ABA's William Hubbard said leadership is needed at a time when “the justice system is under stress.”
ABA’s William Hubbard said leadership is needed at a time when “the justice system is under stress.” (John Disney/Daily Report)

The Atlanta Bar Association celebrated its 125th anniversary with a gala lunch at the Piedmont Driving Club on Tuesday that featured a visit from the president-elect of the American Bar Association, a short documentary of its history, a Champagne toast and even a commemorative bottle of wine as a souvenir.

ABA president-elect William Hubbard, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia, S.C., treated the 350 bar members and guests to a short history of their bar, which was organized on April 28, 1888, by a group of about 100 lawyers at the Fulton County Courthouse.

Judge John L. Hopkins was elected the first president and held the post for 19 years. A progressive thinker, Hopkins supported education for former slaves and the right of women to practice law. The Atlanta Bar admitted its first two women members in 1917 and its first African-American members in 1964. With more than 6,000 members, it is the largest voluntary bar in the Southeast.

It has been a pro bono leader, Hubbard said, prompting the ABA to recognize it three times with the Harrison Tweed Award.

One of the bar’s more notable projects was in 1985 when about 400 Atlanta bar members undertook a massive habeas corpus effort under then-president Frank Strickland, joining forces with the Atlanta Legal Aid Society to represent 800 Cubans who had been part of the Mariel boatlift. The Marielitos were being held at the federal penitentiary for deportation after serving sentences for crimes committed in the U.S. Cuba refused to repatriate the prisoners, leaving them in limbo—and in need of lawyers.

The bar also launched the Truancy Intervention Project in 1991, spearheaded by then-president Terry Walsh, and in 2005 another president, Elizabeth Price, led an initiative to represent asylum seekers who were victims of human trafficking, sexual assault and domestic violence. That project has become the Georgia Asylum and Immigration Project.

Hubbard said that kind of leadership is sorely needed at a time when “the justice system is under stress.”

“Too many lawyers are unemployed and under-employed. At the same time the best estimates are that 75 percent of the poor and middle class combined do not have access to our justice system,” Hubbard said.

Surprisingly, cost is not the main reason people don’t use lawyers when they have a problem, he said, referring to the ABA’s legal needs survey. They do not see their problems as legal problems. “They see them as personal problems—moral failings and issues that just happen in life or bad luck.”

Rather than seek a legal solution, they do nothing or turn to self-help.

Hubbard said it’s been 40 years since the ABA took a systematic look at the legal profession. The ABA will work with state and local bars and the judiciary to identify existing programs that help average people navigate the justice system and can be replicated elsewhere.

“We have to embrace innovation to lower costs and provide access so that people do not have to fend for themselves in the pursuit of justice and liberty,” Hubbard said.

He quoted trial lawyer David Boies: “The United States is overlawyered when it comes to the rich and powerful, but under-lawyered when it comes to people who don’t have resources. One way the legal profession has got to adapt is to serve not just the people whom it has largely served excessively, but develop a business model for people who are underserved.”

“We have not provided justice for all if people lose their homes, their businesses and, yes, their freedom without adequate counsel or without other effective options to resolve their legal issues,” Hubbard said.