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Blogs | October, 2 2020

Access to Justice & Law Firm Leadership in Uncertain Times

Maryland Access to Justice Commission Profile

Michelle Lipkowitz, Esq is the Managing Partner and the Diversity & Inclusion Partner of Saul Ewing Arnstein & Lehr’s Baltimore Office.  Ms. Lipkowitz also serves on the Maryland Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force.  We spoke with Ms. Lipkowitz to learn more about her and why she joined this important Task Force

Q:  You have recently been appointed to the Maryland Attorney General’s COVID-19 Access to Justice Task Force. Tell us why you wanted to become involved with the Task Force.

I wanted to become involved because the work of the Task Force comports with the responsibility I feel to use my legal training and experience to benefit the greater good, with an acute focus on helping our most vulnerable. As a trial lawyer, and Maryland Volunteer Lawyers Service Board Member, I was abundantly familiar with the pre-COVID-19 challenges faced by many Marylanders in obtaining access to justice, particularly those in low income and communities of color. With the pandemic further exposing the cracks in our legal system, and exacerbating the attendant challenges, I wanted to be involved with the Task Force as a way to meaningfully contribute to eradicating these challenges. Our legal system needs to be more user-friendly such that all Marylanders have equal access to the fair and equitable justice to which they are entitled; especially in the novel, post-COVID civil justice arena. 

Q:  What does Access to Justice mean to you? 

Access to justice means that everyone, regardless of the color of their skin or how much money they have in their bank account, has equitable access to the legal information, resources, and support to which they are entitled in order to protect and exercise his or her rights. Access to justice is a fundamental principle of the rule of law, pursuant to which the rights of the rich and powerful, the poor and marginal, are equally protected.

Q:  The MSBA enables the work of the Access to Justice Commission, which is a partner with the Attorney General on the Task Force. Why is it important for the state bar to support access to justice?

It is important for the MSBA to support access to justice because it is the nexus through which the entire legal profession across the state connects. It is through the MSBA that we can harness the power of our collective voices. Through the MSBA, members support access to justice, including helping Marylanders access civil legal aid representation, advocating for change through the Access to Justice Commission, providing training for pro bono legal representation, and providing Marylanders with pro bono legal services through partner organizations. 

Q:  COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on communities of color and people are protesting the injustices in the criminal justice system. How does your work with this Task Force and with promoting access to justice in the civil justice system link to this?

While the recent protests have expressly focused on injustices in the criminal justice system, in doing so, they have also highlighted the shared root of race-based injustices in both the civil and criminal justice systems: systematic racism and racial bias. In essence, the work of the Task Force, and with promoting access to justice in the civil justice system, links to this at this shared root. In turn, getting to this root, regardless of whether we are talking about the civil justice system, including the disparate havoc wreaked by COVID-19 on communities of color, or police reform and the criminal justice system, both necessarily require us to acknowledge and address the systematic racism and racial bias embedded in the system. 

Q:  What role do large law firms have in abating the access to justice crisis, which was not created, but certainly has been exacerbated by COVID-19?

Lawyers, including those in large firms, have a special responsibility as a profession to contribute to abating the access of justice crisis, and ensuring that our systems of justice operate in ways such that they benefit everyone, not just those with power and access to resources. At its most basic level, this responsibility includes supplementing and supporting the pro bono efforts of local organizations and public interest lawyers. Large law firms, with their large networks of practitioners, are well-positioned to work on pro bono initiatives. But it does not stop there. Large law firms, with their extensive networks of relationships and expansive spheres of influence, have a duty and responsibility to use these relationships and influence to ensure the delivery of fair and equitable justice.

Q:  Tell us about your personal journey to become Managing Partner of the Baltimore office of a large law firm. 

My personal journey to Office Managing Partner began with my demonstrating my commitment to our clients, our colleagues, and the communities we serve. Building on the foundation of years of demonstrating strong legal work, firm-mindedness, and business acumen, I have been able to highlight non-legal strengths and leadership skills through significant appointed and non-profit board work, bar involvement, and firm committee work. Through my external endeavors, I have also been able to expand my relationships and reputation outside of the firm and within the legal industry, the business sector, and our community at-large. All of the above contributed to my being selected to serve as the Managing Partner of our Baltimore Office, and concomitantly the face of our firm in Baltimore, and Maryland. 

Q:  Tell us about the importance of Diversity and Inclusion and how you have worked to advance it during your career and what needs to be done in this moment? 

