A Conversation with Incoming ABA President H. Thomas Wells, Jr.
Mercedes Pino is an associate editor of The Affiliate and the Director of Career Services at the St. Thomas University School of Law in Miami Gardens, Florida.
At the ABA Annual Meeting in New York, August 7–12, 2008, H. Thomas (Tommy) Wells, Jr., will be sworn in as the new ABA President for 2008–2009. Wells, a partner and founding member at Maynard, Cooper & Gale, P.C., in Birmingham, Alabama, agreed to share his thoughts on young lawyers and his goals for the upcoming year.
The Affiliate: Mr. Wells, when did you first become involved in the ABA?
Wells: Though I became a member of the ABA right out of law school, the first ABA meeting I ever attended was the 1985 Washington/London Annual Meeting. My wife, Jan, and I went mainly because we had never been to London. In fact, we didn’t even go to the Washington portion of the meeting. We took a Litigation Section-sponsored pre-meeting tour of Scotland and Ireland and loved the other people we met. We decided then and there that if the ABA involved great people like those we had befriended, we would get more involved.
The Affiliate: Have mentors been an important part of your legal career and ascension through the ABA ranks?
Wells: Absolutely. My first job after graduation was in the Air Force General Counsel’s Office in the Pentagon, where I was assigned to the environmental and real property section. I didn’t know much about real property, and nothing about environmental law, but the Assistant General Counsel, Grant Reynolds, helped me through that transition. When I returned to Birmingham in 1977, I was fortunate to have two mentors, Fournier “Boots” Gale and Lee Cooper. Both helped me immensely in learning what it was to practice law, and both also encouraged my participation in bar activities. Lee, of course, eventually served as ABA President from 1996 to 1997.
The Affiliate: Were you given any advice as a young lawyer that you reflect back on now as being particularly useful?
Wells: As a part of my mentoring, both Lee and Boots firmly believed that when a lawsuit was finally over, you should be able to go out and have a drink with your opposing counsel, because you were surely going to see them again.
The Affiliate: Why did you decide to become ABA President?
Wells: It was an evolutionary process. I certainly never set out a path to be President. When I first got involved in the ABA, I had no aspirations whatsoever; I simply wanted to be around the best lawyers in the country, who were also some of the greatest people I had ever met. In 1992, when the State Delegate from Alabama went on the ABA Board of Governors, I ran a contested race for the State Delegate position and was fortunate enough to win. That, of course, put me on the Nominating Committee, so I saw candidates up close and personal, so to speak. I managed to get re-elected twice, so I served nine years on the Nominating Committee. At the same time, I was getting more and more involved in the Litigation Section, eventually becoming Chair in 1999–2000. Those experiences on the Nominating Committee and chairing the Section were so rewarding, I decided I would try to run for Chair of the House of Delegates. That race was initially contested, with my good friend Harriett Miers also running. Harriet later accepted President Bush’s offer to serve as White House Counsel, so I ended up being unopposed. After that, I was unopposed in my run for President-Elect, and here I am.
The Affiliate: What is your vision for the upcoming bar year?
Informally Yours: Tommy Wells
MAC or PC? PC. I travel with a Sony Vaio small laptop.
What is the most played song on your iPod? Mostly songs by Simon and Garfunkel, Rod Stewart, Sting.
What is the last great book you read? Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. It is a fictional account of the building of a cathedral in twelfth century England.
What is your must-see TV show? Battlestar Galactica—mainly on TiVo ® because I travel so much. I’m a sci-fi nut.
What is the last good movie you saw? Charlie Wilson’s War.
If you weren’t a lawyer, what would you be? My dad was a dentist, so in high school I thought I would be an orthodontist.
Who would play you in the movie? Dustin Hoffman.
Worst job you ever had? The job wasn’t the worst, but the pay was. When I was in law school in Tuscaloosa, I clerked for my uncle and cousin in their law office. I was paid the princely sum of 25 cents an hour for the privilege of working with them.
Wells: I will emphasize the common core values that unite us in the legal profession. They are not unique to the ABA, but indeed are common to all lawyers across the world. As I see them, our profession has four common core values: One is access to justice; another is independence, and by this I mean independence of the bar and of the judiciary, which I think are inextricably linked; third is diversity; and fourth is the rule of law, which one could argue actually encompasses the other three.
