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.