American Lawyer chief European correspondent Chris Johnson meets regularly with senior figures in the legal world at their favorite breakfast joints to chew over the industry’s tastiest talking points. Johnson’s guest this week is the newly-elected president of the American Bar Association, James Silkenat. On the menu: how to fix the “broken” U.S. legal system and improve access to justice.
“Happy New Year,” I tell Sullivan & Worcester‘s James Silkenat, as he arrives at the table.
The waiter looks at me as if I’m on day release from a local pysch ward. It’s a strange thing to say at the end of September, after all—Rosh Hashanah has been over for three weeks, the Gregorian calendar doesn’t end for another three months, and the Chinese New Year falls a month after that.
But Silkenat, the new president of the American Bar Association, just smiles in acknowledgement. In one of his first official appointments since starting his new role in August, he is here in London to take part in celebrations marking the opening of the “legal year” on October 1—the period in English and other common law jurisdictions during which judges sit in court. In an antiquated ceremony that dates back to the Middle Ages, Silkenat will meet heads of other national bar associations and law societies in the Law Society halls at Chancery Lane, before the group proceeds to a service at Westminster Abbey, attended by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, and some of the country’s leading judges.
No such pomp and circumstance for us: We’re meeting for breakfast at his hotel, the Park Tower Knightsbridge. I wasn’t overjoyed by his choice of venue—in my experience, a hotel buffet breakfast does not a productive meeting make. But it turns out that the Park Tower serves an à la carte menu in the adjoining—and outstanding—One-O-One restaurant. Silkenat has been a regular visitor at the hotel ever since a six-year stint in the early 1980s as inhouse counsel at the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation, whose offices are nearby. A keen runner—he runs every morning, whatever the weather—Silkenat says he also likes the Park Tower for its proximity to the leafy idylls of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Indeed, he has already pounded the pavement before our 8:00 a.m. meeting, running his usual route through the parks, past the various embassies on Kensington Palace Gardens, and then down toward Buckingham Palace.
“It’s getting harder as I get older, but it’s just wonderful to run here,” Silkenat, 66, says.
The waiter is still hovering at our table, so we put him out of his misery and order. Silkenat asks for Eggs Benedict with a side of white toast, and practically half the drinks on the menu: black tea with sugar, orange juice, and ice water. I opt for Eggs Royale, a variant of Eggs Benedict with salmon instead of ham or bacon—which the restaurant bizarrely and erroneously terms a “contemporary” eggs benedict—and a cappuccino. They may have got the name of the dish wrong, but they certainly got the cooking right, with the creamy Hollandaise striking just the right balance between richness and sharpness.
As ABA president, Silkenat has already laid out a series of initiatives surrounding legal education, court funding, immigration, gun violence and voting rights. “There’s so much on my plate at the moment,” he says, apparently unaware of the situational pun.
But perhaps his most interesting proposal—and the one likely to have the greatest impact—is a scheme designed to tackle two seemingly contradictory issues: lawyers struggling for jobs while members of the public struggle for lawyers.
“The U.S. is facing a paradox surrounding access to justice,” Silkenat explains. “On the one hand, too many people with low and moderate incomes cannot find or afford a lawyer to defend their legal interests. Most folks are having to solve their problems without legal assistance, which is just inappropriate and not what our Constitution demands. At the same time, too many folks are graduating from law school and finding it difficult to get jobs or to gain the practical experience they need.”
Silkenat’s solution is ingenious in its simplicity: Hiring underemployed law school graduates to serve those communities that lack access to justice. This October, Silkenat set up a special ABA committee—the somewhat awkwardly named Legal Access Job Corps Task Force—to assess the problem. Cochaired by chief judge Eric Washington of the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, University of Miami School of Law dean Patricia White, and longtime bar leader Allan Tanenbaum, and also including experts in legal education, legal aid and legal service delivery, the group is currently reviewing existing efforts at state and local bar levels, and determining whether any would be suitable to adopt as national models.
Silkenat refers to a program launched recently in South Dakota, where former state bar president Patrick Goetzinger says Main Street lawyers have become an “endangered species.” In March of this year, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard signed into law a rural attorney recruitment bill. Funded by state and local governments and the state bar, a pilot program will give new lawyers an annual subsidy to live and work outside the state’s biggest cities, provided they make a five-year commitment to their rural practices.
“There are counties in South Dakota where there just aren’t any lawyers—they’ve all died off or moved to big cities,” Silkenat says. “[The state legislature] is funding lawyers to go and move to those counties for five years, live there, serve the people, and who knows—maybe they’ll fall in love with it and want to stay.”
Elsewhere, legal “incubator” and residency programs—first piloted by City University of New York more than a decade ago and now hosted by a range of law schools and bar associates—are providing practice experience for recent law graduates by arranging for them to serve populations with unmet legal needs. Silkenat says that such public interest models are becoming increasingly popular at law schools across the country. Lawyers for America, founded by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law, provides two-year fellowships during students’ final year of law school and their first year as new lawyers. The University of Miami School of Law, meanwhile, operates a Legal Corps postgraduate fellowship program that places recent law graduates in public sector organizations nationwide.
But while the schemes have proven successful at a local level, Silkenat accepts that establishing a national program will be challenging, in terms of both cost and sustainability. “Nobody denies that it will be tricky, but this should not keep us from seriously examining the issues and proposing workable solutions,” he says.
The waiter returns with Silkenat’s toast, which he covers with a liberal helping of butter and strawberry jam before demolishing the entire rack in record time. Silkenat catches my expression. “I have zero willpower with food,” he says with a smile. “That’s why I run every morning.”
Although the majority of Silkenat’s time this year will be spent focusing on ABA matters, he is also a corporate partner in New York office of 140-lawyer, Boston-based Sullivan & Worcester and retains an active practice. He also heads the firm’s international business practice, and has been heavily involved in the development of its fledgling London office, which opened in January following the hire of trade finance partner Geoffrey Wynne from Dentons. The various roles make for a daunting schedule. As soon as he returns to New York, Silkenat will fly to Boston for an International Bar Association conference. He will return to London for a week-long gathering of the ABA’s International Section, fly to Saint Petersburg for a rule of law conference with the chief justice of the Russian Supreme Court, then head to Asia for another rule of law meeting, this time in Hanoi, followed by meetings in Hong Kong and a Union Internationale des Avocats congress in Macau, China.
“The next three weeks are not so good,” he says matter-of-factly.
Does he not ever think of, you know, taking it a bit easier? He laughs, heartily.
“That notion occurs to me fairly frequently, but it’s too late for that now,” he says. “It would be nice to spend more time just working as a lawyer, it would be nice to have more time to spend with my family, or to actually get some sleep, which seems to have fallen by the wayside. But if you have a chance to work with the Chief Justice on a problem”—as Silkenat is currently working with U.S. Chief Justice John Roberts on federal court funding–”you’re not going to pass that up. Getting a chance to meet with the Secretary General on important issues”—another part of the ABA president’s portfolio–”you can’t not do that. There are obviously some downsides to the job, but this is the most exciting set of issues I’ll ever get to work on. I can’t wait to get started.”
Breakfast for two came to £61.50 ($100), with service.
Chris Johnson is The American Lawyer’s chief European correspondent. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @chris_t_johnson.