An interview with new OSBA President Jonathan Hollingsworth

From adapting to emerging technologies to engaging young lawyers, Dayton attorney and new OSBA President Jonathan Hollingsworth discusses his upcoming term as the head of our Association.

Please give us a brief overview of your personal and professional background.
I was raised in that great metropolis of Lima, Ohio, and graduated from a public high school—Lima Senior. I had the good fortune of attending Harvard University where I received my undergraduate degree in American Intellectual History. Then I decided to come back to the Midwest and got an opportunity to attend what I consider to be one of the finest law schools in the country, the University of Michigan, where I graduated in 1983. I started my law practice in Dayton with the law firm of Porter Wright Morris and Arthur where I stayed for 18 years. After 18 years, I decided big firm practice was good for a while but maybe I’d try the small and solo firm side of things, and that’s what I’ve been doing since 2001. I now have my own office, I am the principal in the firm, and there are two lawyers in the firm.
What type of legal practice do you have?
Some people think just because you’re a small and solo firm practitioner that you have to do general practice, but I decided a long time ago that domestic relations, juvenile and criminal work was out. I do commercial litigation. I have always had the good fortune of having business clients who have allowed me an opportunity to help them develop their businesses and grow with them. I also do some employment litigation. I do insurance defense work as it relates to business litigation and employment matters and other miscellaneous but related things. I’m not a specialist but I try to limit what I do.
You mentioned your undergraduate degree from Harvard, and in the small world that we really do live in, one of your classmates just happens to be immediate past president of the Ohio State Bar Association, Judge Patrick Fischer.
That’s an interesting thing. I didn’t know Pat in college, but when we arrived at the OSBA Board of Governors in 2008-2009, I read in his bio that he went to Harvard. When I got home, I pulled out my 1976 Harvard freshman yearbook and there he was in the flesh. So it was a small world. We did have occasion to run into each other because Pat is a sports aficionado. When he was in college, Pat was an announcer for the university’s radio station and I played football, so I think on occasion he may have had a chance to call a football game or two. I was a running back and he probably was announcing the game when I was scoring one of my few touchdowns. I enjoyed my time at Harvard and my life as an athlete, but I knew that my life was elsewhere—in the law.
What sparked your interest in the law?
When I was a child, I used to think how I would make my life different from what it was. I am the grandson of sharecroppers, my mother had an eighth grade education, and we lived in Arkansas. I knew deep in my heart that somehow that was not the place where I wanted to be. My mom had the good fortune to relocate us to Ohio. When I got to Ohio, I started to think about the things that were important in life and how I would be able to change my circumstances. When you’re a kid, you see all kinds of television shows and “Perry Mason” was a big one. I thought, “That guy’s doing good for people, and I could do good too. You can make a good living and enjoy the life that you have.” So at the age of 10, I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. It was simply a matter of whether I’d be able to get there.
When you talk about your family, the circumstances as you were growing up, is there anyone in particular that inspired you to move forward and become a lawyer?
There are a lot of people who you could point to as being the center of your life, but I like to think that God is the center of my life and the person who put me into the position where I was able to get to the point where I am now. Without the guidance and the love of God, I don’t think my mother with an eighth grade education would have had the capacity to say it will be better for us in Ohio than in Arkansas. Here in Ohio, I had the good fortune of meeting some very fine educators in elementary school who taught me the value of education, and I realized that with education I could change the life that I had.
With all of those wonderful role models that you had as you were growing up, your professional background and the leadership that you’ve already accomplished to this point in your career, how does that set you up for your leadership of the Ohio State Bar Association?
I believe that I have developed a basic philosophy of being firm, direct but fair. I believe in encouraging people to develop independence and I believe in providing people the tools in which to perform the work that they must perform. I also believe in a concept that you have to be prepared, you have to be present and you have to be engaged. If you have those three basic qualities when you go to work, and you appreciate the fact that you have the capacity to exercise independent judgment, then you’ll succeed. Those are the principals that I choose to follow in terms of my leadership, whether it’s in a civic or charitable environment or a professional environment.
