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His job now is raising the bar

Kevin Ryan wonders: What do millennials want?

For Ryan, the question is more finely tuned. He wants to know what millennial lawyers want and what if anything the Monroe County Bar Association needs to do to keep and attract them as members.

His curiosity is not idle. Ryan took over as MCBA’s executive director in May.

An in-progress first order of business, he says, is to get a precise demographic picture of the organization, which, by virtue of time’s inevitable toll, increasingly will need to attract millennials if it hopes to maintain its ranks.

MCBA has long had an active Young Lawyers Section. Members must be under 36 and have less than 10 years of experience. With more than 200 members, it is one of the approximately 2,000-member association’s seven sections.

Still, Ryan wonders why many early career attorneys and recent law school graduates are not joining the organization. Making sure the organization is doing everything it can to cultivate the demographic is a top priority.

“Millennials work differently than our generation,” says Ryan, 62. “I want to know what the value proposition is for that group.”

Unlike older attorneys who came up researching decisions and precedents by wading through hardbound volumes, Ryan says, younger lawyers typically do research in the same way they check news items, communicate with friends and colleagues and shop—online.

Comprehensive legal research is readily available online. The longest established purveyors are Lexis-Nexis and Thomson Reuters’ Westlaw; both are well-organized and comprehensive subscription services. But they are not cheap.

Ryan is considering a subscription deal with one of several online legal research companies whose services he has investigated and found useful. Offering free access to online legal research as an MCBA membership perk could bring some younger small-firm and sole-practice attorneys into the MCBA fold.

That feature would be highly attractive to a particular contingent: relatively recent law school graduates who are trying to establish themselves as sole practitioners, says Ryan McDonald, MCBA Young Lawyers Section chairman and an associate at Osborn, Burke & Reed LLP.

That MCBA group’s ranks are swelling in inverse proportion to the shrinkage of the entry-level attorney job market, McDonald says.

The legal job market’s contraction began with the economy’s 2008 near-collapse. It has not abated with the economy’s recovery, he says. With plenty of more experienced lawyers on the hunt for work, firms are often less anxious to give newly minted lawyers a chance.

A 2011 law school graduate, McDonald says he knows a number of fresh-out-of-school attorneys who gave up trying to land a job with a firm and decided instead to hang out a shingle. For such lawyers, access to free legal research alone would be worth the price of a bar association membership, he says.

While MCBA is doing a good job of serving its younger members, McDonald says he appreciates Ryan’s determination to bring younger attorneys into the MCBA fold. 

“I don’t really see it as an age thing,” McDonald says. “It’s more that we’re all in this together. 

“There is a lot young lawyers can learn from older attorneys in terms of practice. But I think it also goes both ways. Younger lawyers can have something to teach older lawyers, especially in how technology can be employed in practice.”

Educational efforts
Updating MCBA’s continuing legal education course menu with an eye to making it more tech-friendly also is on Ryan’s to-do list.

Continuing legal education is a major contributor to the 10-employee MCBA’s $1 million a year budget.

Most of the courses MCBA sponsors are done as in-person events. But, Ryan says, online courses have become increasingly available with many at a more attractive price.

MCBA offers some online CLE courses, but most are merely recordings of in-person sessions. Ryan wants to investigate creating a menu of courses designed as internet offerings.

In a somewhat out-of-the box conjecture, Ryan wonders if it might not make sense to do more to court non-practicing attorneys to MCBA’s ranks.

“There are a lot of people out there with law degrees who don’t work as lawyers, he says. “There’s a lot you can do with a law degree that doesn’t involve practicing.”

According to an American Bar Association longitudinal study of 5,000 class of 2000 law school graduates, the number who were not practicing law rose from 9 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2012.

Many such people might have been squeezed out in a still rippling wave of law-firm downsizings, the study theorizes.

Ryan says a significant percentage might have found, as he did, that they would rather do something else.

An attorney and 20-year member of the Colorado Bar Association, Ryan has practiced but rarely, handling routine matters such as simple estate planning and real estate closings for family.

Ryan earned a J.D. from the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law in 1991.

He is the first attorney to hold the MCBA executive director post in more than a decade. His predecessor, Mary Loewenguth, a non-lawyer, left after 14 years with MCBA to become clerk of the U.S. Western District of New York Court. 

Ryan entered law school thinking he would become a practicing attorney. He found out, to his own surprise, he did not much enjoy practicing while working for a law firm as a partner’s clerk when he was still in law school.

“I was drawn to the law because of the philosophical questions underlying it,” he says. “What I found out when I was in law school was that as a practicing attorney you hardly deal with them.”

Ryan had a master of arts in politics from PrincetonUniversity in New Jersey and taught at the college level as an assistant professor at his alma mater, Regis University in Denver.

When he graduated law school, Ryan went back to academia, landing an appointment in the Department of Justice and Sociology at Norwich University in Northfield, Vt.

He stayed in the position for a decade, teaching a four-course load and earning tenure in his fifth year. He gave it up five years later to work for the Vermont Bar Association, a position he held until landing the MCBA job this year.

Illinois native
Tall and bespectacled, Ryan has close-cropped gray hair. Born in Illinois, he grew up in Boulder, Colo. That was where his family ended up after a newly opened Piggly Wiggly store forced Ryan’s father to close the mom-and-pop grocery he had run in Sycamore, Ill.

“It was a classic case of a small grocer being run out of business by a supermarket,” Ryan says. “He took a job at Piggly Wiggly for a while and then went into the fast-food business.”

