From August 2013 through August 2014, I had the privilege of serving as president of the American Bar Association, representing nearly 400,000 members. Although the ABA was actually founded in New York State, I was the first ABA president from New York in almost 30 years. The experience was at times exhilarating, fulfilling and challenging, but it was always an honor. The ABA make a difference in the lives of more than just lawyers. It makes a difference in the lives of everyone.
When I became ABA president in San Francisco, I highlighted several areas where I thought the ABA could make a difference. One was access to justice. Too many people—whether individuals of moderate means, people in isolated rural areas, or children appearing before a judge at an immigration hearing—struggle to resolve urgent legal issues without a lawyer to provide qualified advice and representation. At the same time, too many excellent young lawyers are finding it difficult to gain practical experience and employment.
This is the paradox of our justice system: the oversupply of lawyers who need skills and training, and the troubling undersupply of lawyers to address the unmet legal needs that exist all across our country.
The ABA’s Legal Access Job Corps reached out to bar associations, bar foundations, law schools, law firms and others to identify and encourage innovative programs that jointly address lawyer underemployment and the lack of meaningful access to legal services for underserved populations.
In June, the Job Corps awarded catalyst grants to help expand existing programs and to promote new initiatives that employ recently admitted lawyers to serve people of modest means and in hard-to-reach areas. From Vermont to Southern California, Nebraska to New Orleans, these grants will assist worthy programs and will help bring long-lasting benefits to communities and individuals in need of legal assistance.
Another ongoing area of concern in our profession is the future of legal education. Law school applications have fallen 37 percent since 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Only 57 percent of 2013 law school graduates have full-time, long-term jobs in the legal industry. As law school applications decline and new lawyers struggle to find work, examining the path forward for our legal education system is rapidly becoming a critical issue for the entire legal community.
The ABA Task Force on the Future of Legal Education issued a report earlier this year that called for changes to law school accreditation to allow for more experimentation and innovation, and the expansion of opportunities for delivery of legal services. Acting on a report recommendation, we formed the Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education to examine and make recommendations to reform the cost of legal education, the financing of law schools, student loans, educational debt and scholarships.
The ABA also promoted education and dialogue on two important national priorities: ensuring voting rights and curbing gun violence.
All citizens must have unfettered access to vote. The ABA is working to ensure that this most precious of American rights is guaranteed to all. Our standing committee on election law held town hall meetings in Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Arizona. The meetings provided substance for a White Paper, “Dialogues on Election Reform: A Continuing Conversation with the States.” The paper addresses key questions about early voting, voter identification, voter registration, election administration, redistricting, and voting technology.
The standing committee on gun violence held town hall meetings in Philadelphia and in St. Paul, Minn., to foster solutions to reduce gun violence, while still protecting Second Amendment rights.
This is no simple task. But America’s lawyers must be part of our nation’s discussion on solving the crisis that has caused so much grief and despair in our communities. Since the tragic shooting in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, there have been 74 shootings just in our nation’s schools.
As lawyers, as American citizens, as part of humanity, we must continue our efforts and then redouble them. We cannot accept the senseless deaths of more children.
Another area where we have concentrated our efforts is immigration, where we provided a national focus on the crisis on our border. An unprecedented number of children are fleeing their homelands to escape drugs, violence and death, and I traveled to San Antonio to see the child immigration tragedy firsthand with then ABA president-elect William Hubbard and the ABA commission on immigration.
The dangers faced by these children in their home countries are immediate, and our response as a nation should be consistent with the fundamental principles of justice and due process that have always guided us and that are required by U.S. law.
In August, the ABA created a working group to respond to the children’s immigration crisis, with emphasis on ensuring children are afforded due process and are represented by competent counsel. The working group will be comprised of up to 15 lawyers representing a broad cross-section of ABA entities already tasked with developing and implementing immediate responses to the crisis. The working group will consider the creation of a commission to continue and grow the association’s work in this area.
These are issues that touch the lives of everyone and are important to the ABA because they speak to justice and the rule of law. Of course, the ABA also is deeply involved in issues specific to the legal industry.
We have focused, for example, in the past several years on the crisis of court underfunding, a threat to our system of justice and everything that we believe in as an association. Federal courts already face staff reductions and program cuts that threaten public safety.
Our citizens’ access to justice through the courts, and their Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial, is increasingly in jeopardy because of inadequate funding. The ABA has helped persuade lawmakers to restore funding to critical services of the federal courts threatened by austerity measures and will continue to push Congress to make funds available so that the system can act quickly and fairly.
The ABA has also been lobbying Congress on proposed U.S. tax code changes that would hurt lawyers. We mobilized the legal community to fight a proposed provision that would require inequitable, cumbersome and costly changes to how many law firms bill their clients.
The ABA offered testimony to Congressional committees pointing out the unfairness of requiring some law firms to switch to an accrual accounting method, thus paying taxes on “phantom income.” While some in government see a short-term tax windfall, it is ultimately a growth-killer, and the ABA is pursuing every way to stop it from becoming law.
We have also addressed revelations of government surveillance of lawyers’ communications with their clients. The attorney-client privilege is a bedrock legal principle of our free society. It enables individual and organizational clients to communicate with their lawyers in confidence, which is essential to preserving clients’ fundamental right to effective counsel.
To protect attorney-client privilege and the ability of lawyers to work with their clients, the ABA has developed a dialogue with the U.S. National Security Agency and is working with other agencies to minimize collection of such communications and to ensure processes are in place to protect the attorney-client privilege.
The ABA also challenged politicians who attacked lawyers seeking public office because of their legal work on behalf of unpopular clients. From Vincent Sheheen, the South Carolina gubernatorial candidate, to Debo Adegbile, a candidate to lead the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice, these lawyers were smeared simply for doing their job as defense attorneys representing their clients. We must reject the disturbing message that the past actions of clients will stain the careers of their attorneys, especially if those attorneys want to serve their country in public office.
Under William Hubbard, the current president, the ABA will continue to address issues such as immigration, legal education and the future of the legal profession. It also will focus on the commemoration of the 800th anniversary of the sealing of Magna Carta, a document that was a progenitor of many of our current rights as Americans. As the country marks the 20th anniversary of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, the problem of domestic and sexual violence also will be at the forefront of ABA initiatives, as will the issue of over incarceration in prisons and the subsequent effect of collateral consequences.
We are proud of all the good work that the ABA does on a day-to-day basis for our members, for lawyers, and for our justice system. It has been a pleasure for me to represent the ABA this past year, and I look forward to the many accomplishments of our association in the years to come.