Diversity and inclusion are important on multiple levels. At the most fundamental level, increasing diversity in the practice of law, which necessarily includes focusing on inclusion so that people stay and have the opportunity to succeed in the practice, is a moral imperative given the challenges diverse lawyers continue to face. On a related level, increasing diversity in the practice of law is inextricably tied to being able to provide a legal system that delivers equal access to fair and equitable justice. At the same time, increasing diversity is a key business imperative. It is well-documented that businesses which prioritize a diversity of voices and perspectives are more successful because they are better able to innovate, solve problems, rebound from failures, and turn challenges into opportunities. At Saul, we recognize that diversity enriches the quality of the services we provide to our clients, and that diversity throughout the entire Firm is essential to our continued success. During my career, I have consistently worked to advance diversity and inclusion, both internally and externally. Internally, including through my role as our firm-wide Diversity & Inclusion Partner, my efforts have focused on advising firm leadership and incorporating diversity and inclusion management principles into all of our systems, policies, practices and procedures. Additionally, in conjunction with making mentoring and sponsorship a priority, I focus on championing the perspectives and experiences of our diverse attorneys, and promoting their inclusion in opportunities for significant work and advancement. Under my leadership, our Firm has seen increased hiring of diverse lawyers, including partners; increased promotion of diverse lawyers to partner; increased numbers of women and diverse lawyers in key leadership positions; firm-wide diversity and inclusion retreats with record attendance; launches of the Firm’s Minority Attorneys Resource Group and Allies for Work-Life Integration Group; and significant expansion of the Firm’s LGBT Resource Group programming. Externally, in addition to mentoring and sponsoring, including at the high school, college and law school pipeline levels, I am one of the founding members of the Baltimore Diverse Partners Network, I worked to launch Just the Beginning’s pipeline programming in Baltimore, and I helped the Maryland Office of the Attorney General develop and implement the Thurgood Marshall Opportunity Program. I am also actively engaged with the Leadership Council On Legal Diversity, the Corporate Counsel Women of Color, the Minority Corporate Counsel Association, Lavender Law, and Werten Bellamy’s Charting Your Own Course Career Conference. In this moment, we need to harness all of the current outrage and frustration into actionable change. 

Q:  Tell us about how you as the Managing Partner (of the Baltimore Office) are steering your firm to adapt to the new realities imposed on the legal profession by COVID-19.

At the heart of my approach to steering our Baltimore Office to adapt to the new realities imposed on the legal profession by COVID-19 is an acute focus on the positive; both seizing opportunities presented and creating new opportunities. Currently, these opportunities include a renewed focus on health and wellness, intentional and strategic collaboration, and maximizing work-from-home capabilities in a way that simultaneously enhances productivity and work-life balance. For health and wellness, in an effort to augment the traditional resources offered through our benefits departments and the MSBA, we now offer a weekly meditation session to all of our colleagues, Meditation Monday. Additionally, we circulate Wellness Wednesday tips to provide insight and ideas on everything from stress reduction and the importance of sleep, to the power of positivity and the importance of connecting. Just like financial reporting, health and wellness is an intentional part of the discussion during all of our Baltimore Office meetings. For intentional and strategic collaboration, the remote work environment has created the opportunity for us to rethink and reset the ways in which we collaborate, both internally and externally. More specifically, the remote work environment has allowed us to refocus on making sure that we are actively creating opportunities for contact and collaboration; at and between all levels, practice groups, and departments within the office. As for maximizing work-from-home capabilities, the unplanned, fulsome shift to remote work has allowed us the opportunity to get even our most resistant colleagues up to speed and on board. The resulting track record of productivity over the past number of months will further enable us to continue to invest in maximizing work-from-home capabilities in ways that enhance productivity, thereby allowing all of us to spend more time with our friends and families. 

Q:  What skills in your opinion are the most valuable for a Managing Partner to possess and hone?

 Judgment, emotional intelligence, listening skills, and the ability to build consensus and lead on a variety of different issues and in a number of different environments. And a good, thick skin. 

Q:  What’s one piece of advice that has stuck with you as you have navigated through your career? What advice do you have for young attorneys who are just starting out in the profession?

Hone your skills while seeking challenges outside of your comfort zone. I still follow this advice to this day. 

Q:  The legal profession is quite stressful, even more so during these uncertain times. What is a hobby that helps you unwind and maintain health and balance?

I really enjoy cooking. One of the upsides of traveling so much less during the pandemic is being able to cook and enjoy more meals with my family. 

Q:  What would you consider to be your greatest accomplishment? 

Succeeding in this demanding, stressful profession while staying true to who I am and giving more than I take.