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ABA leadership vows to increase access to justice, offer a blueprint for the future of the profession


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ABA leadership vows to increase access to justice, offer a blueprint for the future of the profession

By John Glynn

Amid voting on numerous resolutions to become American Bar Association policy, the association’s House of Delegates heard from ABA leadership on the state of the legal profession and the association’s goals for the next year. 


Outgoing President James R. Silkenat reported on one of his first actions as president, the creation of the ABA Legal Access Jobs Corps, saying, “We cannot afford to be a nation where the legal needs of a large portion of our citizenry are not being met in the ways that our Constitution requires.” Silkenat said that in recent months the Corps has “promoted a comprehensive catalog of state and local programs to insure the availability of legal services in rural and other underserved communities, and other innovative approaches.” The Corps has also produced the award-winning video, “Be the Change,” which “highlights innovations that build on the resources of new lawyers to expand justice” he said.

In other work, Silkenat said the ABA “defended political attacks on lawyers for fulfilling their obligations as lawyers.” In a public letter the ABA pointed out that “lawyers who represent unpopular or even guilty clients demonstrate the kind of professionalism and confidence in our legal system that characterizes the finest public servants,” said Silkenat.

In addition, the ABA continues to oppose Congressional proposals that would force “law firms and other businesses to switch from the current cash-based method of accounting to an accrual-based method, which would require law firms to pay taxes on income long before it’s received,” said Silkenat.

The outgoing president reported that the ABA held town halls on voting rights, which are under attack in many states, and produced a white paper resulting from those.

The ABA worked to address the issues surrounding legal education in multiple ways. “The ABA’s Task Force on the Future of Legal Education called for changes to law school accreditation to allow for more experimentation and innovation, and expansion of opportunities for delivery of legal services,” Silkenat said.

In addition, the ABA formed a Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education “to make recommendations to reform the cost of legal education for students, the financing of law schools, student loans, educational debt and scholarships,” Silkenat said.

After the passing of the gavel ceremony, newly sworn-in ABA President William C. Hubbard, a partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough in Columbia, S.C., where he practices business litigation, invoked the preamble of the Constitution, specifically the words “establish justice.”

 “As I begin my year as president of the American Bar Association, it is my fervent hope that we can redouble our efforts to align our priorities with this noble purpose,” he said.

To accomplish that, among the issues Hubbard plans to focus his efforts on are the collateral consequences of incarceration. “Too many low-level, nonviolent offenders are imprisoned and then denied the opportunity to move on and live productive, law-abiding lives because of laws limiting their ability to return to society as productive citizens,” he said.

Regarding expanding access to justice, Hubbard said of the newly established Commission on the Future of Legal Services, “It is time to break down the silos and invite the innovators to meet with others in the legal community to develop fresh, practical ideas to close the justice gap in our country,” he said.

That work will be complemented by the continuing efforts of the Legal Access Jobs Corps as well as the Task Force on Financing of Legal Education. “These efforts, combined with the thoughtful recommendations of the recent Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, will continue to transform the ABA as the leader in making our profession and the delivery of legal services smarter, broader, more effective and more available to all.”

“We are at an inflection point,” Hubbard said. “We cannot accept the status quo.”

In conclusion, Hubbard said, “Together, we can change the face of justice for the 21st century. Together, we can establish justice. Not for some. For all.”

When President-Elect Paulette Brown, a labor and employment law partner and chief diversity office with the Morristown, N.J., office of Edwards Wildman Palmer, addressed the delegates, she asked them to make a “conscious effort” to keep the ABA’s four goals in mind every day: serving its members, improving the profession, eliminating bias and enhancing diversity, and advancing the rule of law.

In doing so, she said, “We should question why two defendants who committed the same crime appearing before the same judge are given different sentences based upon physical characteristics. We should question why offenses committed in the school environment by children, which not so long ago would have carried the punishment of detention, now result in expulsion or worse a criminal record, again based solely on physical characteristics. We should question the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages such as when the press during the aftermath of Katrina characterized whites as getting food for their families and characterized African Americans as looters.”

Brown asked whether “any or all of this is a result of implicit bias and do our goals and motto require us to do something?”

“I submit that they do,” she said.

Brown said that although the ABA’s goals all have the same priority, sometimes each of them is not given the same level of attention. “With your help, together we can give all of our goals the attention they require,” she said.

In addition to focusing on disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline, President-elect Brown spotlighted the concerns for the futures of law students and young lawyers, the progress of Silkenat’s access to justice program and Hubbard’s future-of-the-profession initiative.

Calling the ABA “the go-to organization for all lawyers,” Brown urged the delegates “to always ask ourselves, what have we done to help others, what have we done to advance the rule of law and ask ourselves what Charles Hamilton Houston would have asked us -- are we social engineers for justice or are we parasites on society?”

“Ultimately, we have to be prepared to answer the question, ‘what have we done to make our four goals live and take our bar association forward?’” she concluded.