It’s safe to say that 2004 was a stellar year for Nena Cook. As president-elect of the Oregon State Bar and head of Sussman Shank LLP’s labor and employment law practice, Cook’s name repeatedly surfaced in local publications as one of the state’s most powerful women. Sussman Shank appointed her chair of its litigation department in October. And, to cap off the year’s accomplishments, Cook and her partner had a baby boy they named Stuart Charles and built a new house in Southwest Portland.
As she steps into her role as president of the Oregon
State Bar, Cook says she expects 2005 will be even more eventful. At
38, she’s already setting precedents as the bar’s youngest president
and as just the third woman to ever serve in the position.
"This is quite an honor and an awesome responsibility, "she says. "To the extent my age or gender may encourage other lawyers to participate, then I hope to have a positive influence on them. For too long we’ve forgotten that 30 percent of bar members and 50 percent of law school students are women. I don’t think people are complacent or lazy. We just don’t do a good job of communicating the opportunities that are available."
Along with encouraging more women attorneys to take part in bar activities, one of Cook’s goals as president is to increase participation among lawyers of color. Recruitment efforts will target women and minority attorneys to write for continuing legal education publications, speak at CLE seminars, fill positions on the Board of Governors and House of Delegates, serve on bar committees and receive nominations for awards given each year by the organization. In February, the Oregon State Bar will partner with the Multnomah Bar Association to host a summit on diversity within the profession.
"The idea of all of this is that if women and lawyers of color participate, it enhances their networking opportunities, it increases their profile within the profession and it helps them with business opportunities," Cook says.
It also helps improve the profession’s image, which is another goal Cook has set for the coming year. Along with promoting diversity, a key piece of that objective is to publicize the services provided by attorneys throughout the state.
"We’ll be working with the bar’s communications department to focus on the good works of lawyers, both professionally and personally, and highlight the stories and struggles of their clients," she says. "I hope that, little by little, we’ll be able to show the public that lawyers make a positive difference within the community."
Another way to enhance the image of the profession, Cook says, is to recognize attorneys for their pro bono work. The Oregon State Bar attempts to track pro bono hours performed by attorneys through a couple of programs. The Pro Bono Challenge recognizes the number of hours individual lawyers and firms dedicate to providing legal representation for the poor and other forms of voluntary service. Firms and individuals with the most hours are recognized during an annual spring ceremony.
Last year, the bar initiated the Pro Bono Roll Call to formalize its process for tracking volunteer hours dedicated to providing legal services to the poor, legal public service and non-legal public service. Roll Call began allowing attorneys to voluntarily report their hours through the membership dues process. Starting this month, members can submit their hours by filling out a tear-away form in the Roll Call brochure or online at www.osbar.org.
A third goal Cook outlines as part of her presidential agenda involves improving the bar’s disciplinary process to make it more timely and efficient.
"Our disciplinary process is highly dependent on volunteers, many of whom are lawyers. Some cases don’t move along as fast as they should because these are volunteers who are practicing law," she says. "We want to analyze ways to speed up the process so that it’s fair to the accused lawyer and protects the public."
Other issues Cook sees on the bar’s radar screen this year include possible funding cuts that may be made to the state’s judiciary and indigent defense services during the 2005 legislative session.
"With a budget shortfall of over a billion dollars, we’ve got our work cut out for us. Our goal is to make sure the Legislature adequately funds the judiciary and indigent defense, and if that funding is cut we want to explore ways to protect those services," she says.
Technology also presents some interesting dilemmas. For example, online CLE publications available to the bar would provide "a wonderful opportunity for all members, especially those outside the metro area who may not have access to the books or online research tools," Cook says.
However, those tools could potentially increase the annual cost of bar membership by as much as $70, so it’s essential to find ways to reduce that cost or explore other online continuing education options, she notes.
Video conferencing is another technology hot button. A two-year pilot project will kick off this year to examine how to use video conferencing to help lawyers outside the Portland metro area get more involved in bar activities.
"I spend a lot of time in Eastern and Southern Oregon and what I hear is that those attorneys would like to be more involved in the bar but they can’t afford to drive five or six hours to participate," Cook says.
Other technology issues include the creation of a statewide electronic filing system for court documents as well as online voting for members of the Board of Governors and House of Delegates.