At your acceptance speech at the recent Ohio State Bar Association Annual Convention in Cleveland, you outlined four priorities that you have set for yourself in the coming year as president. You mentioned the Ohio State Bar Association staff; the potential for the new executive director as Denny Ramey retires; you outlined non-dues revenue opportunities; and you mentioned young lawyers and students. Why those four issues?
As I said at the time of the speech, I could have a long list but I know that the work of the bar is one in which there will always be something that the legal profession will have to deal with in respect to the system of justice—so you have to be prepared for the unexpected. So I chose to limit my focus primarily due to two things. We are going through a transition here at the state bar looking for an executive director, and replacing someone who has been here for so long is not an easy thing. The idea of having a new executive director presents both challenges and opportunities, and it is a great problem to have to be working with people in an organization like this where you know you’re going to find someone, him or her, who will see this as a life-long opportunity. That’s the reason for focusing on helping the new executive director become acclimated to the family because I know this person will find this to be a great job.
The focus on the staff centers on the idea that this organization has an excellent reputation both within the state and around the country—it wouldn’t be that way but for the people who’ve been brought together here to do the many and various things to meet the needs of the members. The work of the bar is hard: apathy, failure or refusal to become involved is easy and you need good people who are dedicated and focused on the work in front of them if you’re going to succeed—and we’ve been very successful. I believe in a principal that I’m sure you have heard before: If you plant hard work, you will reap success. That’s what has happened here.
So I want to focus in terms of the staff on continuing to reap the success that we have accomplished up until now. I see no reason to change what we have here. We can only get better.
With respect to the non-dues revenue issue, the state bar has a history of being an entrepreneurial bar association, but we’re also a voluntary bar, which means we have to work at getting folks interested in being a part of the organization, since we can’t require you to do so as a means of having a license to practice law. We have historically been able to identify opportunities that have generated non-dues revenue for the organization, and that has allowed us to underwrite programs and other member benefits at a lower cost to members than we otherwise could. If we didn’t have non-dues revenue, we’d have to charge our members higher dues. I like the idea of being able to provide quality, value-added programming at less than our market costs, because we have the ability to do so with the non-dues revenue we create. I want to search for ways to continue to do that.
As for the young lawyers, I happen to be a “baby boomer;” there are 60 million of us. The “millennials,” the young lawyers: there are 80 million of them. The baby boomers are the past and present, the future is for the youth. We need to train the new lawyers to prepare them to accept leadership roles when those opportunities present themselves. They in turn contribute, because they have grown up in an era of technology where everything is almost instantaneous. They have all kinds of electronic gadgets that they can use to make their work life easier and the delivery of legal services easier. They can help us—the older, more mature lawyers—understand and appreciate the value of that technology. I told a friend yesterday that the era of the pony express, the secretarial pool and carbon paper is over. We now have to use the technology that is rapidly advancing daily. There are plenty of ways to communicate that we as baby boomers didn’t have to concern ourselves with, but now we do. The young lawyers are the ones who will help us older lawyers understand and appreciate how to use the technology to make us better providers of legal services.
How do you go about getting the young lawyers interested and involved?
When we started the Leadership Academy nearly four years ago, the idea was to reach out to lawyers in the five- to 15-year practice range and put them through a program that upon graduation they would be infused into the bar leadership process somewhere. I intend to find places for graduates in 2013 so that they become immediately engaged in leadership and can spread the word to their fellow young lawyers.
In your speech at the convention, you stated, “If the pace of change in the OSBA is slower than the change in the society and culture in general, we will become irrelevant.”
