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Vol. 29, No. 1

An interview with Robert J. Grey Jr

by Allan Head

Robert J. Grey Jr., a partner in the Richmond, Va., office of Hunton & Williams, became the 128th president of the American Bar Association at the ABA Annual Meeting in Atlanta. Grey, former chair of the ABA House of Delegates, is the second person of color to head the association.

Grey’s work at Hunton & Williams focuses on administrative matters before state and federal agencies. He works in mediation and other forms of dispute resolution on both state and national levels, and represents corporate and industry interests in the legislative arena.

Grey earned his J.D. from Washington and Lee University in Virginia in 1976, and his B.S. from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1973. Prior to joining Hunton & Williams in 2002, Grey was a partner in several Virginia law firms, including LeClair Ryan, 1995-2002, Mays & Valentine, 1985-1995, and Grey & Wesley, 1978-1982.

Grey has long been active in the ABA, as chair of the policy-making House of Delegates from 1998 to 2000, the association’s second-highest office, and as a member of the Board of Governors. Grey chaired the ABA Committee on Research about the Future of the Legal Profession from 2000 to 2002, which analyzed trends affecting the practice of law and identified steps the profession should take to preserve and advance its fundamental values. Grey also chaired the Virginia delegation in the House of Delegates from 1994 to 1998, and the Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession from 1992 to 1995.

Grey has chaired the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Richmond Partnership, the Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control Board, and Youth Matters, and was president of the Richmond Crusade for Voters.

In 2000 Grey was honored as one of Dominion Power’s “Strong Men and Women in the Community,” and was awarded the UNCF/The College Fund’s Flame Bearer Award in 1998. He also received the Wiley A. Branton Award in 1998 and the Gertrude E. Rush Award in 2003 from the National Bar Association, the Distinguished Leadership Award from the National Association for Community Leadership in 1997, and the Alumni Star Award from VCU School of Business in 1995.

Allan B. Head, chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, and executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association, interviewed Grey shortly before he began his presidential year.

Head: Could you please tell us about some of your initiatives for your presidential year?

Grey: I will have one major initiative, the American Jury Project. After consultation with members of the association, bar leaders around the country at the state and local level, and section leadership, I was encouraged to undertake an examination of the improvement of the American jury system.

I floated that idea not only within the association but also with other legal organizations that complement our work, like the American College of Trial Lawyers, the National Center for State Courts, the Conference of Chief Justices, the Defense Research Institute, and the American Trial Lawyers Association. They were all very encouraging, and actually asked to participate. As opposed to just an ABA initiative, I see this as a profession initiative led by the ABA.

All those associations are part of an advisory committee that will work to develop what I hope will be a set of ABA standards offered to the House of Delegates at our Midyear Meeting in Salt Lake City in 2005. I also expect that they will sponsor a symposium at Washington and Lee University in October and encourage further discussion and refinement of ways to improve the American jury system.

And complementing the working group and the advisory group to set up these standards, I’m also going to appoint a blue ribbon commission to take the public education side. We need to encourage higher levels of participation by informing citizens that jury service is a high calling of citizenship and an important way to participate in the way our government functions.

Part of this effort will be to also remind state administrators, both within the court system and in our state legislatures, that support for and improvement of the jury system is in all of our best interests in promoting the democracy that we have in this country.

And finally, we will encourage the active participation of juries in the deliberations in which they are engaged. In some, but not all courts, jurors can take notes, ask questions, and the like. The idea of active jury participation, I think, elevates the importance of jurors helping us to resolve our disputes, and also brings us into the 21st century. We are a much more informed society now, and I believe jurors can take a much more active role in trials.

Head: Will this also involve things such as increased pay and better facilities for jurors?

Grey: Yes. We want to create healthy environments for juries, we want to provide jurors with the tools to do their work, and we want to create the support for jurors to do what we ask them to do, and to promote their respect as being just as important as judges and lawyers in this process of trial work.

Head: I’ve heard you say that it’s a great time to be a lawyer. What are the key issues that you think lawyer leaders ought to be keeping their eye on?

Grey: It is a great time to be a lawyer and it is also, I think, a challenging time to be a lawyer. I think that we have not only great opportunities but equally as great responsibilities. One of those is a continuing vigilance on the independence of our judiciary. I think that is as much a local focus as it is a national focus; local and state bar associations can play a significant role in making sure that we promote the independence of the judiciary as a third, coequal branch of government.

I think it is also important for us as the American Bar Association to think very creatively and imaginatively about ways we can aid and support state and local bar associations. This is one of the ongoing opportunities, I think, in which the American Bar Association can best demonstrate its leadership.

Part of that is providing the resources for state and local bar associations to continue to do the good work that they’ve done in the past. We need to encourage expanded thinking about ways we can improve our membership base, deliver information that’s useful and timely to our members, and improve the practice.

