Vol. 28, No. 1

An interview with ABA President Dennis W. Archer

by Allan Head

Dennis W. Archer became the 127th president of the American Bar Association in August at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. Archer, an African American, is the first person of color elected to the highest office of the association.

Archer served two four-year terms as mayor of the city of Detroit (1994-2001), and during his last year in office was president of the National League of Cities. Since leaving the mayor’s office, Archer was elected chair of Dickinson Wright PLLC, a 200-person Detroit-based law firm with offices in Michigan and in Washington, D.C. He will retain that position while serving as ABA president. He also sits on the corporate boards of Johnson Controls Inc., Compuware Corp., and Covisiant.

Archer earned his juris doctor from Detroit College of Law, now Michigan State University Detroit College of Law, in 1970. He began practicing law thereafter, working as a trial lawyer and a partner in several Detroit firms, and serving as associate professor of the Detroit College of Law and adjunct professor at Wayne State University Law School.

In 1985 Gov. James Blanchard appointed Archer an Associate Justice of the Michigan Supreme Court. He was elected to an eight-year term the following year. In his final year on the bench, Archer was named the most respected judge in Michigan by Michigan Lawyers Weekly.

Archer has long been active in the organized bar, as president of the Wolverine Bar
Association in 1979-80, the National Bar Association in 1983-84, and the State Bar of Michigan in 1984-85. He is a Life Member of the Fellows of The American Bar Foundation and the National Bar Association; a Fellow of the International Society of Barristers; and Life Member of the Sixth Circuit Judicial Conference.

Archer has achieved national, state, and municipal leadership positions despite humble beginnings. Born in Detroit, he was raised in Cassopolis, Mich., and took his first job at the age of 8, as a caddy for a local golf course. Archer held a series of odd jobs, working his way through college and law school. He earned a bachelor of science degree in education from Western Michigan University. He then taught learning-disabled children at two Detroit public schools from 1965 to 1970 while he earned his law degree from Detroit College of Law.

In 2000, Mayor Archer was named Public Official of the Year by Governing magazine. He received an Award of Excellence and was named 1998 Newsmaker of the Year by Engineering News-Record magazine, a sister publication of Business Week. In addition, Archer has been named one of the 25 most dynamic mayors in America by Newsweek magazine; one of the 100 Most Influential Black Americans by Ebony magazine; and one of the 100 Most Powerful Attorneys in the United States by the National Law Journal.

Archer is married to Trudy DunCombe Archer, Judge of Michigan’s 36th District Court. They have two sons, Dennis W. Archer Jr. and Vincent DunCombe Archer, both of whom are graduates of the University of Michigan. Dennis Jr. works for Radio One in Detroit; Vincent lives in New York and will soon start a new job at Fusion 5, a marketing firm in Connecticut.

As chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, I have the honor of interviewing the new president of the ABA, Dennis W. Archer. In fact, my first opportunity to talk with Dennis was as we were coincidentally matched to play golf together at the Western States Bar Conference last March in Hawaii.

Dennis is an accomplished golfer—I am not. I always hit the ball at least 100 times. Dennis is much better. So it was that for two rounds of golf Dennis graciously volunteered to be my “coach.” You get to know someone pretty well after two days of golf.

From that experience and a subsequent, more formal interview, here follows an insight into the individual we have elected, and who has agreed to serve as our leader for the coming year. The opportunity to serve as president of the ABA does not present itself to everyone. The ABA is fortunate indeed to have a lawyer of Dennis Archer’s caliber prepared to serve as its leader. It is a blessing for us all that this opportunity and this person came together at this time.

Head: How did your past bar leadership opportunities with the Wolverine Bar Association [a statewide African American bar in Michigan], the National Bar Association, and the State Bar of Michigan prepare you for your term as ABA president?

Archer: Being a good follower is what has equipped me best to be a good leader. Before I was given the privilege of chairing a commission, task force, section, or the ABA Section Officers Conference, I had the privilege of serving in these groups. In working with other lawyers and watching other leaders, I have observed their skill sets, how they motivate people—or sometimes, how they don’t motivate people. And then, as president of the bars you mentioned, as well as of the National Conference of Democratic Mayors and the National League of Cities, I learned how to bring everyone to the table, respect their views, and build a consensus of where the entity wants to go. You cannot be a leader unless you have people who are willing to follow. Also, I have learned to rely on good staff and their recommendations, because they’re there long after each chair has gone by the wayside.

