Clearing the bar

Bryan Cave of counsel finishes Federal Bar presidency on high note

Photo by Rena Naltsas
Photo by Rena Naltsas
October 2019
By Dustin J. Seibert
Chicago Lawyer correspondent

Maria Vathis is the living embodiment of the legal multihyphenate.

She’s currently of counsel at the Chicago office of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner, where her practice primarily consists of class-action defense involving statutory violations and complex business litigation.

She’s also been involved with several bar associations throughout her career — chief among them her current tenure as president of the Federal Bar Association. She completed her term on Oct. 1, but remains on the board as an immediate past president.

Vathis is the 10th woman and tied for the youngest person to serve as the Federal Bar Association president. Her ascendancy to the role started just after she graduated from DePaul University College of Law in 2001, when she started doing work with the association’s Chicago branch; she became a member of that chapter’s board of directors in 2002.

She also recently served as president of the Hellenic Bar Association of Illinois, a group dedicated to attorneys of Greek descent.

“Running a local and a federal bar association on the national level are very different experiences, except both are focused on doing good for the community,” Vathis said.

Vathis has dedicated a significant portion of her career and tenure with the bar associations traveling the world as a public speaker. She’s appeared on radio and television shows as well as in front of several law conferences.

“I’ve loved public speaking since I was very young,” she said. “I have spoken in almost every state at this point as a result of the Federal Bar Association presidency.”

Vathis tells us more about her experiences with the Federal Bar Association and her constant balancing of duties.

Chicago Lawyer: Why has bar association work been so important to you?

Maria Vathis: It has enriched my career to be part of several bar associations. It’s made me a better professional in that I’ve had access to meet lawyers from around the nation as well as unique opportunities to participate in conferences and have speaking engagements. Most importantly, the friends and mentors I’ve gained from these groups are invaluable. I have long-lasting friendships and wonderful mentors whom I’ve met through these groups. I really value the opportunities that I’ve had to give back to the community through the bar associations as well.

CL: How have you balanced the FBA and your Bryan Cave gig?

MV: My time management skills have reached a new level. My clients definitely come first and I’m fortunate to be able to work from any Bryan Cave office or from my laptop in whatever city I find myself in. I’ve been able to finish all my duties for clients and also be present for any bar association speaking engagements or activities. I was busy with being president of the Hellenic Bar Association [during my FBA presidency tenure], but I was fortunate to be able to oversee our big scholarship ball before my FBA duties heated up.

CL: As a younger woman, what has it been like to navigate the FBA considering the legal profession is still dominated by older men?

MV: I think it’s only natural that there are fewer women that have held the position of FBA president simply because there are historically more men in the profession. We know that that’s been changing in recent years and will continue to change.

As far as being one of the youngest people to hold this position, I actually think my age was an advantage for the organization because I’m sort of in the middle of the two generations — baby boomers and millennials — but I’m closer to being a millennial. I think it’s been really beneficial for the organization to have someone who could relate to both generations.

I’ve had people from all over the world contact me to tell me they found it inspirational to see a younger woman in a role like mine. With respect to some of the older attorneys, I think they’re able to relate to me easily because I understand how to practice with them, because they’re who I learned under. It was good timing for the organization to have a younger woman in that role.

CL: As you help plan the FBA’s 100th anniversary, what from the association’s first century are you most proud of?

MV: The FBA’s mission is to strengthen the federal legal system and the administration of justice by serving the interests and needs of the federal practitioner, both public and private; the federal judiciary and the public that they serve. It’s been a pillar for federal practitioners and the judiciary for all of these years despite so many changes in society, politics and technology. The FBA has endured through so many different aspects of our country’s history, which is a testament to its relevance, strength and fluidity.

Today, among the things that we do regularly: We monitor and advocate on federal issues that impact the practice of federal lawyers in the courts. We’ve lobbied on Capitol Hill for about 10 years now on issues that we carefully vet through our Government Relations Committee which impact the judiciary, such as judicial pay.

Also, we always advocate for the filling of more judicial vacancies. We promote high standards of professional competence and ethical conduct. We provide opportunities for scholarship and education to the profession and also to the youth of our nation through our civics outreach program.

We also provide opportunities for judges and attorneys to professionally and socially interact. I think we’ve always been forward-thinking when it comes to diversity and inclusion.

CL: What was important for you to accomplish during your tenure as FBA president?

MV: My focus was twofold: One was on the importance of health, wellness and civility and I’m really pleased to see that that’s going to be a permanent focus of the organization going forward. During my term, we offered healthy food options as well as fitness classes at our conferences, such as yoga, 5K runs and Jazzercise.

We also provided healthy food options at our conferences. The Senior Lawyers Division launched a webinar series on wellness. I also wanted to celebrate women in the law, so we’ve done that through several different programs.

We do a national essay contest every year; this year we’re going to focus the topic on voting to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment. I think the federal bar is going to continue doing good in the community and I intend to remain involved with it for the rest of my career.

CL: What’s next for you?

MV: I will be speaking at our annual Paris, France, fashion law conference on Oct. 4. The Federal Bar Association partners with the French American Bar Association and we have a conference every year focused on fashion law.

This will be my third time participating. We also do a fashion law conference in Manhattan in February and I think this will be my fifth year participating in that. I think it’s a really exciting area of the law and not one that we often hear about in Chicago. The Federal Bar Association is really good about having unique conferences that are focused on specific areas of the law.

I’ve always focused on various community outreach projects as well as issues related to women, diversity and inclusion and will continue to do so. Doing good work in the community has always been important to me and brought me a lot of joy.