Oyango Snell Reflects on First Year as CEO and Executive Director
By Sheila Johnston
Almost one year ago, Oyango A. Snell began his tenure as Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the California Lawyers Association (CLA). To mark his first-year anniversary, Sheila Johnston, CLA’s new Associate Executive Director for Communications, took an opportunity to reflect on Oyango’s incredible year and get a sneak preview of what’s to come in 2023.
Just a short 365 days ago, you became Chief Executive Officer of the California Lawyers Association. One year later, how have you grown personally and professionally?
Two words immediately come to mind. Humbling and exciting.
There’s a famous saying… “if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Although it may come across as corny or cliché, to me, this is my credo. I lead an awesome association that works to enhance my profession as a lawyer. Our volunteer leaders are extremely passionate about our work and committed to enhancing the legal profession. Our professional team consists of a diverse, talented, and diligent group of people. Innovation is at the core of my every day; coupled with my ability to help people develop into leadership roles that make a difference, I am fulfilled.
Personally, I have accepted the reality that it is a privilege to lead people. I have experienced what it truly means to be a servant leader—an inclusive leader—an empathetic leader—an authentic leader—and it is not easy! I have made some mistakes along the way by springing into action too quickly and failing to understand the historical path that defines the current environment. But I believe that I have helped to shape a vibrant, transparent, and altruistic culture within CLA that our team buys into and works to incorporate into their daily work.
Professionally, I think I have learned the true meaning of patience and perseverance. Member-led associations can pull the organization in several different directions simultaneously. As the Chief Executive Officer, I have learned to exercise more patience in pursuit of organizational goals over individual objectives to persevere in securing the resources needed to execute the strategic priorities set by our Board of Representatives. While this process can sometimes appear ugly, I am grounded in knowing that the best approach is to do what is in the best interest of our members who rely upon our advocacy, leadership, and service.
As Chief Executive Officer, you interact with countless members daily. What has been a standout member moment for you in the last year?
I am a leader who likes to lead by walking around—and California is a very big state. When I first began my tenure at CLA, I recall scheduling meetings with the Chairs of each of our Sections. The first five or six meetings were with women or people of color. This was a pleasant surprise and really showed that diversity is valued in the organization. Of course, there is much more work to be done to create a living framework of valuing diversity, equity, and inclusion throughout CLA. However, this was my first interaction with the member leaders outside the Board of Representatives and served as a standout member moment for me.
I have been extremely impressed with our member leaders—folks like President Jeremy Evans, Vice President Betty Williams, and Chair Sabrina Green who support the growth of the organization and show up at events or programs ready to serve. Some of our Section leaders like Laura Buckley from the Taxation Section, Jonathan Golding from Real Property, Jessi Fierro from Environmental Law, Former Treasurer Herb Stroh from Trust and Estates, Board Representative Terrance Evans from Litigation, and Ireneo Reus and Latika Malkani from Labor and Employment for their innovation and support of the legal profession in California and on a national stage. These members, and countless others like Anthony Lai from the New Lawyers Section, Secretary Tina Leahy, who invited my wife and I to her home to educate me on the history of CLA over dinner, and Uzzi Raanan and Jim Hill from the Business Law Section, who continue to help me think of innovative ways to serve the Sections and grow CLA, have welcomed me with open arms and continue to work together to help move this association forward in partnership with the CLA Professional Team. And for that, I am truly grateful for the support, commitment, and leadership.
If you could make a New Year’s Resolution for CLA (and you can as CEO), what would that resolution be?
Personally, many of my New Year’s Resolutions have been focused on my physical well-being, and financial and mental health. In some regard, my resolution for CLA is quite similar. CLA will continue to strengthen our advocacy to protect the profession from regulatory overreach and ensure a vibrant physical structure. We will grow our membership by focusing on delivering high-quality services to our members, which will support the financial health of the organization. Additionally, CLA will offer programming that focuses on its members as human beings, beyond traditional MCLE offerings.
In the coming year, I resolve that CLA continues to offer its members high-quality services that help them to grow their legal practice, enhance their health and wellness, strengthen the community within their legal field, expand their brand, increase their network, and give back to the legal profession by investing in pathways for law students and new lawyers. How will we do this? By working with our 18 Sections, our Professional Team, and key stakeholders to make 2023 the best year yet in our five-year existence as the premier voluntary bar association for all California attorneys!
What has been your approach to coming out of COVID restrictions that limited in-person events for so long?
Like many associations, we are in the people business—meaning that we exist to serve our members. I have been elated with joy to return to in-person events and support our Sections. My approach to returning to the “new normal” in a COVID-19 era has been executed with caution and care for our professionals, volunteer leaders, members, and key stakeholders. However, we have also realized that we must adapt to a new way of work—new methods to support our members—new ways of leading an association. I will admit that it has been quite challenging, especially for an extrovert who is energized by people.
With many facets in mind, the team at CLA is dedicated to designing experiences that promote the health and well-being of our members and partners, while limiting zoom fatigue. In short, CLA must and will continue to adapt.
We know that a year goes by very fast, and within a matter of days, the new year will be here. To that end, what can the members expect from CLA in 2023?
The first year has been a whirlwind. And I mean that positively. We began the year, like most organizations, wondering how we would bounce back from COVID-19 and wondering what work would look like regarding service to our Sections and the broader membership. We conducted a SWOT analysis-like evaluation to assess the organization’s governance and operational opportunities for improvement and growth. In partnership with the Board of Representatives and Section leaders, we adopted the first-ever strategic plan that will help chart a new future for CLA and its Sections. We enhanced our advocacy at the national and state levels to prevent non-attorney ownership of legal services, pushing a resolution on the floor of the American Bar Association’s House of Delegates. And for the first time in CLA history, and with the leadership and legal skills of several members from the CLA Taxation Section, CLA is on its way to the U.S. Supreme Court as an amici partner to present our position in a pivotal attorney-client privilege case.
In 2023, we plan to do more of the same and then some. We will launch our first-ever Law Week celebration in May. Our second installment of the joint CLA/California Judges Association gala is set for September 23, 2023. We are planning to boost our health and wellness efforts to support attorneys throughout the state. We will be strengthening our partnerships with affinity bars across the state to amplify and support efforts to diversify the legal profession and move past performative diversity initiatives. If you follow me on social media, you know that one of my favorite phrases is, “CLA is on the move!” We are growing! And we are member-driven and staff-empowered! So, our key focus will be on our members and working to determine their needs to be successful in their legal practices. We will focus inward by ensuring that we are delivering appropriate programming and providing opportunities for leadership to our current members while also understanding the needs of potential members. We will be working to help grow our Sections by offering fresh, relevant educational content with diverse, knowledgeable speakers and facilitators. But most importantly, CLA will be focusing on ensuring that our programming charts a pathway for leadership for new lawyers.