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Vol. 30, No. 1

An interview with Michael S. Greco

Michael S. Greco, a partner in the Boston office of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP, became the 129th president of the American Bar Association in August at the ABA Annual Meeting in Chicago.

He has been a trial lawyer, mediator, and arbitrator for 32 years, with experience in complex business and other disputes throughout New England and across the country. He joined Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham LLP in 2003, after 30 years as a partner with the former Boston firm of Hill & Barlow.

He is a graduate of Princeton University and Boston College Law School, where he served as editor-in-chief of the Boston College Law Review and class president. After law school he clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and was a fellow at the Institute of Comparative Law at the University of Florence, Italy. Prior to law school he taught English at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire.

An active ABA member since 1974, Greco has been a member of the ABA House of Delegates since 1985 and served as the Massachusetts State Delegate during 1993–2004. He chaired the ABA Section of Individual Rights & Responsibilities, the ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, the executive committee of the Conference of State Delegates, and other ABA committees.

Bar Leader interviewed Greco shortly before he began his presidential year.

Bar Leader: You have spoken extensively about creating a “renaissance of idealism” that will encourage lawyers to be of service and to remember why they became lawyers in the first place. How can state, local, and special-focus bar associations help with that effort?

Greco: I have appointed a Presidential Commission to help me implement a new initiative—the ABA Commission on the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession, whose honorary co-chairs are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Theodore Sorensen, who was legal adviser to President John F. Kennedy and participated in the creation of the Peace Corps in the early 1960s. The working chair is Mark D. Agrast of Washington, D.C. The ultimate goal is to expand opportunities for pro bono and public service work for all lawyers in America. State, local, and special-focus bar associations have a central role to play in promoting a renaissance of idealism in our profession.

One way that bar associations can help is by partnering with the ABA to publicize resources such as the online ABA guide to best practices in pro bono and public service, available on the ABA Web site at Bar leaders can also lead by example, showing their commitment to pro bono and public service by reaching out to underserved populations and forming alliances with nonprofit service organizations to better match lawyers with clients in need.

BL: Young lawyers are often called upon to be of service because they still retain some of that idealism they had in law school. Will this renaissance also involve more established lawyers, and if so, how can you help them recall the idealism that may have diminished over the years?

Greco: My “Renaissance of Idealism” initiative involves all members of the profession, whether they are new to the practice or 40-year veterans. Research conducted by the American Bar Foundation and others has shown that veteran lawyers are deeply committed to pro bono and public service work and that they perform such work to a high degree. One thing is clear—the opportunities are limitless. Take, for example, the tremendous pro bono and public service work being done by senior and semiretired lawyers across America. Rather than losing the expertise and commitment of our most experienced lawyers as they transition to life after full-time practice, we can provide the support necessary to allow them to continue to serve their communities.

BL: We know your background includes extensive work toward meeting the legal needs of the poor and of children. Could you tell us a little about that work?

Greco: I was honored to partner with Governor Dukakis in 1985–86 to appoint a commission on the Unmet Legal Needs of Children. At that time Massachusetts lacked laws that protected children in areas such as the financing of future education expenses by divorcing parents. The report and recommendations prepared by that commission led to enactment of several important new statutes protecting the legal rights of children in Massachusetts.

The Massachusetts Legal Needs for the Poor Assessment and Plan for Action, the first such comprehensive statewide project conducted in the nation, which later served as the model for a similar ABA nationwide assessment, led to significant improvements in the delivery of legal services.

BL: It sounds as if your concern is not just with pro bono service but also with community service. How can bar associations help encourage more civic involvement?

Greco: To be sure, lawyers continue to be community leaders, to fulfill the time-honored role of lawyer as public citizen, and to perform much-needed pro bono work. I applaud their efforts, and state and local bars across the country should celebrate and acknowledge those efforts in public events.

The demands of law practice, especially for solo and small firm lawyers who may not have the support services enjoyed by larger firms, are eroding the time available for community service—and eroding the stature of the profession in the process. As the legal profession becomes more specialized and we become a more mobile and less interconnected society, we simply must seek and make available new avenues for civic engagement by lawyers.

