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Leadership and the Rule of Law

James M Durant III


  • Be proud of what you do as a lawyer day-to-day to ensure and protect human rights.
  • Human lives matter, and whether you work at the national, international, or state and local level, in this circumstance, you are the unsung hero in the law.
  • Lead.
Leadership and the Rule of Law
Photo courtesy of James M. Durant III

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Leadership is the art and science of influencing others to accomplish a goal. One constant denominator that binds American Bar Association (ABA) volunteers together is that we are all leaders. Whether as committee members, group members, task force members, or even president of the ABA, we lead others. And, in our bar leadership, we are tied, informed, narrated, and held accountable to our four profound mission pillars that define and distinguish us and what we do: serving our members, improving the profession, eliminating bias and enhancing diversity, and advancing the rule of law.

In a recent ABA Journal article, then–ABA Executive Director Jack Rives said:

Our association’s four goals are much more than mere words. They are calls to action: to serve our members; improve our profession; eliminate bias and enhance diversity; and advance the rule of law. It’s a journey on which we have made consistent progress as our member-leaders and staff rise to the occasion to help bring our goals closer to reality.

Pulling upon 32 years of experience leading others in the U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Department of Energy and 30 years of leading others in the ABA and several other 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(6) nonprofit entities, I entered the United Nations’ Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on December 16, 2022, to address world leaders on the essential concepts of responsible leadership, human rights, and constitutional ethics. My address stemmed from the UN publication Responsible Leadership: Essential to the Achievement of the UN Sustainable Goals (Routledge, 2022), which I co-authored with a distinguished international group of world leaders and academics. As one of three North Americans who authored the publication, I was honored to be the only North American invited to Geneva to deliver remarks.

As sworn officers of the court, lawyers are responsible leaders in our system of laws and our clients. We are the guardians of judicial trust, imbued with the essential concepts of governance, protection, and upholding the American systems of law—essentially, the rule of law as it exists. And because the law touches virtually all aspects of the concourse of our humanity, our basic charter as lawyers is exceptionally broad and phenomenally diverse with the profound narrative of service. And this service is ultimately responsive to the preservation of democracy, a time-honored belief that we hold closely as Americans, a concept that even some Americans have sworn to uphold and defend with their very lives (i.e., esteemed members of the U.S. military). On a much broader platform, most world leaders have similar social constructs, but the foundation is the same: leadership. They, too, operate under established rules of law and are thus governed by principles enshrined in law.

According to the ABA:

The rule of law is a set of principles, or ideals, for ensuring an orderly and just society. Many countries throughout the world strive to uphold the rule of law where no one is above the law, everyone is treated equally under the law, everyone is held accountable to the same laws, there are clear and fair processes for enforcing laws, there is an independent judiciary, and human rights are guaranteed for all.

And according to the United Nations (UN):

[T]he rule of law is a principle of governance in which all persons, institutions and entities, public and private, including the State itself, are accountable to laws that are publicly promulgated, equally enforced and independently adjudicated, and which are consistent with international human rights norms and standards. It requires as well measures to ensure adherence to the principles of supremacy of the law, equality before the law, accountability to the law, fairness in the application of the law, separation of powers, participation in decision-making, legal certainty, avoidance of arbitrariness, and procedural and legal transparency.

When we speak of a rule of law for the practice of law, instinctually the ABA Rules of Professional Conduct come to mind—those essential principles that guide us in how we practice law. This can be something as simple as zealous representation of our clients within the bounds of the law (Rule 1.3: Diligence) or even not being dishonest (Rule 8.4: Misconduct). These rules ensure a healthy and ethical practice of law, guiding lawyers to serve with dignity and honor. And in the same way, constitutional ethics guides sovereigns as they govern people and resources. Through constitutional ethics, matters such as governmental checks and balances are implicit, thus providing for good, responsible government. In my chapter in Responsible Leadership, I define responsible leadership from a historical perspective stemming from ancient Rome to the UN Collective Veto Power and the five nations that collectively constitute this special UN council: the United States, Russia, China, France, and the United Kingdom. And while I was at the Palace of Nations, I spoke to the rule of law. I highlighted the works of the ABA Rule of Law Initiative and the ABA Criminal Justice Section’s International Standards Task Force. Needless to say, the ABA was well received at the United Nations that day in December as we spoke to the essential concepts of responsible leadership.

But what is the antithesis of being a responsible leader or a responsible lawyer? In the UN publication I spoke of leaders, or more specifically, sovereigns, who exhibited irresponsible leadership, such as using chemical agents on their own citizens for exercising what we in the United States call First Amendment rights, such as speech and peaceful assembly. I also spoke of sovereigns who eschewed basic environmental trust and responsibility by taking their counties out of the negotiation chambers with other world leaders engaged in diplomatic environmental dialogue, as seen in the abrupt exit of the United States from the Paris Agreement, commonly referred to as the Paris Climate Agreement. Fortunately, we re-entered the Paris Agreement two years ago. As lawyers, we are officers of the court, but an irresponsible lawyer brings into question fairness in justice. When a lawyer violates the Model Rules, her or his name alone is not at issue; what is at issue and what people read in the headlines is, “Attorney disbarred for stealing client’s funds.” This is what others hear and see. In their minds, it constitutes a general indictment of the legal system. We lawyers do not operate in a vacuum; we are a collective guided by established principles, rules, and professional expectations. Essentially, when one lawyer acts irresponsibly or in some unfortunate circumstances, criminally, her or his actions are imputed to the profession as a whole.

And last but certainly not least, in the UN publication, my chapter also focuses on human rights, which we addressed at the UN’s Palais des Nations by reflecting upon the works of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and President Nelson Mandela. According to the United Nations:

Human rights are rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status. Human rights include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Lawyers ensure and protect human rights, especially in the arenas of criminal justice, immigration, and social justice. Whether we are working for death penalty reform, ensuring clean water in an American city, or even securing the rights of an American citizen murdered by law enforcement officers presumably acting under the color of law, much of what we do ensures and protects basic rights of life. In 2015, during the ABA London Sessions, we celebrated human rights with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Influenced by the 550 AD Justinian Code, the Magna Carta “spoke to the rights of man. When I walked across the grounds of the Palais des Nations and saw the 39-foot-tall, red Broken Chair monument with one leg blown off, symbolizing the thousands of children who have lost their limbs to indiscriminately planted land mines, I was profoundly reminded of the work we do as lawyers to protect the rights of people.

Be proud of what you do as a lawyer day-to-day to ensure and protect human rights. Human lives matter, and whether you work at the national, international, or state and local level, in this circumstance, you are the unsung hero in the law. Lead!