Leadership Lessons from the ABA

by Bob Carlson, President, American Bar Association

It is a tremendous honor to lead the American Bar Association, and it has been a joy to serve the organized bar thanks to the many hundreds of bright, dedicated people with whom I’ve worked during this journey.

Friendship through service leadership is the best kind of friendship there is. Together in the bar, we call attention to the legal needs in our communities, and we call public attention to the value of lawyers. Last October, for example, legal communities across the country during the National Celebration of Pro Bono collectively shined a proud spotlight on more than 1,400 events, hosted by more than 700 organizations, from all 50 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Canada, and even Hong Kong.

Activities during the National Celebration of Pro Bono highlighted the continued need for pro bono services on behalf of veterans, the elderly, domestic violence survivors, people who are homeless, and others who need a lawyer’s help, including this year’s focus, disaster survivors.

In addition to the valuable service to clients these activities provide, they can also be the impetus for lasting relationships and friendships among lawyers that service in the bar fosters.

With the National Celebration of Pro Bono, we stand together as a unified voice for the values that our profession is rightfully proud of. We need your support—every lawyer’s support—in such efforts, so I encourage you to join us in October 2019 and future celebrations.

Another opportunity for lawyers to support pro bono is Free Legal Answers, which conveniently enables low-income people who submit civil justice questions for pro bono lawyers to answer. Nearly 60,000 client questions have been posted to Free Legal Answers since its launch in 2016, and more than 5,700 lawyers across the country are registered to volunteer to answer them. Anyone who is licensed to practice in one of the 40 or so jurisdictions that have adopted Free Legal Answers can sign up at abafreelegalanswers.org.

We also promote disaster legal services through our Young Lawyers Division and its longstanding agreement with FEMA to provide invaluable expertise to state and local organizations to quickly implement Disaster Legal Services hotlines.

With our leadership on disaster legal services, the ABA demonstrates that we are an important part of the American fabric as well as an essential part of the lives and livelihoods of every single lawyer, every single day—whether it’s through our Model Rules of Professional Conduct, our accreditation of law schools, our governmental advocacy, and so many other aspects of the legal profession and justice system.

Our House of Delegates, which sets ABA policy, consists of 596 members from across the United States. A majority of our delegates proportionately represent state and local bar associations from every state and the District of Columbia, plus most territories.

The balance of delegates represent ABA sections, divisions, and forums—including the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar and our Law Student Division–along with other bar and legal associations, including the Association of American Law Schools.

Through endeavors that only the ABA carries out, we represent lawyers well beyond our more than 400,000 members. If you consider all the lawyers who belong to the multitude of bar associations and other organizations that send representatives to our House of Delegates, the ABA speaks for more than a million lawyers across the country. Our voice for the profession is an undeniable and indispensable part of America’s culture of justice.

The ABA’s democratic, representative structure—embodying the best of diverse and inclusive institutions— ensures that our policies are rooted not in partisan politics, not in narrow political ideology, but in the values that lawyers across America share.

The participation and involvement of our members fortifies the ABA’s united and respected voice of the profession—a voice that stands for professional excellence, for equal justice, for due process, and for our liberties protected by the rule of law.

We share values as lawyers no matter where we’re from, no matter what area of the law we work in, no matter what our politics may be..Lawyers throughout the ABA, coming from a wide variety of backgrounds, contribute to our national, collective voice as so many other powerful voices ridicule equal justice under law, mock due process, and scorn our independent judiciary.

We stand united in the understanding that our justice system does not function properly when vulnerable people who are poor are forced to appear in court without a lawyer. This is why the Legal Services Corporation and the legal aid agencies it supports is so critical. The ABA was there for Congress’s creation and initial funding of the Legal Services Corporation in the 1970s, and we will always be there to advocate for the access to justice it provides.

Again this year, for the third straight year, the Administration has proposed closing down the Legal Services Corporation. And again, the ABA is leading the charge to advocate for the need for legal aid funding in our communities.

In addition to advocating for funding for the Legal Services Corporation, our delegations will meet with their members of Congress to promote public service loan forgiveness, because we know that a healthy republic must foster government and public service by lawyers and other professionals.

As the voice of America’s lawyers, it is also our duty to support the nation’s dedicated judges when public officials at the highest levels use their bully pulpit to crudely cast doubt on the judiciary’s professionalism. And it is essential that we stand up when strident, out-of-control politics create a crisis of public confidence in our courts and the selection process for lifetime positions on the federal bench.

At the same time, the ABA’s nonpartisan evaluations of the professional qualifications of federal judicial nominees contribute immensely to our voice and leadership for fair and impartial courts. Members of our Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary each volunteer many hundreds of hours to this valuable public service.

