ABA President Speaks About Critical Initiatives

Tuesday, November 15, 2011 - 12:57

The Editor interviews William T. (Bill)  Robinson III, President of the American Bar Association.

Editor: Tell us about your background and experience.

Robinson: I attended Thomas More College and then enlisted in the military during the height of the Vietnam War, attending Officer Candidate School for airborne infantry. I worked my way through the College of Law at the University of Kentucky, and I received a nice offer from a Cincinnati firm after graduation but soon left to pursue my own practice, at which I worked for 20 years. In 1990, I joined a larger firm, Greenebaum, Doll & McDonald PLLC, and started its greater Cincinnati office, building it up to a 40-lawyer office.

Four years ago, I decided to join Frost Brown Todd, bringing my now 40 years of experience, first as a civil litigator focusing on personal injury defense and, for the last 20 years, focusing on commercial litigation and medical malpractice defense work. I’m a member of the Defense Research Institute, the International Association of Defense Council, the International Society of Barristers and the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers, among others.

So I have a passion for the law and appreciate the unique opportunities my profession offers to serve others and make a positive difference. While my current position as ABA president leaves less time for my legal practice, the privilege to further the ABA’s core interests is well worth the trade-off.

Currently, we are focused on the crisis of under-funding for state and federal courts, on diversity as an issue that fundamentally influences the viability and success of our profession, on helping attorneys cope with globalization and general expansion of the scope of business, and on pro bono and other civic volunteer initiatives. The latter focus is reflected in the ABA Journal’s new feature, called Lawyers Giving Back, which is a collection of action photos of lawyers donating their time and services across the nation and the world.

I’m also working in cooperation with Jack Rives, our executive director, and our senior staff to increase the ABA’s membership. The American Bar Association is a unique and totally non-partisan association of almost 400,000 members, and our membership is increasing in spite of the economic downturn. We are very proud of our volunteers, and our sections produce more legal content than any association in the world. We have eight full-time representatives who are certified to speak on Capitol Hill in support of the rule of law, access to justice and sustainable funding for federal courts.

Editor: Will you be continuing the ABA’s Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System?

Robinson: Yes, this is a core issue for the ABA, and the Task Force will continue under the leadership of David Boies and Ted Olson. I’m very proud of the work that they undertook during Stephen Zack’s presidency, and we’re continuing that with full commitment through my term, that of my successor, Laurel Bellows of Chicago, and beyond to her intended successor. Our courts need sustainable funding, and access to justice is absolutely essential to constitutional democracy, including an independent judiciary that is critical to maintaining fair and impartial courts.

Editor: It must be a difficult problem, with budgets being cut in so many states.

Robinson: It’s a tremendous challenge. Too often state – and even federal – courts are not treated as a co-equal branch of government, but rather as another line item in the operating budget, like a road or a park. Not one U.S. state funds its judicial system using more than 3.5 percent of the overall state operating budget, and that is totally unacceptable. In spite of the difficult economy, we have a great opportunity to make a positive difference.

Editor: What are your plans to continue specific initiatives from Stephen Zack’s term as ABA president?

Robinson: We are continuing all four initiatives from Steve’s dynamic leadership.  At the time of their inception, he and I agreed that they were meritorious and deserving of the application of our resources, energy and volunteer leadership, and we will continue those full force into this year. In addition to the Task Force on Preservation of the Justice System, the initiatives we will continue are the Commission on Disaster Response and Preparedness, the Commission on Hispanic Legal Rights and Responsibilities and the Commission on Civic Education in the Nation’s Schools.

Editor: What is the role of corporate counsel in the ABA? We understand your members have done a wonderful job tracking and commenting on the proliferation of regulations and resulting rulemaking processes.

Robinson: Our Business Law Section is among the largest, with over 60,000 members. The membership includes corporate lawyers and academic scholars, and it represents all business areas. We are very proud of the work you mentioned; of volunteer members who commit an extraordinary amount of time and expertise; and of the exemplary section publications that regularly provide state-of-the-art content to our members and others who practice business law.

We have a very active corporate counsel committee. Our Midyear Meeting is the first week in February in New Orleans, and our Annual Meeting is coming up the first week of August in Chicago. We are pleased to host the meeting in New Orleans, which has experienced major economic troubles in recent years, and thrilled that Justice Scalia has committed to join us and offer his remarks.

