Updated: Aug 15, 2020
Let’s face it: the legal profession is not feeling the love these days. A recent Pew opinion poll ranked lawyers dead last among ten professions for ‘contributions to society.’ There’s more than a bit of self-loathing among lawyers, too. A recent study initiated by The American Bar Association (ABA) and co-funded by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation found that the alcoholism, depression, and drug dependency rates for lawyers are approximately twice that of other highly trained professionals. And the average six-figure educational debt young law graduates carry does not help, either. How has the ABA addressed these and other big challenges?
Before throwing the penalty flag for piling on, remember that it’s the holiday season and there’s a twist coming….
The ABA Has A Great Story To Tell. Really.
The American Bar Association (ABA), a voluntary membership organization of over 400,000 lawyers and law students—about one-third the US legal population—is often under fire for pandering to members and resisting change. I recently penned an article criticizing the ABA for failing to step up on pressing social issues, notably: preserving the rule of law, defending human rights, disparate legal enforcement, and inadequate access to legal services. The day after my article came out, I received a breakfast invitation from ABA President Linda Klein to discuss it. The meeting was not what I expected and worth recounting.
Linda Klein is a remarkably passionate, energetic, and thoughtful human being bent on leveraging her legal training to advance the public welfare. She recounted a punishing travel schedule that took her on the road for about 90% of the past year. Her mission: to hear first-hand the experience of solo and small-firm lawyers practicing outside of large urban centers. Her key takeaway: lawyers spend a fraction of their workdays on paid matters—most of their time is spent hustling business, tending to administrative matters, and providing pro bono services. Translation: most lawyers’ practice—and pay—bears no resemblance to the statistically insignificant number of Big Law partners whose eye-popping pay is chronicled by the legal press (Linda is also the 'senior managing shareholder' at a large firm). At the same time, the vast majority of Americans—and small businesses—cannot afford legal services at the national $250-$300 average hourly rate. This is often referred to as the 'access to justice crisis.' Ms. Klein has a solution: creating a “co-op” of shared infrastructure of services and benefits whose centerpiece is technology. ABA Blueprint was introduced last month to help lawyers save time and money so they can help more small businesses and consumers.
Ms. Klein’s narrative came as a welcome surprise, prompting me to ask, “Why doesn’t the ABA let the public and the profession know more about this?” That’s when Linda told me about several other great things the ABA is doing in response to some of today’s big societal and global challenges. Here’s an expurgated summary of the breadth and reach of some key ABA initiatives.
Advancing and Protecting The Rule of Law
The ABA has been actively involved in advancing the rule of law since 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The ABA created the Central and Eastern European Law Initiative (CEELI) to promote the rule of law in emerging democracies in the region. The program morphed into a global initiative known as the Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) and currently maintains a permanent on-ground presence in more than 30 countries with ABA and volunteer lawyers working in 60 countries worldwide.
The ABA Center for Human Rights
The Center develops policies, projects, and educational initiatives that promote human rights—both in the US and globally. It has many programs including: The Justice Defenders Program that protects human rights advocates worldwide by mobilizing the global legal community and holding governments accountable for human rights abuses; The International Criminal Court Project that fights impunity for mass atrocity crimes; The Human Trafficking Project that trains and educates advocates for victims of human trafficking; and The Business and Human Rights Project whose mission is to advance humane treatment in the global workplace. http://www. americanbar.org/groups/human_rights.html
The ABA is tackling veteran issues on a multiplicity of fronts. And with approximately 3 million veterans living below or just above the poverty line, there’s much work to be done. Many veterans have problems that lawyers can help solve: housing-including 40,000 homeless veterans, jobs, credit, divorce, custody, and access to medical care are common ones. The ABA has provided much-needed pro bono legal assistance to thousands of veterans on these and other matters and has also been a forceful advocate for the nation’s 21.4 million military veterans across a range of issues. http://www. americanbar.org/groups/committees/veterans-_benefits.html
The list of other ABA initiatives is long and includes access to justice; gender, diversity and inclusion; broader and more efficient use of technology in the delivery of legal services; and many more. Bottom line: the ABA is on the case.
A Suggestion to the ABA and Lawyers Generally: Get The Word Out
With all the good work the ABA does, one wonders why it is a relative secret within the legal industry and more broadly. This is especially perplexing in the age of social media where ‘spreading the word’ is so easy. Take the recent example of the ABA’s initiation of a lawsuit against the Department of Education (DOE) to protect the promise made to public interest lawyers for Public Service Loan Forgiveness. The suit alleges that DOE changed the definition of qualifying service midstream, thereby disqualifying thousands from debt relief assured by the original definition of qualifying service. Such an ex post facto attempt by the government to recast rules involves a vital public interest that must be protected, and the ABA is on the case.
It’s not just the ABA and its members that selflessly advance the public interest and advocate on social issues. Consider the recent New York Times article about the coalition formed by a number of prominent law firms to provide pro bono representation to gun control groups in the wake of recent massacres. Few lawyer initiatives make the front page of the Times Sunday Business Section, and that’s why it is important that the profession and public is aware of all the good things the ABA—and the legal profession—is doing. Why is it a virtual secret that the average US lawyer contributes almost 50 hours a year of pro bono representation or that 150 of the largest law firms delivered an aggregate 5 million hours of free legal representation?
The ABA and the legal profession have great stories to tell. Not only would sharing them galvanize greater support for the ABA within the legal profession—and likely enhance membership--but it would also upgrade the public’s overwhelmingly negative perception of lawyers. The ABA and the entire legal profession would benefit from upgrading its PR generally and its social media presence specifically. That’s ironic since lawyers are in the persuasion business.
Good lawyers are good storytellers. The ABA should tell its story better and use existing distribution channels more effectively. By doing so, it could become the voice of the legal profession that so desperately needs one.
This article is also published by Forbes (Mark's contributors page at Forbes)