Another challenge, I think, is that lawyers have to think proactively about how to bring services to individuals in a way that encourages them to feel comfortable with us. The public needs to know that lawyers will help them solve their problems and gain access for them to our dispute resolution process. And sometimes that means the unbundling of legal services, providing discrete representation in ways that allow for some self-help.

I think we’re going to see a continued development in the area of pro se representation. People will try to figure out how to resolve disputes on their own, particularly as they have greater access to information. We’ve got to help guide them in that. It’s not enough to say, “You can’t do without us.” The way we should think, I believe, is to promote people’s use of the law in constructive ways—and when they need us, we need to be there.

I think pro se is a tremendous opportunity. I think there are some things that people can do on their own. And quite frankly, it frees up the system.

Head: Your leadership path to your year as president of the ABA has primarily been by working your way through various ABA responsibilities, rather than by being president of a state or local bar.

Grey: The ABA has two very distinct tracks to its presidency. One is through chairing the House, and the other is more related to chairing a number of sections and divisions, and bar presidency at the state and local level. I would say that mine is a combination of the two. My involvement in the ABA came from my involvement in the Virginia State Bar and being president of the Young Lawyers Conference of that bar, serving on the bar’s council, chairing a number of committees, including the ethics committee, and being part of the bar’s first committee on diversity. So I think I owe much of my involvement in the ABA to my state bar involvement.

And then as I got involved in the ABA, I became very, very active in the House. I started as a Young Lawyer Delegate, and ran for a position to represent the state bar, then ran to represent the state as the state delegate, and then got involved in a number of committees in the House, including the Select Committee and Rules and Calendar, and then decided to run for chair of the House.

But also, working on the other side of the ABA, I was on the Council of State and Local Government and have been a member of a number of sections, including General Practice, Business Law, Administrative Law, and Litigation. I chaired the Commission on Diversity after Dennis [Archer] and was on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense and a number of other committees.

I have seen the ABA from a lot of different vantage points. And I hope that these experiences have given me the wherewithal to provide effective leadership to the ABA.

Head: How has your practice shaped your leadership?

Grey: I think my practice has been equally as diverse as my bar participation. I started out in state government with the National Labor Relations Board. I’ve also had my own practice where I was a small firm in the city of Richmond. I have been a state administrator, as chairman of the Liquor Commission, so I have been a client of the Attorney General. I have been in a small law firm, I have been in a medium-sized law firm, and I’m now in a large law firm. And I’ve been a litigator, I’ve been a transactional lawyer, I’ve been an administrative lawyer, I’ve been a lobbyist, and a mediator. So I think that I have worn as many hats as any one lawyer can wear in a career, and all of that has helped me better understand the delivery of legal services and the opportunities for us to be of support to the clients that we serve.

And I’ve done both criminal and civil work, so it’s not been on one side of the ledger. I think that’s an important aspect.

Head: In your career, I know you’ve been involved with the Richmond Chamber of Commerce, and I think maybe that gives you a neat perspective to comment on the tension, if there is any, between the business community and the legal community.

Grey: That’s an interesting observation because, as much as you describe it as “tension,” it also has been a real partnership, I think, and will continue to be. I think lawyers have always had a deep sense of civic participation and have always been available not only to lead but also to help in the development of their community, both from a political sense and from a civic sense. It is not unusual in my community for lawyers to be chairs of the Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with the corporate community.

It is also not unusual to see lawyers serving as governor or mayor or city council or school board member. I think that is indicative of how lawyers believe they can be contributing members of society, besides being good stewards of their clients’ needs.

So I see it more as a partnership and an opportunity to help shape the way we work together, and the way the corporate community responds to the demands on it, more than I see tension. And we shouldn’t look at tension as being all bad. Tension can be good because it can cause us to think outside the box, as we like to say, and be more creative and imaginative about the ways that we can serve society.

At the national level, the ad campaign from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gives us a chance to articulate our position.

Head: How important is it to you or the ABA that you are the second lawyer of color to be president?

Grey: I think what it does is it signifies that the ABA is ready and able to support leadership from all of its sources. We’ve got Armando Lasa-Ferrer from Puerto Rico as secretary-elect, we’ve got Steve Zack, who’s Cuban American, as chair of the House, and you’ve got me, an African American, as president. And we’ve had women presidents, we’ve had women chairs, and we’ve got more on the way.

So I think if there is significance, it is the fact that the ABA has determined that we’re open for business from all of our members, and that’s where we’re going to draw our leadership in the future.

Head: Tell me a little bit about your mom and dad.

Grey: My dad was career military. I remember at his funeral I remarked that while I didn’t serve in the United States Armed Services, I felt like I still had a military background and had put in my 20 years under a Master Sergeant for the United States Army, which is what my father was during his active service.

And he instilled in me, I think, a sense of what a work ethic is and means to your career. He was very exacting in terms of, “If you start something, you’d better finish it” and, “You have certain responsibilities as a part of the family and you’d better carry them out, or suffer the consequences.” And so I had this sense of responsibility and a work ethic growing up that I think has helped me today.

