I can't believe it's not butter
As I dig through a huge backlog of reading, I find in the pile a couple of issues of the Oregon State Bar Bulletin. As an Oregon attorney, I'm required to be a member of the state bar, and as such, I receive this magazine every month.
The January issue never fails to crack me up. Every year the cover story in this issue is a long puff piece about whoever it is that's becoming the new president of the state bar. The bar president is chosen for a one-year term from among the bar's board of governors -- an unpaid panel of 12 lawyers and four nonlawyers from around the state, who serve four years each, keeping an eye on Oregon's attorneys and the bar system that regulates them.
I have no doubt that the new bar president and his predecessors are, and have been, very good lawyers, generous public servants, interesting individuals, kind employers, and fine leaders. But from the sound of the annual Bar Bulletin profile, the incoming president for the new year transcends mere prominence and popularity -- ex officio, he or she walks on water.
This year's issue shows just how thickly one can slather on the flattery while keeping a straight face. Let's start with the pictures, all taken by a professional photographer. We have the full-page color cover shot of the new prez; not one but two images of his face on the table of contents page; a full page of color candid poses (walking with his spouse, strumming a guitar, and sitting with a group of smiling co-workers at his law office); and on another page, three head-and-shoulders shots of the new leader as he responds to an interviewer's questions. That's nearly three pages of photos alone.
Then there's the text, written by a bar staff member. Nothing but glowing praise for the new boss, of course, and lengthy quotations from him about the issues of the day. Two large sidebars give him an additional forum to expound on the daunting challenges that seem to face the bar year after year. In all, a seven-page article.
This is very unseemly, for a couple of reasons.
First, the annual presidential profile is an unfair slight to the many, many other lawyers who donate impressive amounts of time, money, ideas and energy to the state bar. Do we Bulletin readers get seven-page accounts of their lives, education, career paths, practices, families, pets and pastimes? Of course not. Now and then you'll catch a blurry, amateur black-and-white picture of one of them getting a plaque in some dismal hotel ballroom, but that's usually about it.
Perhaps more importantly, the cult of personality being fostered by these articles reveals a potential conflict of interest. One of the many tasks that the bar president is called upon to perform is supervision and oversight of the bar's operations. This includes constantly monitoring programs, facilities, overhead, and personnel to insure that the bar machinery is effective and efficient. One would think that from time to time, the president's job would involve asking tough questions -- questions that might make some long-time bureaucrats in the bar office at least a bit uneasy. Even if the staff is doing a bang-up job, its relationship with the president should be a professional one, not a gushy love festival.
Watching the staff as it so publicly strokes the new president's ego every year does not inspire confidence that the relationship will be the arm's-length interaction that it should be.