Bar associations can lead by tailoring volunteer opportunities to today’s busy lifestyles and by reaffirming the noble principles that have defined our profession from the beginning of our nation. The ABA will continue to address this issue, which is of tremendous importance for our profession and our society. I ask that bar leaders keep abreast of the work that will be performed by the ABA Renaissance Commission and support its recommendations not only in the coming year but for years to come.

BL: Related to that renaissance is another priority of yours, which is to make sure Congress adequately funds Legal Services Corporation (LSC). This seems to be an area where government relations professionals at bar associations may be able to lend a hand. Will you call on them for help?

Greco: Absolutely. Volunteer bar leaders and government relations professionals have been remarkably effective in communicating with elected representatives about the importance of legal services funding. I appeal to all state, local, and special-focus bar associations to continue and expand their partnerships with the ABA during the annual “ABA Day on the Hill” lobbying visits. The next one is scheduled for May 3–4, 2006, in Washington, D.C. In addition to joining forces next spring, bar associations can work year-round to educate federal, state, and local lawmakers and executives about the unmet legal needs of Americans. Every legal-needs assessment that has been conducted in the past 20 years has demonstrated that 70–80 percent of the legal needs of the poor in America go unaddressed year after year.

BL: When LSC was at risk in the ’80s, you were co-founder and co-chair of Bar Leaders for Preservation of Legal Services for the Poor. Could you tell us about some of the work that group did?

Greco:The commitment of bar leaders from across the country to preserving the LSC really did save federal funding for legal services in the 1980s. I am as proud of that effort as I am of any initiative I have undertaken as a bar leader.
I believe that we need a recommitment to legal services in order to not only preserve but expand funding for the LSC. The organized bar must also take the lead in examining access to justice issues at the state and local levels. The ABA Task Force on Access to Civil Justice, will examine the way in which legal services for the disadvantaged and vulnerable are delivered and funded in America. This task force will also examine an idea whose time I believe has come: the idea of a defined right to counsel in certain serious civil matters—those that threaten an indigent person’s family, home, or health. Many nations have recognized such a right for more than a century.

BL: You have also identified maintaining the independence of the legal profession and the judiciary as a priority. How would you characterize today’s political climate when it comes to the judiciary and the legal profession, and how can the profession’s leaders help make a difference?

Greco: No one has described our independent judiciary better than Chief Justice Rehnquist, who aptly termed it the “crown jewel” of our system of government. During the past year I have traveled as ABA president-elect to many of the former Soviet republics that are struggling to create their democracies and stable legal systems. I have spoken with chief judges, government officials, and lawyers in countries such as Georgia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and in the Czech Republic I spoke with Iraqi judges being trained by U.S. judges and court personnel at the ABA CEELI Institute. I find it very troubling that while emerging democracies around the world are striving to copy our independent judicial and legal systems in order to promote the rule of law, some in our own country appear bent on tearing down the very institution that guarantees the rights and liberties of all Americans.

We of course cherish our right to criticize actions of public officials, including judges, and this is not the first time in our history that we have witnessed conflict between the judiciary the other two branches. But I believe that the substance and tone of the rhetorical attacks on the judiciary that we are seeing now represent a serious threat to our democratic traditions. Criticism of judges is becoming more personal and vituperative, threatening to diminish respect for an institution that relies on public confidence in its rulings. Legislative proposals to cut budgets in retaliation for judicial decisions and to strip courts of jurisdiction to hear entire classes of cases are a direct affront to our constitutional and legal traditions and threaten to relegate the judiciary to the status of a dependent agency, not a separate and independent branch of government. We cannot allow this to happen.

Bar leaders, and all lawyers, are in a unique position to educate the public, elected officials, opinion makers, and members of their communities about the fundamental concept of the separation of powers and the invaluable role that courts play in resolving the most difficult disputes in society, and in preserving our republic by serving as a check on the power of the government over the lives of citizens.

