Incoming ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III is focused on calling attention to the budget crisis affecting America’s courts and the resulting threat to access to justice. He will also continue to promote the ABA’s use of cutting-edge technology and communication methods. The Affiliate recently had a chance to discuss Mr. Robinson’s expectation for his year as President of the American Bar Association.
The Affiliate: As incoming American Bar Association (ABA) President, you identified your main focus as calling attention to the budget crisis affecting America’s courts and the resulting threat to access to justice. What role will the ABA play in coming up with a solution to this problem?
Bill Robinson: While the ABA alone cannot solve this very difficult problem, we can join with others to present the compelling case that underfunding of the court system, primarily the state court system, must receive appropriate attention and must be fixed. The problem is a 50-state problem with unique challenges and distinctive issues from state to state.
Courts are not just another line item in state budgets along with roads or parks. As a constitutionally established co-equal branch of government, they must be more adequately funded to provide equal access to justice in our democracy. The National Center for State Courts has determined that about a dozen states provide less than 1% of their state budgets for the function of the courts, while approximately two-thirds dedicate 2% or less.
The ABA will join forces with business and civic associations across the country to develop the most effective approaches to help ensure that legislators sufficiently fund state courts. There are various opportunities to develop a more unified approach to these issues. The Defense Research Institute, for example, recently produced an insightful report that recounted the recession’s effect on state court budgets.
The ABA is currently undertaking a determined effort to attract the public’s attention to the growing financial crisis in our state courts. Established this year by ABA President Steve Zack, the ABA Task Force on the Preservation of the Justice System is moving forward under the bipartisan leadership of David Boies and Ted Olson. Comprised of distinguished lawyers and judges, the Task Force is conducting hearings across the United States to gather information from jurists, business and consumer groups, law professors, and the public at large. It is seeking to identify the effect of the current crisis level of funding on court systems, and also to identify potential improvements that could be developed and achieved with more adequate court funding. This Task Force will continue into the upcoming ABA year when I will be privileged to serve as ABA President. It is expected that the newly constituted Task Force will move forward under the leadership of Mr. Olson and Mr. Boies to achieve meaningful improvements.
The Affiliate: What advice can you offer young lawyers who are struggling to find gainful employment in this tough economy?
Robinson: It’s not possible to give young lawyers any general, blanket recommendation that would serve their specific needs. But I would encourage young lawyers to be very aggressive to seek opportunities not only in the private practice of law but also in government, legal services, and judicial clerkships. It can also be extremely rewarding to practice law in communities in which lawyers are fewer in number and legal services are greatly needed.
I did that in 1972, just 18 months out of law school. I left a larger law firm in Cincinnati to go to Northern Kentucky and start a two-person law firm with a former law school classmate. We did it from scratch. It was a wonderful professional and educational experience that gave us the opportunity to learn the practice of law from the ground up. Everywhere we turned, experienced lawyers were always willing to provide us with advice, counseling, and guidance. I am confident that today’s young lawyers can easily find experienced lawyers willing to be mentors and to provide needed guidance for those starting and building a law practice.
The Affiliate: What role can the ABA YLD play in helping you achieve your goals as ABA President?
Robinson: The challenges that I face will be new to me. Without a crystal ball, I can’t be specific in answering this question, but I can point to my record as ABA Treasurer. As Treasurer, I consistently met with and called upon the ABA YLD for the ABA’s needs and opportunities when the ABA YLD could uniquely address a particular need at a given time. The ABA YLD has tremendous talent, creativity, and energy that will always enhance the undertakings of the ABA. I treasure my relationship with the ABA YLD. I know that this relationship will continue to grow and will result in significant ABA YLD involvement in the upcoming ABA year.
The Affiliate: How has the ABA as an organization changed since 1972? What role does the ABA play in 2011?
Robinson: A lot changes over four decades. The ABA has become increasingly sophisticated in its use of technology and communications. What used to be handled with snail mail and on the telephone is today processed more quickly and efficiently over the Internet. Time is precious, and efficiency and quality of communication continue to be important to facilitate increasing amounts of responsibilities and a much wider scope of communication. We’ve grown from an association that was almost exclusively domestic and within the continental United States to an association that is increasingly global in its program of work and scope of influence. This is a trend that I see continuing in the 2011–2012 ABA year and well into the future. Skilled use of technology will continue to be essential to our association’s success, as it is crucial to the success of every individual law firm and lawyer.
The Affiliate: Do you have a mentor? If so, what role has that person played in your life and career?
Robinson: For as long as I can remember, I have always had several more experienced lawyers who have been heroes to me in the practice of law.Lawyers who set the standard for professionalism and ethics and excellence in the courtroom and across the negotiating table. Lawyers whom I looked up to as proven professionals to be emulated and consulted when questions of difficult complexity arose when my experience at the time didn’t allow me to fully analyze and resolve the issues involved. I consistently found that more experienced attorneys were consistently and generously available to me with their advice and good counsel. That advice was frequently valuable to me as I improved in the practice of law and stretched for a higher level of expertise and responsibility.
I used to think when I was a young lawyer and competing with other lawyers that experience was just part of a sales pitch that senior lawyers would point to when convincing clients to hire them. Over time, I came to learn and appreciate that experience really is a valuable factor for every professional to build on to continue to grow and expand the scope and skill level of one’s practice.
The Affiliate: If you could pick only one thing that you want to achieve during your term as ABA President, what would it be?
Robinson: I will consider the 2011–2012 ABA year in which I am privileged to serve as President of the ABA to have been very successful year if members of the Association can look back and say we achieved some of our most significant accomplishments in the toughest of financial times—and, most importantly, we did it together.