We’re also promoting two major events of relevance to the bar: One is the 2008 general election, which will provide a host of opportunities for lawyers to lend their expertise and public-service commitment to ensuring fair and efficient elections. The other is the bicentennial of the birth of one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln, who also was an excellent trial lawyer.
The Affiliate: Do you have any specific ideas in mind to accomplish those goals?
Wells: I will speak about, write about, and otherwise lend the Office of the President’s support and encouragement to the efforts of the ABA and our affiliates that involve the profession’s common core values.
With independence of the bar, we’ll continue to advocate for preservation of the attorney-client privilege against government policies that curtail it, and we’ll trumpet this year’s centennial of the ABA’s first ethics code for lawyers.
Regarding judicial independence, our outreach efforts with the ABA Standing Committee on Judicial Independence and the state and local bars will be crucial, especially during this election year. Political attacks on judges and their decisions are likely to increase, and we’ll need to keep countering politically charged judicial elections and anti-judiciary ballot initiatives, in which obscene sums of money are being spent by interest groups.
Regarding diversity, I firmly believe that our profession is better served if lawyers are as diverse as the clients we serve. I’m encouraging the ABA to share information and resources with state and local bars on pipeline, mentoring, associate retention, partnership, and related issues.
Our rule of law work will continue with the ABA’s Rule of Law Initiative programs in forty-seven countries, with year two of the World Justice Project, and with overall advocacy on rule of law issues here in the United States.
For the general election, the ABA is developing a website and other materials that will help bar associations educate the public and otherwise get involved on voting rights and other procedural issues. For the Lincoln bicentennial, Law Day 2009 and other bar events will honor his remarkable contributions as a lawyer-president.
The Affiliate: Will the ABA be partnering with other national organizations to implement your projects?
Wells: Absolutely. The American Judicature Society, for example, has figured prominently in formulating a new recommendation and report from the ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judicial Improvements on federal judicial nominating commissions, which are designed to reduce partisan rancor and delay in selecting U.S. district and circuit court judges. On protecting the attorney-client privilege, we’re working with a diverse coalition of national organizations ranging from the ACLU to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. National organizations like Wingspread are helping us on our diversity efforts. The World Justice Project is involving multidisciplinary national and international organizations from fields ranging from public health to engineering and many others. And, of course, we always count on the National Conference of Bar Presidents and the National Association of Bar Executives to coordinate our efforts with the state and local bars.
The Affiliate: What can young lawyers do to help you fulfill your goals for the year?
Wells: Both of my children are young lawyers, and I intend to look to young lawyers to fill many important roles. A former YLD Chair, Christina Plum, serves on my Appointments Committee, and Matt Nelson, a YLD Member-at-Large on the ABA Board of Governors, has accepted my appointment to chair the Board’s Finance Committee. More generally, the YLD and its affiliates consistently provide the energy that helps us advance our common core values—its work with FEMA and “Wills for Heroes” are just two of many examples. You can rest assured young lawyers will be called on.
The Affiliate: Why do you believe young lawyers should become involved in the ABA?
Wells: First, it will make them better lawyers. Second, it will help them in their practices. Third, as professionals, we are obligated to give back, and the ABA is a wonderful place to do just that. Fourth, you get to meet and network with the best and the brightest in our profession. Finally, and most importantly, it’s fun.
The Affiliate: Do you have any advice for young lawyers aspiring to become ABA President?
Wells: Be active in the ABA YLD and in your state and local bars. Be willing to volunteer to do the jobs that nobody wants to do and then do them well. And most important, in every position that you manage to hold, make sure you leave it with more friends than you started with.
The Affiliate: What do you envision will be your greatest challenge during your presidency?
Wells: Most likely, it will be the election and the transition to the new administration in Washington. I plan on spending a lot of time building bridges to the new administration, hopefully that others can cross.
The Affiliate: Any final thoughts or advice that you would like to give young lawyers?
Wells: Continue to do the good work you are doing, and do it well. And continue to have fun while you are doing it.