With changing politics, technologies and business models affecting the legal industry in a state mired in a seemingly endless fiscal crisis, the Connecticut Bar Association’s new president, Karen DeMeola, begins her term amid many challenges, but she says she is up to the task.
Elected June 16 during the bar’s annual luncheon in Hartford, the 47-year-old UConn School of Law assistant dean of students begins her term this week amid a range of local and national issues related to race, class, economic and social conflicts, and she says it’s more important than ever for people to explore their differences and learn to work together.
“We are committed to access to justice and making sure that even the poorest people have access to the courts,” said DeMeola, who informs her work at UConn in critical identity theory through her own experiences as an biracial lesbian adoptee who teaches students about diversity of inclusion, or acknowledging our differences together.
One way to do that is by reaching out to young people, and through the bar’s Pathways to Legal Careers program DeMeola has created a pipeline for middle- and high-school students to explore law careers. “We’re looking at communities that typically don’t have access to law schools and bringing information to them. We had 300 students come over to UConn Law School to focus on what the law is, what lawyers do and how to get into law school. We are providing that entry point for law students to be on a law school campus, spark an interest in law and get a sense of what it takes to get there. A lot of people think it’s just a dream for rich people.”
Concurrently, client access to legal services is something perceived as prohibitive to poorer communities, DeMeola added. “Across the spectrum, there are people who think having a lawyer is impossible because they can’t afford it, because what people see on TV is either the filthy rich or ‘Law and Order.’ We would like to see more community action so people can see they can get a lawyer, and not all lawyers charge $500 an hour. I think you are going to see our legal services providers advertising online legal services.“
This may include lawyers offering online advice or incubator businesses offering “low-bono” options for clients who do not meet income eligibility restrictions. As opposed to giant legal bills starting at thousands of dollars, “When you go in and hear someone’s hourly rate is a hundred dollars and it’s going to take three hours, that makes people feel much more comfortable, so these models are creeping up around the country,” she said.
“The other piece on access is around people who can’t get through the doors because of issues surrounding mental health or disability or addiction, and assuring that those people who come to the profession can stay in the profession,” DeMeola added. The Connecticut group Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is an organization she touted as helpful in addressing high depression and suicide rates in the industry. “It’s important for us to take care of ourselves as attorneys,” she said.
DeMeola acknowledged that the national political climate in 2017 has brought new challenges for people focused on diversity and inclusion, but she has seen many people organizing and rising to the challenge. “There has been so much energy around equality and civil rights, and as much as there has been all of the stuff in the Twitterverse that’s been negative, there are so many organizations doing good things,” she said. “People are paying much more attention on the grassroots level to equality issues. It may be born out of something negative, but I think it’s really positive, and clients are getting the benefit of lawyers who are rising to the occasion and want to protect the rule of law.”
DeMeola is the bar’s 94th president. She succeeds attorney Monte Frank of Cohen and Wolf. She has served as a civil rights litigator focusing on employment discrimination, police brutality and housing discrimination and lectures on diversity and the intersectionality of race, class, gender, religion and sexual orientation.
Other officers are: president-elect, Jonathan M. Shapiro, partner at Shapiro Law Offices in Middletown and Stamford; vice president, Ndidi N. Moses, assistant U.S. attorney and civil rights coordinator for the civil division at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New Haven; secretary, Alaine C. Doolan, of Robinson & Cole in Hartford; treasurer, associate general counsel at Eversource Energy; assistant secretary-treasurer, Dana M. Hrelic, a partner at Horton Dowd Bartschi & Levesque in Hartford.