The ABA stands up not only to preserve America’s rule of law and the credibility of our justice system. We also stand up to maintain our credibility with other nations that routinely look to the ABA for guidance on issues of law. Our authority was recently recognized by George and Amal Clooney’s Foundation for Justice, which is partnering with the ABA,  Columbia Law School and Microsoft to monitor trials around the world that pose a high risk of human rights violations, including trials that could oppress vulnerable groups, silence speech, or target political opponents.

The ABA also provides leadership opportunities for public education about the law and legal system. Our theme for Law Day this year is central to our constitutional rights, “Free Speech, Free Press, Free Society.” And we’re already planning for next year around the centennial of a landmark for American democracy, the ratification of the 19th Amendment assuring women the right to vote. Toolkits and planning guides for Law Day are on the ABA website. Please lend your leadership to these important public education efforts and help ensure that your communities are involved.

ABA members are contributing their leadership to another important area – lawyer wellness and well-being. We are raising awareness of the high incidence of alcohol and other substance abuse problems among lawyers and law students, of reducing the stigma of mental illness in our profession, and of encouraging and supporting our colleagues as they need and seek help.

These issues have taken an unbearable human toll. We must act.

Please spread the word about the ABA Working Group to Advance Well-Being in the Legal Profession—resources are at ambar.org/wellbeing. We need to work together and stick with this movement as long as it takes to save the lives of those we care about and make our profession stronger.

As we aspire to be the best lawyers we can be, we are practicing in an age when the profile of lawyers in America and around the world is improving. Law school applications are slowly increasing. The Meriam-Webster Word of the Year for 2018 was “justice.”

At the same time, many Americans of all political stripes believe our national values face historic threats. We do face challenges as a nation. At times, it seems that compromise is beyond reach, and our great experiment in democracy could falter.

I submit to you that the powerful institutions of our democracy—an independent judiciary, the rule of law, free speech and a free press—have helped us weather political scandal and extremism that tested the central philosophies and traditions of America’s society. In the end, the rule of law has prevailed. Our system of checks and balances held. When some checks failed to work, others ensured that our democracy was protected.

Our institutions are strong, but they are not invincible. They require the support and protection of each and every one of us to endure. They need our leadership. They require us to instill these values in our law students, to shape them into the public citizens that our Rules of Professional Conduct call on us to be. As it is written in the Preamble to the ABA Model Rules:

  • As a public citizen, a lawyer should seek improvement of the law, access to the legal system, the administration of justice and the quality of service rendered by the legal profession.
  • As a member of a learned profession, a lawyer should cultivate knowledge of the law beyond its use for clients, employ that knowledge in reform of the law and work to strengthen legal education.
  • In addition, a lawyer should further the public’s understanding of and confidence in the rule of law and the justice system because legal institutions in a constitutional democracy depend on popular participation and support to maintain their authority.
  • A lawyer should be mindful of deficiencies in the administration of justice and of the fact that the poor, and sometimes persons who are not poor, cannot afford adequate legal assistance.
  • Therefore, all lawyers should devote professional time and resources and use civic influence to ensure equal access to our system of justice for all those who because of economic or social barriers cannot afford or secure adequate legal counsel.
  • A lawyer should aid the legal profession in pursuing these objectives and should help the bar regulate itself in the public interest.

I believe these words should be underscored among law students and lawyers at every opportunity.

We need a strong, vibrant bar to promote our professional excellence as we face a changing economy and practice landscape.

We need a strong, vibrant bar to advance America’s culture of justice and due process under the rule of law.

The world is watching us. Aspiring lawyers, law students, and young lawyers are watching us. Whatever the storms around us, we must always demonstrate civility, maintain our dignity, and encourage respect for our institutions of law and values of justice. The world is watching us, and it is our professional duty to deliver.

When forces both inside and outside this country attack the judiciary and seek to marginalize our justice system, when they ignore due process and the rule of law, the ABA will speak out.

We will do this from a position of strength, bolstered by the support of our 400,000 members and the 1 million lawyers our affiliated organizations represent.

We will bend the arc of the moral universe towards justice.

We will not be driven by fear but by hope.

We need everyone’s talents. We need everyone’s commitment. We need everyone’s friendship. We need everyone’s leadership. We need the example law professors set for their students, and we need to encourage law students to get on board and see themselves as part of a big picture of justice for all—a path that has been so rewarding to me throughout my career.

With the support of lawyers across America, the ABA will continue to work hard every day, and we will be the champion of hope for due process and the rule of law.