I have appointed the ABA Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers in order to address the need for expanded public education—from grade school through adulthood—about these issues. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley are honorary co-chairs, and attorney Robert H. Rawson Jr. of Cleveland is the working chair of this distinguished group. This commission, which will work closely with educators and civic leaders throughout the country, comprises the country’s leading educational organizations, retired members of Congress and the judiciary, civic leaders, and bar leaders who will work to improve civics curricula and encourage Americans to engage in a responsible, well-informed dialogue about the role of courts in our society. The commission will also address ways in which the ABA can be of assistance to the three branches of government in maintaining the balance inherent in the separation of powers principle that the nation’s founders created, and that has allowed our democracy to survive for more than two centuries.

BL: Another priority for you is diversity in the legal profession. Could you expand on that a bit?

Greco: I am honored to follow in the footsteps of two outstanding ABA presidents, Dennis Archer and Robert Grey, who became the first lawyers of color to lead the association and are eloquent and persuasive advocates for an inclusive and broadly diverse profession. One of the key challenges, of course, is filling the pipeline for young people of color to pursue careers in the law. I have been working for the past six months with the leadership of the ABA Diversity Center in planning a major pipeline conference that will take place in Houston on November 6–7, and I will work during my term as president with bar leaders nationwide to promote innovative approaches to enhancing diversity in law schools, law firms, government offices, and anywhere lawyers are employed. I have also been working with the ABA Commission on Mental and Physical Disability Law to plan a major conference focusing on lawyers with disabilities. If we all commit ourselves to expanding opportunity, we can bring our nation closer to fulfilling its greatest promise and to ensuring equal justice for all.

BL: Your past leadership experience included being president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, the New England Bar Association, and the New England Bar Foundation. What did you learn from leading a state bar and a regional bar and foundation?

Greco: My state and regional bar experiences taught me that the people in our communities look to us, the lawyers, to protect their rights, to protect the Constitution and Bill of Rights, to protect the institutions of our democracy, to ensure that the injured and the poor obtain justice—and that if we fail to do so, no one else will do it, and our society will deteriorate. It became clear to me that an independent legal profession and an independent judiciary are what make our democracy work, despite the negativism about lawyers and judges engaged in by some of our government leaders and some members of the public who may be confused about our roles. And it is the organized bar—the ABA and state and other bar associations throughout America working together—that enable individual lawyers to come together as a force to do what must be done to maintain the values in our society. This is why I am proud to be a lawyer and proud to be a member of the organized bar—and so honored to have the opportunity to serve as president of the 400,000-member ABA this year. And I am confident that we will accomplish a great deal in the coming year—working together.

BL: Would you tell us a little about your family and how they perhaps influenced you as a lawyer and bar leader?

Greco: I came to America in 1950 from a small village in Italy at the age of seven with my American-born mother and Italian father and four siblings. For the first seven years of my life I lived in a war-ravaged Europe, where governments were unstable. That experience has given me a dual perspective. I have seen how governments and daily life are affected by the absence or instability of the rule of law. I have also seen how Americans have come to regret measures taken in haste by our government, for example in World War II with the internment of Japanese-Americans. One day we will be out of the current terrorism crisis. We do not want to look back in shame or regret at the measures that we are allowing to take place in these difficult years—or that our government is taking—in the name of national security. We must strike a balance between securing our nation and securing our freedoms as citizens. We must be careful and measured in our actions and decisions. We should not allow our liberties to be taken away. They are very precious and very difficult to regain once lost.

I am the first person in my family to become a lawyer. I knew that I would be a lawyer at a young age, because it became clear to me even in grade school that lawyers are of critical importance in helping to make our communities better, in solving society’s and individuals’ problems, in safeguarding constitutional rights, and in helping to make our democracy work by protecting people from the excesses of government. My parents were always very supportive of me and of my strong interest in improving society for the benefit of all, no matter what their social or economic status might be. I attended a university—Princeton—whose credo of “Princeton in the Nation’s Service” has attracted and helped to shape students since the time that alumnus Woodrow Wilson was its president, before he became president of the United States. I was attracted to a law school, Boston College, where Dean Robert F. Drinan—who last year received the ABA’s highest honor, the ABA Medal—personified the lawyer as public citizen. These are some of the influences that led me to become a lawyer, to become active in the organized bar, and to prepare me for the wonderful opportunity of serving as ABA president.