The Federal Bar Association's Vathis On Why Civics Matter

By Kevin Penton | July 28, 2019, 8:02 PM EDT

If you want a healthy and independent federal judiciary system, making sure the nation's future leaders understand its importance can't hurt.

That's why Maria Z. Vathis, the president of the Federal Bar Association, said a big part of her organization's work is teaching young people about this branch of government.

Maria Z. Vathis

The association, which turns 100 in 2020, includes more than 18,000 federal lawyers, including 1,500 federal judges. It works to promote the interests, professional development and education of all attorneys who deal with federal law.

Through national initiatives such as summer court camps, mock trials, a national essay contest, visits to local courthouses and a mentoring program for young people interested in pursuing careers related to the judiciary, the FBA strives to ensure that the nation's youth recognize that the nation's courts are an equal branch of government that deserves to be preserved and strengthened, Vathis said.

Vathis — who also works at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP representing clients in business litigation, insurance coverage and class actions involving allegations of federal statute violations — spoke recently with Law360 about the importance of the FBA's National Civics Initiative and about her time as president of the association.

What are the goals that drive these initiatives?

It's to help our youth understand the importance of civics and their civic duty. I think it also provides guidance to the youth of our nation. It raises awareness of these issues.

Our youth spend so much time on social media, I don't think they are necessarily focused on how they can give back to their communities.

What impact do you hope this will have the legal system?

I hope that it will bring awareness to the third branch of the government. Sometimes people forget that it's an equal branch, even with funding. I also think it's important to make sure that there is an understanding and an awareness of the legal system, an understanding that there should be respect for our courts, judges and juries.

What have been some of the thoughts that students have expressed in the essays?

We've had mostly positive feedback and perspectives. But every once in a while you get a story that suggests otherwise, that not all students have had positive experiences.

It's been eye opening to hear about the different experiences that students have had and their perspectives, on, for example, the equal protection clause and how well it is working for them. Some students had really positive things to say, and some had some eye opening comments that suggest we have some work to do in this country.

Tell me more about the FBA's mentoring program.

The FBA believes that it is important to mentor all young attorneys, so we have an all-inclusive program and philosophy. Building a mentor-mentee relationship helps the mentee have a better understanding of the legal profession, helps the mentee make decisions about his or her professional path, and enriches the lives of both the mentee and mentor in positive ways.

That being said, I believe that, as a female attorney and national bar association member, it is important to mentor young women in the legal community and beyond.

I have had young women from the United States, Europe, and South America contact me during my presidential term to tell me that they view me as a role model and inspiration since I hold the position of national president as a woman at a relatively young age. I was shocked but so honored and touched to receive messages like this, and it made me understand that there are different ways to be a mentor — from up close or from afar.

How can attorneys become involved in these efforts, either on their own or as part of your organization?

We're always welcoming to attorneys who want to join our organization or even participate in some of the programs that we have and to give back.

I think it's so rewarding to be in a position to give back to the community. That's one of the things that we do quite well. Attorneys are busy. We've already got this in place, so that's half the battle there. We've got the idea, we've got a structure, so we invite attorneys who are interested and who want to give back to join us in our efforts.

How did you get involved with the FBA? Why did you want to become president?

I happened to work with someone who was an officer of the Chicago chapter, and she said that the board was looking for young members. Thanks to her, I was fortunate enough to be nominated to the board when I started practicing law.

I was enthusiastic to be a part of the group, and I spent a lot of time working on the newsletter and contributing to the group in various ways. Through the organization, I met treasured friends and mentors. It was important for me to find a way to give back, and that desire inspired my decision to run for president. I love the organization, its mission, the people, and all of the good that we do in the community.

What are some of your goals for your time as president of the FBA?

My initiative this year was to focus on health, wellness and civility.

We've done a very good job of incorporating healthier food options at our conferences, we've had fitness classes at our conferences, things like Jazzercise, yoga. We do a 5K run now at all of our conferences, and we're also hopeful to have some funding from a corporate sponsor for the future, for chapters to continue to focus on fitness and to have the funding to do so.

I am only the 10th female president in the history of this organization, in 100 years, so we've also been focusing on women and the law. The 100th anniversary of women's ability to vote is coming up, and so we'll also be highlighting that.

It seems like in the past couple of years, there has been more of an awareness in the legal profession that attorneys are not well, whether it's mental health, or it's physical health. In terms of the support available for attorneys, there seems to be more of a push for that.

I completely agree. I think it's a positive change for the profession. You need to feel well and take care of yourself in order to serve the clients and the public.

--Editing by Brian Baresch.

All Access is a series of discussions with leaders in the access to justice field. Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

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