting firms. But they will also make legal services more broadly available and open new opportunities for individuals from groups traditionally underrepresented within the legal profession. Some of the most articulate MDP supporters come from advocacy groups who want to build their own MDPs — with social workers, counselors and lawyers — to attack the problems of the poor. Opposing the death penalty or supporting increased funding for the United Nations doesn’t threaten lawyer incomes. But the ABA’s liberal attitudes often end where professional self-interest kicks in. Most ABA activists want to block further inroads by multidisciplinary practices and other changes in the way legal services are supplied to consumers, no matter how much the public at large benefits from them. After all, the ABA honchos are at the top of the profession, and things are just fine for them — for now. George M. Kraw is a San Jose attorney.

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