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Vol. 33, No. 1

Common Core Values

by H. Thomas Wells

A message from ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr.

The American Bar Association’s national perspective and influence are what makes it most unique and effective. The ABA brings together bar associations and lawyers from across the country—and the world—to share best practices, to network, and to strengthen our national voice for the profession.

This said, the ABA is only as good as its components. One only has to look at the House of Delegates to note that the vast majority of those components are the state and local bars. I’m encouraged by efforts to improve programming collaboration and coordination between the ABA and the state and local bars, and I want to hear your ideas on how we can best focus our efforts and work together.

One principle is guiding me: As much as our diverse viewpoints in the bar give us strength and credibility, we need to stay focused on the common core values all lawyers share. These are the common core values that unite us as a profession and inspire us to work together.

I plan to focus on four of them: access to justice, independence of the bar and judiciary, diversity, and the rule of law. Virtually all bars are concerned about and working hard to advance these values.

Articulating and uniting on our common core values will be especially relevant during what’s likely to be the watershed event of this bar year: the November elections and transition to a new administration. While experts in our respective fields of law will weigh in on the crucial issues the candidates are debating, the ABA and its partners in the state and local bars must continue to focus on the common interests of the profession. Toward that end, I plan to spend a lot of time with the ABA Governmental Affairs Office in Washington, promoting our common core values with the new administration and Congress.

The bar plays an even more fundamental role in the political process to ensure our elections are free, fair, accessible, and accurate. That’s why the ABA has a politically balanced Standing Committee on Election Law, which has developed standards for how elections should operate. Among other things, the standards call on bar associations to encourage their members to serve as election judges and otherwise lend their legal expertise, time, and talent to the process. The ABA is distributing resources to help state and local bars do just that. Participating in the electoral process is a valuable way for lawyers to do pro bono and public service while promoting free and fair elections—a core aspect of the rule of law.

Elections are just one way our profession makes a difference. It’s easy enough for us to make a dollar but a lot harder to make a difference. This reminds us of another significant event during this bar year: the bicentennial of the birth of a model lawyer who became one of our greatest presidents. The ABA, together with state and local bars, will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s legacy by emphasizing his contributions as a lawyer, especially in connection with Law Day 2009.

One story involves Lincoln and a client named George Floyd. Floyd sent Lincoln $25 for his services. Lincoln replied with a note that said, “You must think I’m a high-priced man. You are too liberal with your money. Fifteen dollars is enough for the job. I send you a receipt for $15 and return to you a 10-dollar bill.”

Lincoln’s honesty and ethical behavior calls to mind what I’ve long cherished about being a lawyer. The profession we share with Lincoln is much more than a job or a trade. In the South, we say lawyers are “called to the bar.” Our call to the bar unites us on our common core values of access to justice, independence, diversity, and the rule of law—and they enable us to make a difference as a profession.

Access to justice

Some 80 percent of the legal needs of the poor are unmet—despite the combined efforts of legal aid-funded programs, other government and private funding, and pro bono contributions. Most states have active access to justice commissions, many of which are assisted by state and local bars, the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, the Standing Committee on Pro Bono and Public Service, the Center on Children and the Law, and the Special Committee on Death Penalty Representation. The ABA also helps expand access to justice through our Commissions on Youth at Risk; Domestic Violence; Homelessness & Poverty; Immigration; Law and Aging; Mental and Physical Disability Law; and Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice.

These entities have developed universally respected standards covering pro bono programs, public defender resources, and death penalty representation. Our resources for lawyers ultimately help victims of domestic violence, provide due process and fair treatment to people in our immigration system, and otherwise empower those who lack a strong voice in our system of justice.

When disaster strikes, the ABA’s Young Lawyers Division works with state and local bars to staff legal assistance hot-lines and other emergency response initiatives. We mobilized our members most recently in the floods of Iowa, Missouri, and Georgia, and in the tornadoes of Colorado.

Our state and local bars work with the ABA to lobby for continued funding of the Legal Services Corporation. We are grateful for participation by state and local bars every year at ABA Day, our annual lobbying activity on Capitol Hill on behalf of legal services and other core issues. With your help, the ABA was able to generate a letter of resounding support for LSC signed by all 50 state bar presidents plus bar presidents from the District of Columbia and two U.S. territories.


