Steve Mattoon, ’76, finds silver linings while leading state bar association during unprecedented times

Portrait of man smiling

Steve Mattoon's, '76, passion for law began at an early age. Hisgrandfather, Harold, graduated from the University of Kansas School of Law and his father, Frank, graduated from Nebraska Law in 1949. Both men taught him there was "no more honorable profession than that of being a lawyer." He admired their commitment and love of the profession, knowing one day he would follow in their footsteps. His family's involvement in the legal profession had a huge impact on who he is and the attorney he became. Mattoon continued the tradition, influencing his daughters, Kendra Ringenberg, '03, and Stephanie Mattoon, '05, to become fourth generation lawyers and third generation graduates of Nebraska Law.

Mattoon continued his grandfather and father's legacies when he joined them in practice. His mentors, in addition to his grandfather and father, were former partners Paul Martin and Gerald Matzke, as they provided hands-on training and mentoring that ultimately "and most importantly, taught me how to conduct oneself as an attorney and how to deal with clients." BecauseMattoon had close mentors that guided him in the profession, he began serving the Nebraska State Bar Association in a multitude of ways, culminating in becoming its president in October 2019, because it was his turn to exhibit "the same patience in passing my knowledge on to my younger partners, and to other lawyers in my community." As he began his term, Mattoon immediately learned a hard lesson: gender equity does not exist for women lawyers in Nebraska. He was inent on using his presidency to bring this issue to the forefront.

"A virtual environment created efficiencies and can perhaps make legal service more affordable for more Nebraskans. Ultimately, constant communication helped the NSBA leadership better understand the evolving
situation and helped us to identify new ways to further support membership and the justice system. I am very proud of how we navigated that time."

Steve Matoon, '76

"I spent my life surrounded by strong capable women. I assumed, given women's increased representation in our profession, that gender discrimination had greatly decreased. I realized that, unfortunately, I was wrong." Specifically, Mattoon found the results of a survey conducted by the Women in the Law Section of the NSBA in 2018, and the 50 pages of comments, to be "disturbing." He reprinted the statistics in an article he wrote for the March/April 2020 Nebraska Lawyer magazine, noting that a large number of male attorneys may also be ignorant to such issues. The "old boy network," obviously inappropriate comments or the fact that women lawyers are paid less for the same level (or more) work were only part of what he read and found discouraging. In his message, Mattoon encouraged readers to follow the article's advice and take action each day to work toward a more inclusive work environment, pointing out that the first step is acknowledging the problem exists. At the end of that article, he encouraged members to "work together toward a better future for all of our members."

He intended to follow that message with further work on the issue; then, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.

In March, Mattoon's law firm, like so many others, faced tremendous challenges as communities began to shut down. Appointment issues arose as he and his colleagues grappled with implementing safety precautions to ensure the health and safety of both staff and clients. His home recreation table, where he would normally play UNO or dominoes with friends or grandchildren became his new worktable.

Mattoon often wondered how long it would last, how far it might spread and how many, if not all, conferences and events would be postponed or cancelled. He thanked state and local officials for their diligent actions to keep communities safe and appreciated the way in which people had begun to "use imaginative ways of moving forward while remaining safe." He lauded the Nebraska Supreme Court for their pandemic plan, knowing it would provide additional guidance and strategies to manage the legal system.

In addition to worrying about how his firm would pivot its operations and deliver services to clients in new and innovative ways, Mattoon also was concerned about how the NSBA's work would change. Almost immediately, the NSBA's employees transitioned to remove work environments, keeping up to date with court orders and city ordinances, as well as learning new technology. "Business was definitely not business as usual for anyone," Mattoon stated. However, they successfully transitioned CLE opportunities online, which included the NSBA's Annual Meeting. It was a first for the Barrister's Ball to be completely virtual and surprisingly, they raised a record amount in contributions, aiding in the expansion of access to justice.

As those operational level transitions took place, the leadership team began to pinpoint areas in which they could support not only the members, but also the NSBA's mission. When the Supreme Court removed the five-hour limit on distance learning, the NSBA worked diligently and was able to provide more than 100 online CLE opportunities via on-demand programming and webinars to ensure constituents were able to meet necessary requirements. They worked with the Nebraska State Bar Foundation to provide CLE scholarships to those needing financial assistance. They also began identifying issues related to firms of all shapes and sizes. Needs such as budgeting for legal services would be changing, lawyers becoming teachers for their school-aged children and daycare providers while trying to balance work, were just a couple examples he named.

"In a number of ways, dealing with the pandemic has created some silver-linings," Mattoon said. For instance, these new work parameters forced lawyers to adapt and become more tech savvy. The NSBA adapted pro bono opportunities by establishing a legal clinic to assist Nebraskans dealing with evictions and they created a COVID-19 resource page to help members navigate the ever-changing legal landscape. It helped some aspects of practice come into a new, but oftentimes unused, era of information storage, e-filing and client payment practices. Less travel allowed both practitioners and clients to save money, as well as witnesses the ability to appear virtually.

"A virtual environment created efficiencies and can perhaps make legal service more affordable for more Nebraskans," Mattoon said. "Ultimately, constant communication helped the NSBA leadership better understand the evolving situation and helped us to identify new ways to further support membership and the justice system. I am very proud of how we navigated that time."

Mattoon handed the reigns over to a new president at the NSBA's annual meeting in October; that person, too, will face the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges the he himself confronted, Mattoon leaves the NSBA with the hope that, "all attorneys realize the influence they can have on younger attorneys, not only by direct mentoring and advice, but also by patience and serving as examples of civility, integrity, service and professionalism."

Also in this issue:

  • Honoring the life and career of Professor Martin Gardner
  • Marshfield joins law faculty
  • Mulugheta, ’10, builds career representing athletes by building trust
  • Plus, a message from Dean Moberly, Faculty Updates, Around the College, Alumni Stories

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