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Amid voting on numerous resolutions to become American Bar Association policy, members of the House of Delegates heard from ABA leadership on the state of the legal profession, the state of the association and the ABA’s continuing efforts to further access to justice.
Outgoing ABA President Laurel G. Bellows thanked the association and its staff for their efforts during the past year and described some of the ABA’s many accomplishments during that time.
“The highlights of this year for me were the progress we made toward gender equity in our profession, the steps we have taken to save human beings captured by slavery and the search for solutions for the storm of the cyberattacks that this nation is plagued with,” she said.
The Commission on Women in the Profession, working with the Gender Equity Task Force, continued its tradition of fighting for equal opportunity for female lawyers, she said, describing four publications the groups produced to further the effort.
The entire ABA, led by the Task Force on Human Trafficking, took up the fight against human trafficking, Bellows said. She thanked the members of the House of Delegates for voting to adopt as ABA policy the Uniform Law Commission’s uniform state law against human trafficking. “This is an example of what lawyers can do,” she added. “This is the power of the American Bar Association.”
Finally, Bellows lauded the association’s efforts on issues of cybersecurity. The ABA refused “to sit on the sidelines while our corporations, our government, our law firms were being attacked by criminals, by terrorists, by nation-states,” she said. Instead, the association came together to form the Cybersecurity Legal Task Force to examine the risks posed to our country and seek solutions.
She then stressed that these issues deserve continued attention from the association. “My year ends but the fight continues,” Bellows said. “These are long-term fights and they require strength in numbers. They require persistence, they require patience, they require intention.”
“Thank you for proving to our next generation that the legal profession is one worthy of their commitment, because lawyers will always matter.”
After the passing of the gavel ceremony, newly sworn-in ABA President James R. Silkenat, a partner in the New York office of the national law firm of Sullivan & Worcester, described to the audience his goals for the coming year.
“This is an important time for our profession and our justice system,” he said. “As lawyers and leaders of the profession, we are not passing on a perfect world to those who are following in our footsteps. But, if we can, we have a responsibility to leave things a little better than we found them.”
During his term, Silkenat will lead the ABA’s development of a Legal Access Job Corps, which seeks to address both the country’s growing unmet legal needs and the underemployment of recent law graduates. “Instead of looking at the dearth of legal jobs and the large number of unmet legal needs as two separate silos, we will find ways to match young lawyers who need practical job experience with disadvantaged clients who need legal assistance,” he said.
“For every client served by a Legal Services Corporation-funded program, another person who sought help was turned down because LSC did not have the resources to help them,” Silkenat said, emphasizing the importance of the coming initiative.
Under Silkenat, the ABA will continue its advocacy for adequate court funding. He warned of the consequences of across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, on the federal courts, particularly the negative effects on legal representation for the poor.
“These problems for our federal courts, which affect all aspects of their work, mirror the problems that have existed in our state court system for a number of years. They affect the justice that Americans receive and they are contrary to what our national and state constitutions require,” he said. “This is a deep embarrassment for a nation grounded on the rule of law.”
Silkenat also highlighted his commitment to the ABA’s continued involvement in legal education reform. He will also work to mobilize lawyers to educate policymakers and the public on legal issues, and seek solutions concerning immigration, gun violence and election law.
On the issue of immigration, Silkenat said that “as the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA has a unique interest in ensuring fairness and due process in the immigration enforcement and adjudication system.”
Lastly, Silkenat discussed the issue of election reform, saying that our country needs solutions to problems, including long lines at polling places, gerrymandering of political districts, insufficient voting machines and onerous voter ID requirements.
“The ABA has a longstanding interest in election reform, and during the coming year, I hope we can emphasize the importance of American democracy to the rule of law,” he said. “The ABA does not support candidates or parties, but we do support fair and open elections.”
Silkenat expressed confidence that the ABA and its members could come together to tackle these challenging issues.
When ABA President-elect William C. Hubbard addressed the audience, he emphasized the ABA’s role in promoting equal justice for all and advancing liberty.
“It is incumbent upon the American Bar Association, it is our burden and our privilege, to ensure our government and our citizens remain true to the Constitution and the rule of law,” Hubbard said. “It takes hard work to protect our Constitution, to keep it alive in the hearts of women and men. We at the ABA, all of us in this room, we know that.”
He described how a lack of judicial independence and the absence of independent bar associations in countries such as China have led to citizens’ rights not being realized.
“These international examples confirm that without truly independent lawyers and judges, the rights written on paper remain just that — ink on paper,” Hubbard said.
He also stressed the importance of preparing lawyers for the rapidly changing world by providing high-quality skills training and continuing legal education programs. “The ABA must help lawyers better adapt to new complexities, rapidly changing technologies and globalization, while simultaneously working with the judiciary to preserve its independence,” he said.
Hubbard added that the ABA needs to train and mentor young lawyers because “their success is our success and the success of our profession.”
He also applauded the Legal Access Jobs Corps created by Silkenat and pledged to continue the effort during his term.
“We must discuss and think about the future of the legal profession and the American justice system,” Hubbard said. “We must bring together the best minds from the bench and the bar and even from other professions.”
The House of Delegates also heard from ABA Executive Director Jack Rives, who gave a report on the state of the association. In order to bolster the ABA’s membership and dues and non-dues revenues, Rives introduced ABAction!, a long-term plan to strengthen the association, grow its membership and secure its future through cost-savings and new programs.
In addition to hearing remarks from the association’s top leaders, ABA members and guests witnessed the awarding of the ABA Medal — the organization’s highest honor — to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and heard Attorney General Eric Holder speak on reforming the criminal justice system.
During its two-day meeting, the ABA House of Delegates, the association’s policymaking body, adopted resolutionson voting rights, court funding, human trafficking and the “gay panic” defense, among others.