"It would be more convenient for many members to vote online, but about 15 percent of our members don’t have e-mail so we won’t totally eliminate voting by mail," Cook says.
The vision Cook brings to her service as OSB president and the objectives she hopes to accomplish reflect the focus and determination she exemplifies in other areas of her life. Cook knew from an early age that she wanted to be an attorney. She was inspired by Watergate.
"The country was in crisis and I knew we were at a crossroads. I was too young to understand what it was all about, but I remember thinking, ‘Who are all these lawyers?’ and knowing they were doing something very important," she says.
Cook’s athletic talent also played a key role in her childhood. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah, she began skiing at an early age. She lettered in basketball, volleyball, track and field, and softball all four years of high school, then went on to play basketball during her first two years at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash.
With a law degree in mind, Cook quit playing basketball and focused on academics. She graduated from Gonzaga, with honors, with bachelor’s degrees in philosophy and political science and a minor in international relations. Cook attended law school at Willamette University, where she served as production editor of its law review and won the ABA’s Client Counseling Competition.
Sports are still a major part of Cook’s life when she’s not working, however. She runs, skis, snowboards and swims. She also bikes most days of the week, rising at 5 a.m. to ride before (and sometimes to) work and striking out on the weekends for other territory.
"That’s the way I deal with stress and it’s when I do my best thinking," she says. "It gives me an opportunity to clear my mind. When you’re on Marine Drive heading east and you see the sun coming up over Mount Hood and it’s so quiet that the only sound you hear is the birds and the water, it’s just amazing. That’s when I’m most at peace."
The clarity of mind she experiences during bike rides give her the extra ammunition needed to develop effective defenses for the medium-size, family-owned businesses she represents in complex discrimination and harassment claims, Cook’s specialty at Sussman Shank.
"What I like about litigation is that it almost always occurs in federal court, and it’s a complex area of law. There are usually many factors involved and emotions are almost always running high," she says.
A particularly memorable case involved a small manufacturing company that had been sued for discrimination by two former employees who filed a lawsuit for millions of dollars. The case, which went in favor of Cook’s client, preserved a family-owned business that had been owned by four generations and reflected decades of tradition.
"I don’t represent Fortune 500 companies. I represent the medium and small businesses, and my clients are real people. They aren’t the mega-corp.; they are the ones who roll up their sleeves and do the work themselves," she says. "If the verdict had gone another way, that company would be out of business."
Jeff Misley, managing partner at Sussman Shank, says he has little doubt that Cook, the first attorney in the firm’s history to serve as bar president, will lead the bar with the same dedication and talent she shows as chair of the firm’s litigation group.
"She’ll bring an enthusiasm and a commitment to her role as president," Misley says. "Nena does a great job in everything she does, and she’s an excellent attorney and a valued member of the firm. She’s accomplished a lot already, and we know she’ll accomplish a lot more."
Along with her other professional commitments, Cook mentors young lawyers. She offers them hope and encouragement while reminding them what an honor and privilege it is be a member of the legal profession.
"Her energy is just electric, and I’m looking forward to working with her on some important issues," says Kateri Walsh, the bar’s community relations administrator. "She brings this great analytical mind to the table; she’s a great thinker. She also doesn’t mind jumping into the fray and really leading. Her positive approach has a calming affect. Her focus and her diplomacy seem to get you more closely to a resolution. I just think she’s a great ambassador for the bar and for Oregon’s judiciary."
William Carter, OSB’s president in 2004, says he and Cook worked well together and seemed to come to the same conclusions on complex issues.
"She’s very intelligent, she’s incisive and she has a great sense of humor. She was a great help to me as president-elect and she’s going to be a great president for the bar," Carter says. "I’m very optimistic for the next year — I think she’s going to do a fantastic job."
Cook admits it’s strange to be in the public spotlight and see her name and photograph in publications touting her as one of Oregon’s most powerful women. She hopes it will encourage other women attorneys to carve their niche in the profession while also making time to improve it.
"I don’t take myself too seriously," she says. "The reason I wanted to be involved in the bar is because I wanted to give back to my profession. It sounds cliché, but I wanted to leave it a better organization than I found it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Melody Finnemore is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She is also media relations specialist for Loaves & Fishes Centers in Portland.
