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New ABA President Emphasizes Shift Toward Public ServiceOn Monday, the American Bar Association was set to "pass the gavel" from Karen Mathis to K&L Gates partner William Neukom, who was sporting a button that read, "Not your father's ABA." Neukom says he wouldn't be taking the ABA's helm if he hadn't seen the association and the profession become more oriented toward public service and pro bono work. "I wouldn't have been interested in the job," Neukom says, if the ABA hadn't become "a clearinghouse, an engine" for change.
Legal Times2007-08-14 12:00:00 AM
American Bar Association veterans remember well the youthful leader of the young lawyers' division 30 years ago, with a shock of dark hair, and plans to change the profession.
Now, with his hair decidedly white, William Neukom is about to take the helm of the association itself as president. And Neukom, 65, says he wouldn't be doing it if he had not seen the association and the profession become more oriented toward public service and pro bono work. "I wouldn't have been interested in the job," Neukom says, if the ABA hadn't become "a clearinghouse, an engine," for change.
Neukom, a partner with K&L Gates in Seattle, and former vice president of law and corporate affairs at Microsoft, paused Monday to reflect on his long connections with the 413,000-member association. A few hours later, the association's House of Delegates was set to "pass the gavel" from current president Karen Mathis to Neukom. In addition to his trademark bow tie, Neukom was sporting a button that read, "Not your father's ABA."
It was William Gates Sr., the father of the Microsoft billionaire -- and co-founder of the law firm Neukom now leads -- who got Neukom involved in bar matters. When the elder Gates was president of the King County Bar Association in the early 1970s, Neukom remembered how forcefully he defended a controversial scholarship the association had established for minority students at the University of Washington. "He stood up and said it was the right thing to do, and we won," Neukom said. "He was a role model for me."
That period was also the beginning of what Neukom says was the "greening of the association," a greater consciousness of the public responsibilities lawyers have toward the community and social issues. No longer merely a fraternal group for lawyers seeking referrals, the association now is strong and relevant, says Neukom. "We are attracting staff who want to make a difference," he says.
More and more, the evolution of the ABA has brought it into conflict with government and some of its own conservative members. This week, the ABA's House of Delegates is taking up several measures that take a critical look at Bush Administration policies on the treatment of Guantanamo detainees, state secrets and the firing of U.S. Attorneys.
Such resolutions used to divide the ABA, but now have become more routine, and Neukom shrugs it off. "We communicate a lot with all three branches of government. Sometimes we collaborate, sometimes we differ."
Neukom's signature project for the coming year is the World Justice Project, an effort to broaden and strengthen the association's recent focus on the rule of law. And in spite of its name, it will have a substantial domestic component, aimed at making it clear to all segments of American society that they have a stake in strong legal and judicial institutions.
"It's not just lawyers meeting for a gabfest on the rule of law," said Neukom. Meetings across the country have already paved the way for multidisciplinary meetings set nationwide for May 1 -- the 50th anniversary of Law Day. Traditional Law Day programs, where local bar leaders address the Rotary Club or lecture about the Bill of Rights at the local high school, "don't accomplish that much," Neukom said. Instead, he wants lawyers to meet with doctors, educators, business leaders, journalists and others to establish a consensus about the importance of the rule of law and judicial independence.
With the help of a $1.75 million grant from the Gates Foundation, Neukom says the project will also support scholarly efforts and development of a Rule of Law "index" that will assess how strongly the United States and other nations adhere to the rule of law.
It is a more global vision than he might have imagined 30 years ago, but Neukom sees it as a continuation of his longstanding view that the law and lawyers should serve the poor and the broader community. "The rule of law," he says, "is not the rule of lawyers."