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House hears from legal leaders on issues facing ABA, profession

House hears from legal leaders on issues facing ABA, profession

By John Glynn

Although American Bar Association President James R. Silkenat wished he could talk about 100 legal issues in his speech Monday to the ABA House of Delegates, he stuck with three topics close to his heart: the access-to-justice paradox, voting rights and gun violence.

ABA President James Silkenat addresses the House of Delegates during the 2014 ABA Midyear Meeting

Under Silkenat’s leadership, the ABA has been working to address an access-to-justice paradox, where the legal needs of an enormous number of low- and moderate-income people are not being met even though a large number of young lawyers cannot find jobs or gain practical experience.

“How do we address a problem that defies the rules of supply and demand?” Silkenat asked. “We cannot afford to be a nation where the legal needs of a large portion of our citizenry are not being met in the ways that our Constitution requires.”

He said the ABA is in a unique position to take on this challenge, and as a result, he started the Legal Access Jobs Corps, which views these two problems as a single issue and looks to find ways to unite young lawyers with those in need of legal representation.

In 2012, only 56 percent of nearly 46,000 law school graduates had a job requiring bar passage nine months after graduation. And less than 1 in 5 of the legal problems experienced by low-income people are addressed by a private attorney or a legal aid lawyer.

“There are so many examples of real, monumental life issues that could be alleviated with the help of a lawyer,” Silkenat said. “And there is a pool of newly minted lawyers waiting for the chance to help.”

The ABA should look at programs on the national, state and local levels, he said, citing as examples New York’s legal incubator program aimed at helping new practitioners and South Dakota’s rural practice project, which provides financial incentives to lawyers willing to practice in rural areas.

“The ABA should help coordinate, stimulate and assist such efforts across the country,” Silkenat said.

On the topic of voting rights, he said regulatory practices aimed at limiting full voter participation are undercutting democracy. “Voting rights in the United States are clearly under attack,” Silkenat said.

The theme for Law Day this year is “American Democracy and the Rule of Law:  Why Every Vote Matters.” He said he hoped that many of state and local bars would address these issues in their various Law Day events this year.

When Silkenat started to speak about the issue of gun violence in the United States, and specifically the shootings at the elementary school in Newton, Conn., last year, he got visibly choked up.

“I am still heartsick that Congress was unable to respond to the tragedy that took place in Newtown,” he said. “I have a farm not too far from there and know how the families involved have been destroyed by the loss of their children. Newton hit very close to home for me. … Maybe everyone in this room has ties to a similar tragedy.”

He criticized Congress for its failure to act on gun legislation and said some members of Congress “seemed more interested in their approval rating by the gun lobby than in protecting the safety of their constituents.”

While the ABA does not get involved in politics, the association does speak out on important national legal issues, he noted. “As the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA should be at the table for important conversations that involve our nation’s laws,” Silkenat said. “Gun violence, despite the difficulty of the topic, is one such discussion that can benefit from the inclusion of a legal perspective.”

In letters and testimony to Congress, the ABA has called for laws to curb gun violence, including providing more resources to treat mental health issues in our criminal justice system, improving the background check system, strengthening laws that address illegal gun trafficking, and limiting the availability of military-style assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition clips.

“For the sake of those we have lost through gun violence, for those left behind and out of respect for the long tradition of responsible gun ownership in this country, we need a national conversation on this issue,” Silkenat concluded.

Update on the state of the ABA               

While ABA Treasurer Lucian T. Pera pronounced that the current finances of the ABA are sound, Executive Director Jack Rives stressed that association faces many threats, including economic concerns.

“Right now, we can rethink and remake the things that we value most in our professional lives,” Rives said. “We are at a genuine inflection point for the legal profession and for our association. Our actions or lack of action in the coming years will define our association and our profession.”

He lamented that the ABA does not have enough resources to meet all of the demands placed on it. The association has significant revenue shortfalls and is behind in non-dues revenue collections, he said.

The ABA has been cutting expenses and looking for ways to save over the past few years, including renegotiating the Chicago office lease and limiting the use of consultants, Rives said.

He stressed that the ABA must break down the silos that separate it to address the issues it faces.

“We must eliminate the artificial boundaries between our entities to best accomplish the goals of the ABA,” Rives explained. “We have to become more efficient and we have to become more effective.”

He detailed ABAction! Plan, a new initiative aimed at growing the association and securing its future. He touted several initiatives in ABAction! that have already experienced successes, including efforts to increase law student membership, new programs to increase member value and a revamp of ABA Publishing.

The ABA will accomplish its goals, Rives said, including improving the member-value proposition, stabilizing its membership numbers and increasing number of dues paying members.

“My commitment to you is that we will make the improvements we need to make and we will do that with a sense of urgency,” he said.

Update on health of state courts

In addressing the ABA House of Delegates, Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael G. Heavican, president of the Conference of Chief Justices, stressed the importance of continuing collaboration between the bench and the bar.

“Working together, the bench and bar can improve the administration of justice, guarantee access and advance rule of law,” he said. “The importance of our shared vision and commitment to justice for all cannot be overstated.”

Heavican discussed the struggles state courts are facing with funding and in adapting to the rapidly changing environment. “To remain vibrant, our state courts must secure necessary funding while promoting financial accountability and transparency,” he said.

The coordinated response to judiciary budget cuts imposed because of the recession provides an excellent example of collaboration between the bench and the bar, Heavican said. Recognizing the threats these cuts posed, the ABA launched a “remarkable campaign,” he said.

He praised the ABA Task Force for Preservation of the Justice System, launched in 2011 by then-ABA President Stephen N. Zack, which raised awareness of the issues though hearings, media events and legislative testimony.

“State judiciaries are not yet recovered from this budget tsunami,” Heavican said. “That’s why it’s more important than ever for this collaboration to continue.”

He also cited the ongoing dialogue between the ABA and the Conference of Chief Justices on access-to-justice issues and announced a new committee — which includes key members of the bar — to review civil caseloads to evaluate reforms that are taking place in many states in response to concerns about delays that affect access to justice. The committee will develop guidelines, best practices and recommendations for policymakers to improve the civil justice process.

Heavican acknowledged the importance of the ABA as the national voice of the legal profession and expressed his appreciation for the ABA’s efforts. “My colleagues and I rely greatly on the vision, commitment and hard work of the members and leaders of the American Bar Association,” he concluded.

In addition to hearing remarks from leaders of the association and legal profession, the ABA House of Delegates, the association’s policymaking body, adopted resolutions related to the right to food, human trafficking and courthouse security, among others.

House of Delegates resolutions considered at the 2014 Midyear Meeting session can be found here.

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