Head: How would you say your experience as a judge has affected your leadership abilities?

Archer: I have learned not to rush to judgment and not to make assumptions, but to gather the facts. Listening is critical, too—you can’t learn while you’re talking.

Head: And how did your experience as mayor of Detroit shape you as a lawyer and leader?

Archer: Titles are different, but the job—leader—is the same. Being mayor of the city of Detroit made me mindful of always balancing the budget and making sure we stayed within budget, at the same time trying to improve services to our citizens. And that applies to members of the American Bar Association, too, and to our sections, our divisions, leaders of state and local bars, and our affiliate organizations.
In the National League of Cities, representing some 18,000 cities, villages, and towns, there were people who were highly opinionated, strongly and passionately in love with their respective cities, and wanting to improve the quality of life for those who lived in their cities. It’s no different than for those of us who are bar leaders. We want nothing more than to improve the quality of life for our members, and the image of our profession, and to motivate the outstanding law students who represent the future of our profession. We want to provide quality continuing legal education so our lawyers can remain at the cutting edge of their profession and better service their clients. And when we lobby, whether in our state capitols or in the halls of Congress, we want to make sure that we’re out there on point with issues that deal with our profession and that are in the best interest of America, in improving the rule of law and the justice system.

Head: What type of law do you practice?

Archer: What kind of law do you need? I learned this response from Jay Foonberg, a prolific writer who advises on how to become a rainmaker and engage in client maintenance. If you answer this type of question by naming your specialty, the potential client might “pigeonhole” you. But answering this way gives me an opportunity to refer that client to whichever of our 35 practice areas would be most appropriate. But if you look at my past, you’ll find that my area has been litigation, as well as—thanks to my experience on the Michigan Supreme Court—appellate work. Also, as mayor of Detroit for eight years, I did a fair amount of lobbying on behalf of the city and of the corporate entities in the region.

Head: How about your experience as a teacher of learning-disabled children—how has that affected you as a leader?

Archer: It was a privilege to teach the learning disabled. I worked hard to prepare a lesson plan; I learned to be flexible, but to always stay focused on the end result, which was to help students learn. We’ve got a good agenda at the American Bar Association, too—you can call it a “lesson plan,” or you can call it a set of presidential initiatives.

Head: What initiatives do you intend to pursue as president of the ABA?

Archer: I intend to pursue initiatives that have been set by leaders who came before me. I will continue an emphasis on law student loan forgiveness that Bob Hirshon [2001-02] set in place. I will continue to focus on racial and ethnic diversity in the profession, which Bill Paul [1999-2000] emphasized. I will continue Martha Barnett’s [2000-01] work toward a death penalty moratorium. I will continue to address the need for greater judicial independence, a cause A.P. Carlton [2002-03] championed.

In addition, we will have a diversity conference in October in Washington that will bring together the three ABA diversity entities: the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity, the Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice, and the President’s Advisory Council on Diversity in the Profession. They will have additional support from the Commission on Women in the Profession as well as the Litigation, Business Law, and Labor and Employment Law sections. Charles Morgan, senior vice president and general counsel of BellSouth, is the individual I have chosen to lead this effort.

There will also be a women’s conference in May of 2004, which will focus on really going outside the box. The glass ceiling has been shattered, but if women who are in the practice of law put their hands on the ceiling to try to pull themselves up further, there are still shards of glass that will cut their hands. What I want to do is to remove those shards of glass—to showcase the outstanding talent of women in the legal profession, and to emphasize progression and succession.

Finally, I intend to focus on a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. The actual date of the anniversary is May 17; however, we will celebrate this not in just one day. It is a period in time that has had an enormous impact on our country. Judge Sophia Hall of Chicago will help lead state and federal judges to establish initiatives in their local schools to bring this event to life.

Head: You came from rather modest beginnings and worked a number of odd jobs through college and law school. What were some of those jobs and what did you learn from them?

Archer: I started working at the age of 8 as a caddy for the golf course. I love the game of golf, though caddying was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I set pins in a bowling alley—a job that was on its way out, because they’ve got automatic pin-setters now. I painted houses for a real estate company. I was a medical records clerk for Henry Ford Hospital here in Detroit; that was a night job. I also washed pots and pans in a dorm while I was in college at Western Michigan University. What I learned from all of these opportunities was to respect and admire people who work hard. There are wonderful people who perform in all walks of life, and they deserve our respect.