Editor: There have been a number of big disaster-related issues throughout the country. What is the ABA doing to help address these issues?

Robinson: David Bienvenu chairs that task force. They have been doing an exceptional job putting together materials that help lawyers and law firms to better prepare themselves and their clients for natural disasters. The task force focuses on crisis management in situations where there is very short notice, protecting client interests, such as records and business maintenance, and developing general recovery plans to deal with the consequences of unforeseen disasters. 

Editor: Since the economic recession, has the ABA played a role in helping law school graduates find jobs?

Robinson: We have a young lawyer division, which currently has well over 100,000 members. The chair of that group is Michael Bergmann of Chicago, and the division has put in considerable time, effort and initiative into addressing that situation on an association-wide basis.

Editor: There has been a lot of concern in-house about legal education and about law firms having to train graduates in the fundamentals at their clients’ expense. Does the ABA support corporate counsels’ expectation that law schools provide more practical training during the third year?

Robinson: This has been a concern and an ongoing evolution in legal education dating back, at least, to the MacCrate Report over 20 years ago. The report was compiled on behalf of the ABA to recognize and place emphasis on the need for increased clinical education in our law schools. Overall, I am very proud of the U.S. legal education system. Having enjoyed the privilege of traveling nationally and internationally in my role as ABA president, I feel confident in saying that American law schools are viewed worldwide with respect and, in some cases, envy.

Naturally, the system can be improved, and the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar continues to work very hard to meet the challenges of our current economic situation – of a pressurized and substantially diminished job market. The legal profession, however, is not unique in experiencing the effects of the recession, and we are seeing similar employment statistics from many graduate-level programs. There are also concerns about the higher cost of graduate education in the U.S. It is a very complex issue, but we have confidence in the dedication and skill of our legal education section volunteers, and we are comfortable that the issues that merit attention are being addressed.

Editor: What is the ABA doing in the way of helping lawyers find jobs or start their own practices?

Robinson: Our Young Lawyers Division offers assistance by way of a job board and a career center, which is operated out of Chicago, that matches job opportunities with the interests and skill sets of applicants. Mike Bergmann runs this division, and our young lawyers have been very active with this program. Being closer in age, these volunteers have an immediate appreciation of the issues that law school graduates are facing. 

Editor: How is the profession accommodating globalization? Have you seen tremendous growth in, for example, the International Law Section?

Robinson: The ABA Section of International Law is enjoying record high attendance with its programs, including 900 in attendance at last year’s presentation in Paris and over 1,100 attending a more recent event in Dublin. Under the leadership of Mike Burke, the section is holding programs all over the world and is very well supported by lawyers interested in international law.

Editor: I understand Norm Veasey is involved with the ABA’s Ethics 20/20 Commission, which studies how technology and globalization have impacted the practice of law.  Please talk about the ABA’s emphasis on ethical issues.

Robinson: Norm remains involved with the Commission, now in its third year, which draws its national membership from highly respected judges, academics, scholars and lawyers from firms of all sizes. The Commission’s dedicated work includes holding hearings and putting out papers for comment and review. This year, the Commission is expected to bring recommendations to the ABA’s House of Delegates regarding our model rules, specifically in light of the changes driven by advances in technology and global communications. The widespread availability and use of email, cell phones, laptops and the Internet fosters an unprecedented level of immediacy in communications, so the Commission has been working to make sure that our model rules stay timely and relevant.

Editor: There a growing concern among in-house counsel about third-party litigation funding. Can you please talk about this issue?

Robinson: We don’t yet have an ABA policy or direct word from the House of Delegates on this issue, but we know it is a growing concern. As evidenced by recent cases in Australia, New Zealand and England, this issue has taken on international significance and is coming into notice here in the U.S. We are looking at this issue but do not have recommendations at this time.

Editor: Certainly, the ABA is an excellent resource for corporate counsel to stay informed about the critical issues they face. Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Robinson: I couldn’t say it better myself. The practice of law remains a desirable career choice, and the key to its continued success is placing primary emphasis on the clients’ best interests and meeting fiduciary obligations. The key to our constitutional democracy is independence in the legal profession, both for our judiciary and for attorneys so they can stand with clients, even in the face of challenges, accusations and lack of cooperation from the government. The American Bar Association remains committed to serving the legal community at all levels.

Please email the interviewee at abapresident@americanbar.org with questions about this interview.