© 2005 Melody Finnemore
NENA COOK ON THE ISSUES
The disciplinary system has undergone many changes and refinements in the last year or so. What are you most excited about, among these changes? Do you see any need to fine-tune or otherwise revisit the issue of the Oregon lawyer discipline system?
One of the most important changes to the disciplinary system in the last 20 years was the implementation of the bar’s Client Assistant Office (CAO) in August of 2003. Since then, all inquiries or complaints about a member of the bar are first screened by the CAO, which is part of the General Counsel’s office, not Disciplinary Counsel’s Office. Upon an allegation of misconduct, the CAO makes a preliminary review and investigates whether a matter raises and actual complaint of misconduct based on credible evidence. Only if that determination is made, will the matter be referred to Disciplinary Counsel’s Office. If the matter does not raise an actual complaint, the CAO attempts to resolve the issue by other means. In its first year of operation, the CAO resolved 53 percent of complaints it received the same day. The CAO provides a significant benefit to the bar and the public in that serious matters are addressed immediately and appropriately, but frivolous allegations are disposed of without a great deal of time or energy expended by the accused lawyer.
In 2005, we will continue monitoring the effectiveness of the CAO and also analyze the speed of the disciplinary process system to make sure it is fair to the accused the lawyer and protects the public.
There is concern about the shrinking number of members attending the annual meeting? What is in store for the annual meeting?
The annual meeting as we once knew it is gone. Every year the number of lawyers attending the two-day event has decreased with an all-time low in 2004, despite the fact that the meeting was held in Portland. The decline in attendance is consistent with the change our profession is undergoing. More and more lawyers are practicing in specialty areas, which logically leads them in the direction of their respective sections. We will of course conduct the House of Delegates meeting in October and continue the revival of the Tent Show, which was wildly successful in 2004, but we will make other appropriate changes to the annual meeting to address the needs of our membership.
Access to justice
Realistically, what more can the bar do in this arena? Are we getting our message out adequately? Do lawyers need to be more involved in the Campaign for Equal Justice? Is that even enough to meet the legal needs of all Oregonians?
A fair and accessible justice system is a fundamental tenant of basic democratic principles. If only a small percentage of Oregonians have access to that system, then we have failed in one of the most basic responsibilities lawyers owe to our society. The Oregon State Bar has made access to justice one of its highest priorities over the last decade by encouraging participation in the Campaign for Equal Justice and the Pro Bono Challenge. We will continue those efforts and monitor any assault on the jury system that attempts to cap jury awards for those severely injured or limit fees for the attorneys who represent them.
Image of lawyers
The image of lawyers: Is it getting better? Can more be done? Does the current standing of lawyers make your job as bar president any more difficult? How do you respond to the attacks upon the profession?
Historically, this issue has been one of our professions continuing challenges and that is why the Board of Governors has made it one of its top 3 priorities for 2005. One way we can enhance the image of lawyers is to appreciate the position of authority and responsibility we hold in our society and not take advantage of that standing. From the day we’re sworn into the bar, we need to understand that our integrity and honesty are not commodities upon which we trade depending on the circumstances of a particular case. As long as these characteristics remain inviolate, we will enjoy the practice of law, make tough decisions more easily and better serve the needs of our clients.
How do you feel about the way judges are appointed, selected and elected in Oregon? How can the organized bar better protect the ideal of an independent judiciary? (How well is the appointment process working? Do you see or recommend any changes to the way judges are recommended, selected and elected?)
Over the past two years, the bar has worked closely with Gov. Kulongoski’s office to enhance the process by which judges are appointed. For both circuit court and appellate court vacancies, we have replaced the "bar polls" with an in depth review of each candidate’s experience and talents. In the past, the bar just forwarded to the governor’s office a list of "highly qualified" lawyers without any substantive information. Now, this governor has given the membership an opportunity to meet with his staff to discuss the merits of each candidacy before he makes an appointment. This new vetting process also evens the playing field for those candidates for an appellate vacancy who reside outside the tri-county area. Candidates are now judged solely on their merit, not on the number of votes they may get from a preference poll, which usually favors the best known candidates.