Head: Your wife, Trudy, is also in the legal profession and currently serves as Judge of Michigan’s 36th District Court. Could you tell us a little about her?

Archer: We met while teaching at the same school. She was the one who recommended I go to law school. When she made that suggestion, I thought, “Gee, that was awfully nice.” And I took her advice—I continued to teach, and went to law school at night. My wife ultimately followed me to law school; she started about eight years after I graduated, and went full-time. We’ve been married for 36 years. She was assistant corporation counsel for the city of Detroit and then she became an assistant dean at the Detroit College of Law. It was from that position that Gov. James Blanchard appointed her to the 36th District Court. She’s been there almost 15 years now.

Head: Tell us a little about your mother and father.

Archer: My dad had a third-grade education, and my mother had a high-school education. My dad had lost his arm just above his elbow before I was born. There was industry near Cassopolis, where I was raised, but given his education and his physical handicap—there was nothing like the Americans with Disabilities Act back then—my dad was limited in his job opportunities. He was a caretaker for the summer home of a gentleman who owned a tool-and-die plant. During winter, my dad would make half as much as during the summer. I was the only child—they couldn’t afford anybody else but me! We didn’t have indoor plumbing; I took a bath in a metal tub every Saturday night. We didn’t have a lot; my parents made it very plain that I was going to get a good education and if I wanted something, I needed to work for it and save for it. And that’s what I did.

Head: What is the one single thing you wish you could change about the American Bar Association?

Archer: I would change its past. I think about great lawyers and judges and what they might have brought to the debate and discussions that would have taken place in our association had lawyers of color been permitted as members before the late 1940s. I really believe that our country would be so much further ahead on the issue of race relations. Of course, now we have a bright future: I think my having the privilege to serve as president, and Robert Grey [Jr.] of Virginia being president-elect, is a major statement and bodes well for the future of our association. But if I could, that’s the one thing I would go back and change.

Head: You will be the first person of color to be president of the American Bar Association. How do you feel about being characterized as a “first”?

Archer: I embrace it as an indication that America is changing, and that the ABA is moving from its past to where we need to go in the future. Demographers have told us that “minorities” will be the majority by 2056. Corporate America is so far ahead of everybody else: When they saw this change coming, they understood they needed to get out ahead of it and market to those coming along, and you see that in print advertising and on television.

The American Bar Association is taking its rightful leadership role and saying we need to embrace diversity. I think the fact that Robert [Grey] and I have been given an opportunity to be placed in leadership positions will encourage others to earn the right to be considered for election to high office within the ABA as well. You’re seeing “firsts” all over the country, too—in Alabama, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, for example—and you see that as you look around the audience at the [ABA] Bar Leadership Institute.

Head: Do you have any comment on the financial challenges before the ABA?

Archer: First, let me say that it’s not uncommon for any organization—whether it’s an association, the city, state, or federal government, or a corporation—to be faced with financial challenges. We are no different from anyone else. We have undertaken an analysis of the cost overrun that occurred; a report came before the Board of Governors in June, and a full report to the association came before the House of Delegates in August. We have made changes to assure that it will not occur again.

Head: Is there tension within the ABA between state and local bars and ABA sections? If so, is there a solution?

Archer: I hope there is no tension. I believe it is more talk than reality. Our sections do a great job for the American Bar Association—for example, their publications and their continuing legal education programs are outstanding. State and local bars also put on outstanding programs, and the overwhelming majority of America’s lawyers attend those. I want sections and state and local bar associations to work even more closely together, to improve the quality of life for our members, to improve the image of our profession, and to serve clients by helping to create quality lawyers. That’s our mission. A house divided against itself will fall.

Head: On a lighter note, how would you describe your golf game?

Archer: My handicap is me and my clubs.

Head: If on the last hole your golf ball was about 3 feet from the pin, and you were putting for par and your golf companion said it was a “gimme,” and you thought that was a nice gesture, but that it was a few inches too far out for a “gimme,” would you putt it or take the “gimme”?

Archer: I would pick it up in a “New York heartbeat,” then I’d shake hands and sign the card. After that, I might putt it for my own satisfaction.

Allan B. Head is chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Activities and Services, and executive director of the North Carolina Bar Association.