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Michael Franck

A Legacy For The Profession

by Jeanne Gray, Director, ABA Center for Professional Responsibility
originally printed in the August, 1994, edition of The Professional Lawyer

On May, 31, 1994, a great man was paid tribute by the legal profession he had nurtured and sustained throughout his life. For his outstanding contributions to the profession, Michael Franck was honored by the American Bar Association with the establishment of the Michael Franck Professional Responsibility Award.

On June 28, 1994, Michael Franck passed away leaving a legacy of the law as a high calling, of justice as a defendable right, and of public service as the beacon of a life's work.

For those of us fortunate enough to have been linked with Mike throughout his career, we learned through him that the law was illuminating and empowering and that reform was only one good debate away.

As stated by his colleague Robert Hetlage, past Chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility, on the occasion of the establishment of the Michael Franck Professional Responsibility Award:

You have done more than any lawyer I have known in my many years of work in the Bar to advance the cause of professional practice, by example, by personal commitment and dedication, by foresight and a remarkable sense of what is right and what works, by sound judgment and leadership, and by pure hard work.

The seeds of Michael Franck's journey as the champion of professional responsibility began in New York City in the early days of professional regulation. For a decade he dominated the scene as the Chief Litigator of the Committee on grievances of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. There he acquired the reputation as tough minded prosecutor and persuasive advocate.

In recognizing his sound judgment, great intellect and political acumen, the American Bar Association made a courageous and visionary selection by naming Michael Franck to serve as Reporter to the ABA Special Committee on Evaluation of Disciplinary Enforcement, known as the
"Clark Committee" for its chair, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Tom Clark.

The Clark Report, meticulously crafted under the guiding hand of its reporter, sounded the clarion call for dramatic reform within professional regulation. For those who knew its reporter, the Clark Report's impact as the revolutionary seminal study was predictable because Mike Franck was resolute, never compromising his principles to accommodate the populist view.

Now, more than three decades later, the Clark Committee's opening challenge which reported on "the existence of a scandalous situation that requires the immediate attention of the profession" still sounds a prophetic alarm. It correctly cited lawyers for their prevailing attitudes toward disciplinary enforcement from apathy to outright hostility and courageously thwarted legislative encroachment while reaffirming the inherent power of the judiciary to exclusively regulate the legal profession. Fueled by the public's dissatisfaction with the bar and the courts, a refrain the profession regrettably still hears today, the Clark Report advanced its reform agenda for more centralization and swifter action within the disciplinary process.

The reforms from the Clark Report are too numerous to recount, though some for which Mike Franck had great passion bear special mention:

  • The creation in 1973 of the ABA Standing Committee on Professional Discipline which, under Mike's decade of leadership, promulgated disciplinary standards that ensured due process, protected the public and secured judicial oversight as a tenet of self-regulations.

  • The 1978 establishment of the ABA Center for Professional Responsibility as the guardian of professional ethics and regulation of the profession, and on whose behalf Mike worked tirelessly nearly two decades to secure its reputation, inspire its staff and lead its agenda.

It was in the early days of the Center for Professional Responsibility that I, as a young disciplinary prosecutor from Massachusetts, first met Mike Franck, an icon whose prolific writings and formidable opinions had already shaped an entire agenda of disciplinary reforms. Mike was my teacher, my mentor, my confidante. I closely watched Mike as he navigated the course of professional responsibility law from its birth during Clark, through its turbulent nurturing during Kutak, to its national prominence under McKay. Mike Franck, the most distinguished voice in professional responsibility, was our common thread during this journey.

Mike never hesitated to give a constructive comment, a candid opinion, or a discourse on "doing the right thing." He had no tolerance for bias or prejudice. He judged each individual and each idea on its merits. His approach was never a rigid dogma, but rather a superbly pragmatic way of advancing the cause of individual rights, impartial justice and professional responsibility.

Among my most vivid memories of Mike are of him engaging in spirited oratory before the American Bar Association House of Delegates, a forum he dominated with fervor and passion for over a decade as the distinguished delegate from the State Bar of Michigan and which he eloquently and persuasively addressed on a regular basis on matters of substance and principle for years prior to assuming his seat in 1982.

Those of us who have worked throughout the years to shape the law of professional responsibility in this country concur with the reflections of George E. Bushnell Jr., President-Elect of the ABA, who noted

how significantly we have benefited from Mike's counsel, from his broad and practical vision, from the rigor of his careful analysis of important issues, and from the thoughtfulness and compassion that he brought to his life's work on all of our behalf.

Jon Muth, President of the State Bar of Michigan, gave the most fitting tribute to Mike on the occasion of his death:

With the passing of Michael Franck, our system of justice has lost a great champion and a beautiful exemplar of the law as a high calling. Mike brought great intellect and deep passion to his career. He was dedicated to assuring access to justice for the least fortunate. He was committed to eradicating manifestations of prejudice He was called to articulate the conscience of the profession. We will miss him greatly.

Michael Franck was our hero, our friend, our glory. He taught us by example that the law is a noble profession. He was its most noble servant. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, "Thus passes the glory of the world."

Lean more about the Michael Franck Award and recipients