Another core value of our profession involves the independence of the bar and the judiciary. As an example, we’re working hard to protect the attorney-client privilege. Together with state and local bars, the ABA objected to Justice Department and other federal agency guidelines that have the practical effect of coercing corporate targets of investigations into waiving the privilege. Several agencies have modified their guidelines in response to a broad coalition of state and local bar associations, the ABA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and others. But the changes haven’t gone far enough. Legislation is the only viable way to resolve the issue.

Preserving the attorney-client privilege is not the only aspect of maintaining the bar’s independence. Through our ethics codes and disciplinary enforcement, the law is a self-regulating profession, a common core value that we must always work hard to maintain. In fact, our profession has now done so for 100 years, as we celebrate the centennial this year of the ABA’s first ethics code. But we need to stay vigilant. As a result of Enron and other debacles, the auditing side of accounting is now a federally regulated trade. The same thing can happen to lawyers if we are not attentive to potential threats, such as periodic attempts by state legislatures to remove attorney discipline from the supreme court. The surest way to protect our independence is to demonstrate our adherence to the strictest standards of ethics and professionalism. The ABA Center for Professional Responsibility works to achieve this objective—again with considerable help from state and local bars.

Of course, lawyers must also work to uphold judicial independence. It weakens the rule of law when politicians castigate judges for opinions that are legally sound but politically unpopular, and when they strip courts of operational funding. There’s also the widespread, stubborn partisanship in many state judicial elections, not to mention the confirmation process for federal judges. We must continue to sound the trumpet that politics has no place in our courts. Our judges should be—and should be perceived to be—beholden not to any particular constituency but to one thing only: the rule of law. Through our Standing Committee on Judicial Independence and Division for Bar Services, the ABA will continue to help state and local bars vigorously and quickly respond to attacks on our judiciary—an especially vulnerable target during election years.

We must also make sure that judges are competent and accountable. The ABA Model Code of Judicial Conduct provides the national standard for judicial professionalism and ethics. The ABA Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary, which is universally respected on both sides of the aisle, helps ensure that federal judicial nominees meet the highest standards of integrity, competence, and temperament.


Diversity is another core value of our profession—a value the ABA and our state and local bars take seriously for a simple reason: When gifted women and men of diverse backgrounds face systemic barriers to entering law school and practicing law, an opportunity is lost for all lawyers as we are called on to serve an increasingly complex and diverse society.

The ABA’s Diversity Center provides nationally regarded resources on pipeline programs, opportunities for minorities in the profession, and broader issues of justice. We urge state and local bars to take advantage of these resources and those of the ABA Commissions on Women, Mental and Physical Disability Law, and Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity.

Rule of law

Diversity, access to justice, and independence of the bar and the judiciary are critical to another core value of our profession: the rule of law. Shortly after the Berlin Wall fell, the ABA started to provide technical legal assistance to newly emerging democracies in the former Soviet bloc, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. Our Rule of Law Initiative is operating such programs in 47 countries primarily funded by grants from USAID and other sources rather than membership dues. These activities provide wonderful opportunities for volunteer lawyers in America to share their expertise with lawyers overseas. They also strengthen our profession’s international ties as our world becomes more global and remind us that we must promote and cherish the rule of law here at home at every opportunity.

Admiral Tim Keating, now Commander of the Pacific Command, made this point clear during his 2006 meeting with the ABA Board of Governors. When asked what the military needs most from the organized bar, he didn’t hesitate in his response: “Rule of law.” Admiral Keating’s reasoning was simple: The bar’s rule of law training overseas is far preferable to armed conflict.

The rule of law is not only an overseas issue. We have our own rule of law dilemmas here at home—questions, for example, about ensuring national security in these extraordinary times while preserving the liberties that form our society’s bedrock. The rule of law is also threatened by inadequate resources for public defenders and counsel in capital cases, lack of access to civil justice, and the vestiges of racial discrimination and injustice that continue to plague us.

On these and other difficult matters, the organized bar must continue to stand up, work together, and be heard on the rule of law’s central place in our society. This is not a partisan issue. Conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, business lawyers and human rights lawyers alike can find common ground on the core values that shape the rule of law and the legal profession’s role in it. When asked whether the ABA is conservative or liberal, I respond that only one L word defines us—lawyer.

As lawyers who share President Lincoln’s proud profession, particularly in the heated environment of an election year, let us answer the calling to stand up, speak out, and work together on issues involving access to justice, independence, diversity, and the rule of law—our common core values.

H. Thomas Wells