Meet new ABA President James R. Silkenat
James R. Silkenat
A partner in the New York office of the national law firm Sullivan & Worcester, James R. Silkenat became president of the American Bar Association at the end of the ABA Annual Meeting in early August.
Silkenat has a long record of service at the ABA. Most recently, he was a member of the Commission on Women in the Profession and the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession, and he was co-chair of the Solo and Small Firm Leadership Coalition. He has served as chair of several ABA entities, including the Section of International Law, the Section Officers Conference and the Standing Committees on Membership and Constitution and Bylaws.
Silkenat has served as a member of the House of Delegates since 1990. In his role as state delegate from New York, he was chair of the New York delegation to the House from 2000 to 2009.
In other activities, Silkenat is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Law Institute, and he served as chair of the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights (now Human Rights First). He was also chair of the Commission on the World Justice Project and the Council of New York Law Associates (now the Lawyers Alliance for New York).
Silkenat recently spoke with YourABA about his goals for his term, key issues in the profession and more.
What is your legal experience and educational background?
In my legal practice at Sullivan & Worcester in New York City, I concentrate on project and infrastructure finance, banking, securities law, mergers and acquisitions, and corporate law. I previously served as legal counsel at the International Finance Corp. of the World Bank Group in Washington, D.C.
I received my Bachelor of Arts from Drury College, where I also received an honorary doctorate in 2012. I earned my J.D. from the University of Chicago School of Law and an LL.M. in international law from New York University School of Law.
Have you had any mentors during your career? If so, how have they helped shape your career?
Throughout my career, I have been lucky enough to work with many of the finest lawyers from all around the country, and I have learned from each of them. Within the ABA, I have had the chance to work with almost all of the presidents over the past 30 years, and each has influenced me. In particular are Jerry Shestack, whom I worked with early in my career, and Bob MacCrate, especially on legal education issues. Martha Barnett and Bill Paul are also role models for how I hope to serve as president.
What will be your most important goals for your upcoming ABA presidency, and have you mapped out strategies for achieving them?
Our top priority will be to identify ways to match underemployed lawyers with underserved communities. Our effort is known as the Legal Access Job Corps. ABA members and staff with experience in legal education and pro bono legal assistance are working to determine how the ABA can take a leadership role in addressing the complex issues involved.
In addition to the Legal Access Job Corps, we need to continue to ensure that our state and federal courts have adequate funding and that the U.S. system of legal education is responsive to changes in the economy and the profession.
Finally, we need to underscore what lawyers can do to inform the debate and help shape our nation's policies on the most urgent, stalemated issues of our time, including immigration, gun violence, and problems with elections that impede our citizens from voting and having their votes count. Lawyers can help in the effort to develop solutions to some of the biggest challenges facing our nation.
How will ABA entities help with your initiatives?
The Legal Access Job Corps will be a complex project, one that will require the best thinking from leaders in a broad range of ABA entities. The task force working on this project will have substantial input from ABA sections, divisions and forums.
We are also forming a new ABA Working Group on Corporate Counsel and Government Lawyers, which will be an effort to provide better services to the in-house legal communities in corporations and government entities and to bring them more fully into the day-to-day operations of the ABA at all levels. This effort should spark a much greater interest in the ABA from these important parts of the legal profession.
What is the role of the ABA in the legal profession and society as a whole?
The ABA has four stated goals, which work together to shape the mission of the ABA. We serve our members by providing outstanding CLE, publications and other programs and resources, including numerous opportunities to connect with lawyers from across the country and throughout the world.
The ABA also works to improve our profession. We seek to promote the highest quality legal education, to encourage competence, ethical conduct and professionalism throughout the bar, and to help lawyers contribute to society by performing pro bono and public service work.
Eliminating bias and enhancing diversity in the ABA, the legal profession and the justice system is another priority.
Finally, we aim to advance the rule of law by working for just laws, a fair legal process and meaningful access to justice for all. Our profession is a key aspect of our democracy and a free society.
Is more innovation needed in the training of lawyers, particularly in light of escalating costs and increased student debt?
American legal education is the best in the world, but it has to evolve to keep up with the rapid changes taking place in the legal profession. I am deeply concerned about our law students, our young lawyers and their futures. Many new lawyers have too much debt to work in public interest positions or to make a living by providing affordable legal services.
Last year the ABA commissioned a Task Force on the Future of Legal Education to determine how law schools, the ABA and other stakeholders can address issues concerning the economics and delivery of legal education. The task force is exploring all avenues of legal education and legal practice. I expect that the task force's report will help us meet the challenges we face in how we educate lawyers.
In its efforts to improve justice abroad, how do you think the ABA ought to define the rule of law?
In 2006, the ABA adopted three core principles of the legal profession, each of which contributes to a functioning rule of law. They are an impartial and independent judiciary, an independent legal profession and access to justice for all people throughout the world. The ABA supports these principles through a range of activities in the United States and through our international Rule of Law Initiative, which works with in-country partners in more than 60 countries to build sustainable institutions and societies that deliver justice, foster economic opportunity and ensure respect for human dignity.
An excellent and even more complete definition of the rule of law has been voiced by the World Justice Project, which the ABA helped start in 2008. See www.worldjusticeproject.org.
Why is diversity in the legal profession important?
Democracy requires diversity of thought and perspective. The legal profession and our justice system are guardians of our democracy. To protect our democracy, the legal profession and the justice system must, therefore, be diverse in their makeup. This principle applies in a variety of contexts, from ensuring that all parties have access to justice in our adversarial system to working to include as broad a range of perspectives as possible in our profession and justice system.
Historically, our profession would have benefitted significantly from full participation by women and racial and ethnic minorities. More recently, our awareness of the need to diversify the legal profession has expanded to people with disabilities and people of differing sexual orientations. Our profession and the rule of law, and hence our democratic society, are made stronger when we are open and inclusive.
The ABA aims to promote full and equal participation in the legal profession. Unfortunately, our profession's demographics fail to mirror the society we serve, and there are still too many obstacles to success and fulfillment. It is important for the ABA to continue to identify such barriers and work to remove or at least limit them. This, of course, requires us to diversify our ranks as much as possible, so we can learn from people with differing perspectives.
What do you say to people who question the value of lawyers in society?
Most people, most of the time, value the legal profession's role in a free and democratic society. They recognize our value when they want a business deal done right, a will drafted precisely or a criminal case resolved justly. People see and respect the work of pro bono and public service lawyers who help children at risk, abused women, immigrants in detention and families facing eviction. The ABA's public education, pro bono and public service initiatives — along with the excellent programs of state, local and specialty bar associations — contribute to the positive image of lawyers by providing assistance to those in need. Our rules of professional conduct also enhance the image of lawyers by helping to ensure that they are trustworthy and competent.
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