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When he was growing up dirt-poor in western Michigan — more familiar with the outhouse than the courthouse — it never occurred to Dennis Archer that his future lay in the law. “I never gave any thought to becoming a lawyer because I didn’t know any,” Archer said shortly after the American Bar Association set him on course to become the first black president in the history of the 123-year-old organization. This summer, the 60-year-old former Michigan Supreme Court justice and mayor of Detroit is all but certain to be voted president-elect of the ABA. He is the only nominee for the $50,000-a-year post. After a year as president-elect, Archer will become president in August 2003. That job pays $100,000. Although he will make history for breaking the glass ceiling for minorities in the ABA — at one time, blacks were not even allowed to join, he says — he seems unlikely to make waves. For one thing, he has no plans for a bold new agenda. Instead, Archer says he hopes to complete initiatives begun by his predecessors to assure quality defense for capital defendants and improve the image of the legal profession and the quality of life for lawyers. For another, the former teacher, law professor, judge and politician has a methodical style that avoids confrontation. If his eight years as Detroit’s mayor are any indication (he served from 1993 to 2001 and opted not to seek a third term), he will provide leadership that stresses consensus-building and draws on his connections in the corporate and political world. As mayor, Archer led the National League of Cities and was on the executive board of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He is currently chairman of Dickinson Wright, a 123-year-old firm that is one of the largest based in Detroit, with nearly 200 lawyers in six offices in Michigan and Washington, D.C. Major clients include Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., Bank One, Ford and Kmart. Archer is also on the boards of Compuware, Covisint and Johnson Controls. In Archer, the 400,000-plus-member bar association gets a tireless worker who persuaded major corporations to invest in a struggling city that for decades has symbolized the Rust Belt. POLITICAL SAVVY His political savvy and connections helped broaden his influence beyond his hometown. An ally of Bill Clinton, he was a co-chairman of the Democratic National Committee and seconded Clinton’s nomination at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. He was frequently mentioned as a potential Cabinet member. Yet Archer says his only ambition after serving as mayor was to lead the bar association. “The legal profession is always challenged, but never more so than now,” he says. “Lawyers are essential to our nation’s survival as a democracy. We must protect our freedoms while ensuring justice and fairness as the war on terrorism continues. What stands between these principles and chaos is our legal profession as the upholder of the Constitution and the voice of the people.” Such high-minded rhetoric illustrates how far Archer has come since his upbringing. Born in Detroit, Archer moved with his family to Cassopolis, Mich., where he lived before attending Western Michigan University in the 1960s, when the college was a center of black intellectual thought and political activism. Archer graduated in 1965 and began teaching learning-disabled students in Detroit public elementary schools while attending the Detroit College of Law. He received his law degree in 1970. Active in political campaigns and bar groups, Archer became active in the mostly white, mostly male ABA in 1972. A head count of more than 500 delegates then found only 12 members of minority groups, the Detroit Free Press said. In 1984, while president of the Michigan Bar Association, he says, he was a victim of racial profiling when the police stopped him and searched his car and briefcase, telling him he matched the description of a drug dealer — a story he shared with Congress last year. Archer was a personal injury lawyer when, in 1986, he was named to fill a vacancy on the state supreme court. Elected to serve a full term, he resigned to return to private practice and allow then-Gov. James Blanchard to appoint another black justice. In 1991, he became a partner at Dickinson, Wright, Moon, Van Dusen & Freeman, representing corporate clients and preparing for the 1993 mayoral race. After 20 years of the often bombastic and profane Coleman Young, Detroiters made an about-face by electing the low-key and urbane Archer. At times, Archer could be so deliberate of speech that former Detroit Free Press political columnist Hugh McDiarmid wrote: “There are times when you need a cryptologist or maybe a linguistician to wade though some of Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer’s political-speak. … Listeners can be exhausted by the twists, turns and circumlocutions.” But Archer made himself understood when it mattered. He helped to persuade General Motors to stay in Detroit and to lure Compuware from the suburbs to downtown, landed the 2006 Super Bowl and saw the construction of new baseball and football stadiums and three casinos downtown. And not everyone is critical of Archer’s roundabout speaking style. Ex-ABA President Wallace Riley says communication skills are among Archer’s strengths. “He will be an active and vocal and a very good spokesman for the American bar,” Riley says. Even Sharon McPhail, a lawyer who ran against Archer for mayor in 1993 and who is on the city council, says he should acquit himself well. “People can expect that Dennis will represent them well,” she says. “He will be able to talk to all kinds of people about all kinds of issues.” But she says people should not expect big changes. “Dennis is not the kind of person who’s going to go in there and make the bar association vastly different than it has been,” she says. “My experience with Dennis is that he has not been a person who has been described as an activist.” Indeed, Archer says he has no grand plan to remake the ABA. Among the issues he expects to tackle are increasing dues and completing initiatives introduced by his predecessors. “I will be focusing in on lawyers working for America, with the sidebar aspect of there would be no law without lawyers, and not coming up with something new,” he says. Archer says that circumstances have sidetracked initiatives like ensuring quality representation for capital defendants. He says he hopes to work on that and others, like encouraging public financing of judicial races and relieving the debt burden on new lawyers who work in low-paying public service jobs. Archer says the most recent unforeseen job to consume the ABA has been helping victims of the Sept. 11 attacks and working to reconstruct files destroyed in the World Trade Center. “If something occurs, God forbid, during my presidency, I want to be able to focus on it right away on behalf of the ABA and not be distracted by a personal program in which I have invested a lot of time and energy,” he says. One advantage Archer may have over his predecessors is his background as an elected official, McPhail says. “Arguably, he has skills and contacts that they didn’t,” she says. “He has a breadth of experience that ought to be useful to him.” Archer is the first former elected official in at least 25 years to lead the ABA. Riley says that may be helpful, but Archer is hardly the only ABA president with political experience. “Everybody who’s held that office or been active in the bar is political,” he says. BACKGROUND A PLUS If Archer has an edge, he says, it will be his experience in administration and choosing appointees — “all the things he did as mayor.” Riley says he expects Archer’s tenure to increase minority involvement in the ABA, something Archer began working on years ago as a member of what is now called the ABA’s Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. Judith McNeeley, a former mayoral aide to Archer, agrees. “It now makes it a real plausible opportunity for lots of minority attorneys who are members of this organization,” she says. “It’s a milestone.” Archer’s ultimately legacy, however, likely depends on the unpredictable. “How successful his year will be will depend on the crises that come up,” Riley says. “He’s skilled enough to handle that.”

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