Spotlight on 2007–08 ABA President William H. Neukom
  By Julia A. Bahner
Julia A. Bahner is an associate editor of The Affiliate and the YLD district representative for Washington and Oregon. She practices commercial litigation and bankruptcy in Seattle, Washington, and can be reached at
William (Bill) H. Neukom of Seattle, Washington, takes the reins of the 2007–08 ABA Presidency this August. He was formerly general counsel at Microsoft and chair of Preston Gates & Ellis (prior to its recent merger into Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Preston Gates Ellis LLP (“K&L Gates”)). Neukom graduated from Stanford University Law School in 1967 and clerked for Judge Theodore S. Turner of the King County Superior Court in 1967–68. He received his A.B. from Dartmouth College in 1964. His term as ABA President is the result of almost forty years of exemplary bar service. He began his bar service activities as a young lawyer, as chair of the Seattle-King County Bar Association YLD (1972–73) and then Chair of the ABA YLD (1977–78).
Neukom also served on the ABA Board of Governors as Secretary of the ABA from 1983 to 1987, and as a Washington State delegate to the ABA House of Delegates from 1999 to 2006. He chaired the ABA Fund for Justice and Education from 1997 to 1999; the ABA Task Force on Goal VIII, which examined the Association’s rule of law programming, in 2002–03; and the ABA Governance Commission from 2003 to 2005.
He has an ambitious slate of goals, including a Rule of Law Initiative centered around the launch of the “World Justice Project” (WJP) through which he hopes to advance the rule of law in the United States and throughout the world and bring the rule of law into the mainstream of the ABA, the legal profession, and other disciplines. The WJP is raising about $8 million from outside sources to support its work. In addition to the ABA, the WJP will be sponsored by organizations from around the world that represent numerous disciplines.
The WJP will consist of four near-term programs: (1) “mainstreaming” the rule of law through multidisciplinary outreach conferences that engage other fields on the importance of the rule of law, learn from them about how the rule of law affects their work, and create the basis for working together; (2) a Rule of Law Index that will measure countries’ adherence to the rule of law and identify areas in need of improvement; (3) definitive scholarship about the relationship between the rule of law and peace, economic development, reduced corruption, public health, and accessible education; and (4) the World Justice Forum, a large international multidisciplinary conference at which high-level leaders will share information, develop new networks, and incubate new projects to advance the rule of law.
Neukom also has several other projects and goals on which he wants the ABA to focus. One of these goals is diversity. At the 2006 ABA Midyear Meeting, the ABA House of Delegates added a fourth category of diversity under ABA Goal IX: sexual identity and gender orientation. Recognizing that each of the groups covered by Goal IX—which includes the new category and racial and ethnic minorities, women, and people with mental or physical disabilities—has faced some type of unfair discrimination, Neukom would like to help these groups organize around this common ground. Together, these groups can better address the challenges and opportunities they all face, while also developing particular ways to approach the individual issues they confront. Another theme is collaboration between ABA sections and entities. The ABA Enterprise Fund, a pilot program this year, has stimulated increased collaboration among ABA entities, which must be further encouraged. The fund provides grants to ABA entities that team up (for example, the Section of Labor and Employment Law working with the Section of Business Law) to develop new programs to advance some aspect of the ABA’s strategic plan. The fund received a host of interesting proposals, and grant recipients will be announced soon. The fund is a way to incentivize collaborative programs and break down barriers between groups. Neukom wants to expand on this theme by collaborating with other bar associations, as well as with other disciplines and trade and professional groups, such as the American Medical Association and educator groups.
Another topic Neukom wants to work on is whether time-honored professional values have suffered as lawyers increasingly model their practices after businesses. Neukom plans to hold a workshop involving three important players relevant to this question—managing partners of medium and large law firms, general counsels of good sized law departments, and law school deans—for the purpose of deliberating on the state of the practice and how best to respond to maintain or restore professional values.
The Affiliate spoke with Neukom recently about his upcoming year as ABA President, how young lawyers can play a part, and his advice to young lawyers.
