Elizabeth A. McMeen has more than 30 years of institutional knowledge at The Chicago Bar Association. It’s knowledge she expects will be her compass as she continues in her first year as executive director.
She became the new leader of the CBA — the first woman to hold the position — on Sept. 1 when Terry Murphy decided to retire.
Three decades ago while a court employee, McMeen joined the CBA trying to find ways to serve. She was an influential chair of the Young Lawyers Section, then helped modernize CBA’s approach to legal education.
Today, a year into a global pandemic that upended the courts and the legal community’s social life, she knows the CBA’s mission is ready to evolve.
“Nothing is going to be the same, because it can’t be the same right now,” she said.
Finding her place
Arriving in Chicago soon after earning her J.D. from the University of Wisconsin Law School in 1990, McMeen was hired as a law clerk to Cook County Circuit Judge Donald P. O’Connell, then the presiding judge of the Law Division.
O’Connell, now retired from the bench and working as a mediator, said he appreciated how McMeen “made him look smart” when she researched motions. He also said she was instrumental in his reorganization of the Law Division during his first months as presiding judge.
“She was smart, creative and organized,” O’Connell said of McMeen during her time working for him. “She had boundless energy.”
O’Connell and his staff suggested McMeen immediately get involved with bar associations as a way to establish herself in Chicago’s legal circles.
“They (said) you’ve got to do something with the CBA,” McMeen said. “All of a sudden, I’m talking with Terry Murphy about becoming the chair of the moot court committee.”
From there, McMeen’s presence and stature at the CBA continued to grow. She served on the association’s nominating committee in 1994 and was YLS chair in 1997-98.
Aurora Austriaco, who also served as YLS chair in that era and later served as CBA president in 2012-13, got to know McMeen well as they built a house for Habitat for Humanity with other lawyers.
“That event showed me how important YLS is,” she said. “She helped pull me more to into the YLS.”
Austriaco, now a shareholder with Valentine Austriaco & Bueschel P.C., said McMeen set an example for other chairs to follow in YLS. She said the CBA was the bar group to beat each year for the American Bar Association’s Young Lawyer Division Award of Achievement for public service and pro bono work. The CBA won during McMeen’s year at the helm.
“She told me ‘make sure you don’t break streak,’” Austriaco said with a chuckle. “And I didn’t.”
McMeen left O’Connell’s office and officially joined the CBA staff in 1999 as its CLE director. She held that position for 10 years, enhancing and expanding the bar group’s educational offerings.
Murphy, who held the director title from 1985 through 2020, said McMeen’s leadership over CLE efforts was critical to the CBA’s success over the last few decades.
Murphy said she was an “all-star” at creating nearly 100 programs each year, making them unique and bringing in a broad array of experts in different practice areas.
The programs serve as an important way to draw in and maintain CBA membership.
“Continuing Legal Education is the association’s strong point,” Murphy said. “It will likely continue to be our No. 1 member benefit years in the future. Her CLE experience was superb.”
Daniel M. Kotin, a partner at Tomasik Kotin Kasserman LLC, was also part of YLS with McMeen when they were “baby lawyers … trying to figure out what committees we could be in.”
Kotin, who was CBA president in 2016-17, said McMeen invigorated the CBA by turning CLE into a major moneymaker.
“(She) took it from an add-on benefit to one of the most fundamental and integral programs in the organization,” Kotin said.
In earlier times, the programs were entirely live shuffling participants between rooms to watch presentations. McMeen started recording all the programs so they could be checked out by CBA members to earn their credits. Then, she was able to host the events online.
“What was inconsequential is a now very important part of revenue for the CBA,” Kotin said. “Non-dues revenue sources are all the more important.”
McMeen says the CBA currently offers up to 500 seminars, including upcoming programs on wellness and lawyer self-care due to the pandemic.
Last year, the organization updated its webcasting capabilities to integrate with Zoom. McMeen said that investment is showing its worth with a “more robust method for our members to engage with each other.”
“I know we all look forward to the time when we can gather in person, but remote access to programming will unquestionably be here to stay,” she said.
McMeen adds that when it’s safe to meet in-person, CBA members who choose to attend remotely will have “the same level of interaction to which we have become accustomed” since the start of the pandemic.
McMeen became Murphy’s assistant executive director in 2010. Since Murphy’s retirement announcement and through the transition, McMeen said she feels the pressure, but also feels prepared.
Coming up the ranks in the CBA put her in the best position to thrive in this new job, she said.
“In those roles, I worked with so many members and the board,” McMeen said. “The board has always been such a well-rounded group of people.”
With the pandemic still ongoing, she says it’s difficult to predict what the CBA looks like one year from now, let alone five years from now. She expressed particular concern for young lawyers who are struggling with a variety of work-related matters because of coronavirus.
McMeen said she’s holding conversations with CBA leaders in civil practice on how to best engage young lawyers and help them grow professionally while working remotely.
“We’ve talked internally as a staff on what type of functions we can do,” McMeen said. “It’s hard to have conversations online.”
CBA’s delivery of programs — among other advancements — is going to continue to change, McMeen said. But one critical mission will remain, whatever the new normal looks like.
“We try to be responsive to what our members need. We have always, and will always,” she said. “This year has just been so unique in so many ways.”