The reason for that statement is because everyone seems to be concerned about how an organization survives. You survive only because people find you interesting and relevant. We have to remain interesting and relevant. The OSBA staff’s mission is to be indispensable to our members. You can only be indispensable if you are relevant, and the relevancy piece causes us to focus on where we are in terms of the country, where we are culturally, where we are technologically. These are things that we need to make sure we’re incorporating into the delivery of legal services and the justice system—otherwise, we will not be relevant and therefore will not continue to be the great organization that we have become. So the focus should be on those things that we know are important: understanding and using technology, making sure we have an integrated staff and ensuring that our programming is designed to meet all the needs of the members of the profession. As an example, a few years ago, we established the Advisory Council on Diversity Initiatives designed to bring into the bar lawyers who are part of affinity groups— smaller bars and specialty bars that in the past might have felt like the state bar association was not for them. I can certainly say that during my time here at the state bar association that is no longer the case. There is a home here for any lawyer in Ohio who wants to be part of this organization. We have big arms and we welcome everyone.
In your experience or opinion, what are the benefits of being an OSBA member?
Size is key. We are a large organization with approximately 25,000 members. We have the capacity to mobilize to convene and facilitate meetings not only of members from across the state but also folks in law-related professions and programs, and legislators. We have the ability to bring people together in a way in which we can all sit around the table and discuss the issues that matter to the system of justice in Ohio. That size matters. We also have the capacity to advocate. We have an excellent lobbying program that allows us to speak to the legislative leaders and folks in the state executive branch about matters of importance to people who practice law and the people who have the need for our service. This past year, we had two examples of that. This bar association was involved with Issue 2—the redistricting initiative. We believed that judges were being drawn into a political process that was not appropriate. We wanted judges to continue to be seen as the objective, independent arbiters of disputes. And then this spring, we’ve had H.B. 59—the sales tax issue. We again convened a group of interested parties to address the question of whether a sales tax on legal services was appropriate. The fact of the matter is, things happen in life where you need the ability to bring people together, and we have that capacity to do that.
There are networking opportunities—to meet lawyers from around the state or from around the country who come here to present seminars on our behalf, to interact and to educate them on the law so that we continue to provide first-rate, high-quality legal services. And at the end of the day, after all the work is done, the opportunity to socialize and just have a good time with people. That’s why I think membership in the state bar is important.
Is there a particular experience or case that really sticks out in your mind as being memorable or rewarding in your career?
After 30 years, that’s a tough question. The day I graduated from law school is, to me, the most significant day in my life as it relates to my legal career. That was the day that I fulfilled the dream from the time I was 10 years old—I became a lawyer. And then, on passing the bar, I’ve had the good fortune for the last 30 years to do that which I’ve wanted to do since the age of 10. When you ask if there’s one thing that stands out, it’s all been good. Even the bad is good, because you learn from cases that don’t go quite the way you want. My job is to give my client the best representation possible, with the understanding that at the end of the day I can’t make promises but I can work hard—and most of the time, harder than my opponent— to get to the right result. For the most part, I’ve enjoyed the success of that because clients tell other people what you’ve done for them. The best sources of referrals are clients and other lawyers. If opposing counsel respects you and realizes you did a pretty good job for your client, they tend to tell other people when they have an opportunity to refer matters.
Anything else you’d like to add related to the upcoming 12 months of your presidency or a message to OSBA members?
I said it at the convention, and I’ll say it again: We are better off working together than we are working individually. I will need the help of the members to help this organization embrace the change that is coming with the new executive director, but I see it as being very positive. We’ll obviously be talking about the issues that impact the delivery of legal services in the state. I’ll need members of the profession to be engaged to give us feedback to help us make this practice better for them not only in the coming year but in the years to come.
The interview with Hollingsworth was conducted before the announcement that Mary Amos Augsburger will become the next executive director of the Ohio State Bar Association. On the announcement of the appointment, Hollingsworth stated, “Mary’s background as a lawyer and her knowledge of the legislative process will be great assets to the Ohio State Bar Association. I look forward to working with her as we address the issues that are facing our members and their clients.”

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