2013-14 Incoming ABA President: James R. Silkenat

Volume 38, Number 6


Melissa J. Healy is an Assistant Editor of The Affiliate and an Associate in the Portland, Oregon, office of Stoel Rives LLP.

James R. (Jim) Silkenat will become the next President of the American Bar Association in August 2013, when he officially takes office at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The Affiliate recently had an opportunity to interview Mr. Silkenat, who has a long and distinguished history with the ABA, and ask him about his background and plans for the upcoming year.

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James R. (Jim) Silkenat will become the next President of the American Bar Association in August 2013 when he officially takes office at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. The Affiliate recently had an opportunity to interview Mr. Silkenat, who has had a long and distinguished history with the ABA, and ask him about his background and plans for the upcoming year.

The Affiliate: How did you become involved in the ABA?

Silkenat: In the mid-1970s, I was Chair of the Council of New York Law Associates (now the Lawyers Alliance for New York). The ABA was sending its first Delegation to China and put together a group that consisted of different types of lawyers: a litigator, a tax lawyer, a criminal lawyer, a judge, and so on. They decided to send a young lawyer, too, and I was asked to go. I joined the ABA before the trip.

The first transactions on which I worked as a new attorney were international matters, and nearly my whole career has been focused on international corporate law. After spending three weeks in China, I became interested specifically in the issues there. I started writing articles and appeared on TV to talk about China. Eventually, I was asked to chair the ABA’s Committee on the People’s Republic of China, which focused on providing information to U.S. lawyers about legal developments there. I chaired that Committee for several years and during that time also became Legal Counsel to the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation.

The Affiliate: What positions have you held within the ABA?

Silkenat: After I finished chairing the China Committee, I held various officer positions in the International Law Section. Eventually, I chaired the Section.

Next, I was elected to serve a two-year term as Chair of the ABA Section Officers Conference, which coordinates and supervises the work of all ABA sections and divisions. At the time, there were a number of governance issues concerning the role of the sections within the larger ABA. I had enjoyed and benefited from my section responsibilities and this role seemed like the logical next step.

After my time with the Section Officers Conference, I chaired the ABA’s Membership Committee for two years. My goal was to increase outreach and membership, and it was an exciting opportunity to tell other attorneys why the ABA is a worthwhile organization and why it could add value to their legal careers.

From there, I was elected to the ABA Board of Governors for three years, where I chaired the Board’s Program and Planning Committee, overseeing the ABA’s substantive programs and projects. Next, I was elected as ABA State Delegate from New York, where I chaired New York’s Delegation to the ABA House of Delegates for nine years. As a Member of the House of Delegates, I was on the ABA Nominating Committee and served two terms as the Chair of the Committee. The Nominating Committee nominates ABA officers and members of the ABA Board of Governors.

From there, I ran for President of the Association.

I’ve also served as a member of various commissions. I was a member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and chaired its Resolution Committee. I also served as a member of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.

The Affiliate: What made you decide to run for President of the ABA?

Silkenat: I have worked on a wide variety of substantive matters in the ABA, and I thought serving as President would be an opportunity to continue working on issues that are among the most important to the legal profession, from legal education to diversity.

The Affiliate: What goals do you hope to achieve during your term as ABA President?

Silkenat: I will be working on several issues. I have been very involved with the ABA YLD and the Law Student Division, and two issues are particularly relevant to these groups. The first is legal education. Last year, the ABA created a task force dedicated to the future of legal education, and it will be reporting its findings in November 2013. Essentially, we’re looking for ways to shape legal education for the future to reflect changes in the legal profession. Legal education in the United States is the best in the world, and we have an obligation to make sure that young lawyers are equipped to handle the challenges they may face.

The second, related issue is the creation of a legal access job corps. The job corps would be designed to address two different issues—lack of access to justice for many communities in the United States and lack of job opportunities for graduating law students. Our aim is to connect the two problems—underemployed lawyers and underserved communities. Some programs like this are already in the works, many through law schools or bar associations. For example, in South Dakota, the legislature has agreed to fund younger lawyers to go to counties in the state that don’t have access to lawyers. The ABA is the only party that can put such a program together on a national basis. We want to find out what programs are sustainable and might serve as a model for the rest of the country.

The Affiliate: What will be your “Presidential Areas of Focus” during your term?

Silkenat: I will have several Presidential Areas of Focus during my term. In addition to legal education, court funding, and diversity, I hope we can continue our work on gun violence issues, election law reform, and immigration. With respect to gun violence, I will push for a national conversation on gun violence issues, in the hopes that lawyers can lead where our legislators have failed to do so. With respect to election law reform, I will continue the ABA’s support for fair and open elections where candidates are chosen based on the policies they endorse, not the money they raise. With respect to immigration, I will advocate for legislation that leaves room for immigrants to realize their dreams and enrich our society.

The Affiliate: How can young lawyers get involved with the Presidential Areas of Focus?

Silkenat: I hope to have ABA YLD members involved in each of these areas. As ABA President-Elect, I make more than 700 appointments to various ABA entities and will have considerable ABA YLD involvement in that process.

The Affiliate: Why would you encourage attorneys, both new and experienced, to join the ABA?

Silkenat: My answer is the same, no matter the age or experience of the lawyer: the ABA helps make you a better lawyer. It helps all lawyers learn new skills, improve existing ones, make new contacts with clients or other lawyers, increase their visibility, and enhance their professional experience.

The Affiliate: Have you had any mentors during your career? If so, how have they shaped your career?

Silkenat: Throughout my career, I’ve been lucky enough to work with many of the finest lawyers from all around the country, and I’ve learned from each of them. Within the ABA, I’ve had the chance to work with almost all of the Presidents over the past 30 years, and each has influenced me. Two that come to mind immediately are Jerry Shestack, who I worked with early in my career, and Bob MacCrate, particularly on legal education issues. Martha Barnett and Bill Paul are also role models on how I hope to serve as President.

The Affiliate: As in many years past, this year’s ABA Day focused on funding for the Legal Services Corporation. In what ways do you plan to continue the ABA’s advocacy for increased support for this agency? Also, what about increased funding for courts?

Silkenat: The Legal Services Corporation has probably been the biggest priority at ABA Day since its inception. It will remain so for the foreseeable future. It is critically important to many Americans because it is their only access to needed legal assistance.

Court funding is a problem at both the state and federal levels. There is already a strong ABA program dedicated to state courts, where the ABA works with individual states to try to convince legislatures to increase court funding. Now, with sequestration, some of the bad things we’ve seen happen at the state level are likely to happen at the federal level. Unless the sequestration problem gets fixed, it’s going to hurt citizens all around the country. The ABA must play a role in reminding the public why courts are important, why they need adequate resources to function, and why they can’t be closed one or two days a week.

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