My mom was the more sensitive, compassionate person in the family. She was an educator—a teacher, a librarian, and principal—and she taught me to take care of and support people. My dad was compassionate, too, but in a much different way. His was a sense of purpose and of achievement and excellence; my mom’s was that love and kindness and respect for people are important. I’ve never forgotten this side of my education.

My parents’ influence on me has been great and I still reflect on their contributions to my way of thinking every day. My dad passed away two months after 9/11, but my mom is still alive—and she’ll be in Atlanta.

And then I have wonderful support from Katherine Cabell, who’s my significant other, and makes sure that I stay focused, and has been the love of my life. And her twin daughters, Katherine and Margaret. Katherine, her twin daughters, my brother, and my mother are sort of my immediate family. The twins are grown now—one lives in Washington, one lives in Richmond—but they travel with us from time to time. They’ll be in Atlanta, and my brother will be there, too.

Head: Where did you grow up? Did you move around because of the military career?

Grey: Some. Not as much as others. I got my education in Virginia. My father would take us in the summer to different places. I spent my first five years in France. I couldn’t speak any English when I came back to the States. I spent summers in Pennsylvania, where my father was stationed. I went to an Urban League camp as an adolescent and spent summers from the time I was 12 to the time I was 17 at camp outside of Worcester in Massachusetts.

So I had a very nice childhood. I had a lot of support from my parents, and opportunities to interact with kids from different parts of the country. I think that helped me in understanding different interests and recognizing that there were more ideas than those that I was exposed to on an everyday basis growing up.

Head: If you were going to change one thing about the ABA, what would that be?

Grey: That’s a good question. I think if I had to change one thing, I would like for us to be the technology leaders in the way we retrieve, analyze, and disseminate information for our members. Maybe we already are. I see that as so important in today’s society in trying to provide opportunities for our members—that we have a way of getting to them valuable, timely, well-packaged information to help them do a better job.

Head: As you have looked at the ABA membership numbers, do you feel at all concerned about the growth of ABA membership in proportion to the growth of the number of lawyers in the profession?

Grey: That’s a good question, too. I think on balance, you have to look at this from a macro level and recognize that we are in greater competition for members’ attention and financial participation. And recognizing that competition, I think we can never take what we do for granted. We should always be looking for the opportunity to provide cutting-edge advantages, both from a technological standpoint and from a programmatic standpoint, to provide members with new ideas to advance their own careers. Because I think in that way, we are doing what they expect us to do.

I think that this is something that we have to always remember. I don’t think there’s ever a time, even if membership were soaring out the ceiling, that we would want to stop working on more creative and innovative ways of serving our members.

Head: Again, it sounds like you see technology as the key.

Grey: I do. I think it is just such an important part of our lives, and it is the fastest moving frontier that we’re working on, and no one can see the end on this. The more we provide in terms of guidance, information, and opportunity, the more we end up becoming a valuable resource for our members.

Head: As you know, every 10 years, the ABA takes a comprehensive look at its governance structure. What’s your take on the governance discussion that’s going on now?

Grey: I served on the last Corporate Governance Committee, and there’s always discussion about balancing the interests of our constituents within the ABA. I think that’s helpful. I think that ought to be done every time we have one of these. It’s not an issue of tension; it’s an issue of what makes sense for this association going forward. And that evokes, I think, a spirited discussion about how we ought to do this. And we ought to have those conversations.

I mean, we’re lawyers—we have opinions. And thank goodness, we create forums for the discussion of those opinions. This is a wonderful forum. I think whoever thought of this process, that every 10 years, we really do a top-to-bottom analysis of our governance, was right on.

This is what we ought to be doing as an association, because things change. Life changes. And we need to be responsive to those changes, to make our association better.

Now, having said that, we’ve created a very balanced association and have modified it as we’ve gone along, I think, very thoughtfully. And I have every confidence that we’ll do that with this Governance Committee and through its recommendations as we debate them.

So I’m encouraged that we’re doing it. I look forward to seeing what they offer us, by way of recommendations, as they solicit the suggestions and comments of our members.

Head: Is there anything that we didn’t ask and that you would like to add to the interview?

Grey: I think that it’s important, Allan, that we recognize the tremendous professionalism of our staff at the ABA and of bar staff at the state and local level. I think the ABA is one of the luckiest professional associations in the world to have the staff that we have. And I think that is true at the state and local levels as well.

As I have traveled around the country, I have been most impressed by the excitement that I see in the relationship between the volunteer leadership and professional staff of the ABA. And in the opportunity that I’ve had to participate in state and local activities, the energy that I see between volunteers and professional staff has been energizing to me and has given me a sense of confidence that the profession is in good hands and that we will get the job done. Whatever it is that we’re asked to do, we will meet the challenge.