The Affiliate : What can young lawyers do to help you fulfill your goals for the year and why should young lawyers join the ABA?
Neukom: Young lawyers can help to move the ABA forward by joining the ABA and bringing ideas and constructive criticism to the group and by getting involved with programs. On a recurring basis, the ABA YLD brings forward some of the best new ideas and programs to the ABA, due to its hardworking and creative membership.
Young lawyers should join the ABA for several reasons: (1) you will have broadening experience meeting lawyers from other parts of country and world; (2) you might in the course of that become part of a referral network and refer clients to other trustworthy lawyers around the country or in turn be that referral attorney; (3) you will have a voice in improving the legal process; and (4) you will improve your skills as a lawyer and get to spend time with people who practice in the areas of your emphasis. In essence, you will have a better practice and become a better person.
The Affiliate : Will the ABA be partnering with other national organizations to implement your projects?
Neukom: Yes. For example, the World Justice Project held a multidisciplinary meeting on February 28 and invited leaders from ten disciplines others might not associate with the rule of law, including journalists, scientists, educators, clergy, physicians, military officers, and human rights and environmental activists, all to reason together about the meaning of the rule of law. We then held breakout sessions about how the rule of law matters to them. The premise is that it matters materially to all of these groups. For example, the Gates Foundation may give money for vaccines, but unless fundamental channels exist to get the vaccine to the recipients in an efficient and legal manner, the grant may not be as well used as it could be. Other common examples are that journalists need constitutional rights to effectively report to the public and educators can’t teach students effectively in a lawless community. Each group is affected by the rule of law; it is not just the rule of lawyers but the fundamental foundation of economies and stable forms of free government. The World Justice Project held a similar multidisciplinary meeting in Europe in July and will also hold meetings in Latin America, Asia, and Africa in the coming year to see what kind of new programs might be developed to further the Rule of Law initiative.
The Affiliate : Were you given any advice as a young lawyer that you reflect back on and say “that was great advice?
Neukom: Be over prepared, whether you are in a transactional or a litigation practice. Appreciate the privilege you have in representing others and take responsibility to represent them in an ethical, responsible, and zealous way. Make time for public service and pro bono work—this is often the most rewarding work lawyers do.
The Affiliate : How has the ABA changed since your time in the YLD?
Neukom: Overall, the ABA is a more progressive enterprise and more programmatic and more interested in accomplishing broad goals. It is also more influential as far as federal policy and continues to provide valuable service evaluating candidates for the federal bench. The ABA’s work on access to justice is remarkable, including the recent efforts on immigration reform and in weighing in on areas important to a democratic government.
The Affiliate : Have mentors been an important part of your ascension through the ABA ranks?
Neukom: One of the strengths of the ABA is that veteran members are always eager to mentor newcomers and help newcomers find their way in the Association as a large and diverse organization. For almost forty years colleagues have been bringing me into ABA work. I was first a beneficiary in the King County Bar Association as they helped pay my travel costs to go to ABA meetings and that introduced me to the ABA YLD and its officers and Council members.
The Individual Rights and Responsibilities Section has been very important to me. I was the liaison and then a member. I made a lot of friends there that I wouldn’t have met otherwise, and we were able to work as a group for common causes. I have also been involved in the Litigation and Business Law Sections for many years. In addition to having mentors, having a record of performance in the YLD is important because everyone in the ABA is looking for talent, and past active YLD work is a strong credential to take with you into the other sections and divisions of the ABA.
The Affiliate : Do you have any advice for young lawyers who aspire to become ABA President? Other advice?
Neukom : I hope a lot of people aspire to be ABA President as it is a great opportunity. My advice is to participate in YLD work at the local, state, and national levels and to bring to that work the same quality standards and commitments that you do to client work. If you don’t, it will show and the ABA and yourself won’t get as much out of it. It is important work and matters a great deal as far as improving the legal system and ensuring that people get access and a fair stake. But understand that your bar service work will be as demanding as your client work.
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All in all, this was a great opportunity to talk with 2007–08 ABA President Bill Neukom. It is an exciting time for the ABA YLD to have one of its past Chairs as the ABA President.