As a fast-food entrepreneur, Ryan’s father signed on as a franchisee in an aspiring restaurant chain but the chain ran afoul of the law. Ryan’s father suffered no legal consequences but lost the family’s life savings and went to work first as a U.S. Department of Agriculture food inspector.  He finished his career as a security guard for the U.S. Mint in Denver. 

Ryan was five when the family moved to Boulder, including his brother, 13 years his senior. He still has strong ties to the Colorado city, where his mother lives and two of his three adult children have settled. 

A baseball player in high school, Ryan was a pitcher whose 90-mile-an-hour fastball won him a two-year full scholarship and a two-year half-scholarship to Regis. He considered going professional. His chances of signing in with a major league farm team sank when an injury cut his pitching speed by eight miles an hour, the result, Ryan thinks, of some undiagnosed strain or injury.

“I was scouted and got letters from some major league teams, saying they were looking at me,” Ryan says.

But after his fastball slowed, nothing materialized, he says. “Eighty-two (mph) is not good enough.”

At Regis, Ryan majored in political science and history. He also met his wife, Debbie, there. The couple has three children, a daughter, 33, and sons ages 25 and 30.

After earning a bachelor of arts in 1977, Ryan went to Princeton for graduate work. He studied political philosophy and the philosophy of law, earning a master of arts in 1980. 

He then did a two-year stint as a visiting scholar at Harvard Law School before going back to Regis to teach. An assistant professor with appointments in the Denver school’s sociology and philosophy departments, Ryan also directed the school’s criminal justice program.

Ryan gave up the professorship to attend law school.

Love of teaching
An avowed lover of the classroom, he still found time to teach, serving as a summer-session adjunct in the University of Denver’s sociology department. After Ryan gave up his tenured slot at Norwich University to work for the Vermont Bar Association, he returned to Norwich, teaching a course as an adjunct professor of political science until this year.

At Norwich, Ryan had become friendly with Robert Paolini, the Vermont Bar Association’s former executive director, who was teaching at Norwich as an adjunct. Paolini, Ryan and their wives became friendly, sharing dinner dates and other social outings.

A lawyer and onetime Vermont state legislator, Paolini saw his main responsibility as the bar association’s executive director to be working with the legislature.

He describes his role as something like a lobbyist and a legislative aide-at-large, devoting much of his time to researching legal and criminal justice issues for the state’s lawmakers.

It is a function that Paolini, who retired from the bar association post last spring, still performs for the attorney group as a paid consultant.

In Vermont, where legislators sit for less than half the year and have no paid staff, such a function makes sense for the bar association and for lawmakers, Paolini says. Not a lot of time is left for the day-to-day business of running the bar association.

Notwithstanding his love of teaching and a lifelong infatuation with political and legal philosophy, Ryan confesses that after a decade as a professor, by 2001 he had grown weary of departmental politics.

Sensing his friend’s disenchantment, Paolini began to work on Ryan, who he saw as a prime candidate to serve as the Vermont Bar Association’s de facto chief operating officer.

“We were at a New Year’s Eve party at Bob’s house. He asked me to take the job and I accepted,” Ryan recalls.

“You could see that 10 years had got to him,” Paolini says. “I dragged him away from the university and I think it worked out best for everyone.

“Kevin is a brain, a scholar and a great writer, very thoughtful. He’s also a great public speaker and a good administrator.  He was like a bottomless cup. Whenever we’d come up with a project, he’d go at it.”

MCBA President Mark Moretti concurs. He started working with Ryan in mid-April, when Ryan, who was still in Vermont, started to remotely monitor MCBA. The two remain in daily communication.

“I don’t think everybody has met him yet,” Moretti says. “I think he’s still going around and meeting people, but I think everyone will be very positively impressed.”

Ryan says he left the Vermont Bar when Paolini retired for two reasons: He had no interest in taking up Paolini’s role as a quasi-lobbyist, and after a decade in Vermont, he and Debbie were craving more population density than that offered by the sparsely populated, largely rural state.

The town where he was living has only a few thousand residents. Montpelier, the nearby state capital, has only a few thousand more. To take advantage of cultural or entertainment offerings not available in their local area, they had to drive an hour to Burlington, a small city with fewer than 45,000 residents. 

Coming to Rochester
So Ryan applied for the MCBA job after carefully researching areas where the couple might want to live and finding Rochester to be a top choice. Rochester is large enough to offer a plethora of movie theaters, cultural outlets such as museums, a symphony orchestra, and a minor league baseball team. Yet it is small enough to offer easy commutes.

The Jazz Festival, which Debbie traveled here to attend with him, was a special treat, Ryan says.

Another attraction for Ryan: Rochester’s overall cost of living. Rochester’s combined costs are below the U.S. average; Vermont’s costs are higher. 

Currently living in rented quarters in the Park Avenue area while Debbie winds up her nursing job in Vermont, Ryan plans to look for a home to buy when she joins him. He is not sure where they will end up. He likes city living, but regrets his current situation does not provide an opportunity for gardening, which he avidly pursued in Vermont.

“What I do with my spare time now is read,” he says. “I read everything, fiction, nonfiction, philosophy, novels, you name it.”

Another feature that drew Ryan to Rochester is its relative abundance of institutions of higher learning.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if I taught again,” he says. “I love the classroom.”

Kevin Ryan
Position: Executive director, Monroe County Bar Association
Age: 62
Education: B.A. political science and history, Regis University, Denver, 1977; M.A. in politics, Princeton University, Princeton N.J., 1979; J.D., University of Denver College of Law, 1991
Family: Wife, Debbie; daughter, Robin, 33; sons, Brendan, 25, and Cole, 30.
Interests: Reading, teaching, gardening
Quote: “I was drawn to the law because of the philosophical questions underlying it.”

7/22/2016 (c) 2016 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.

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