Welcoming The ABA’s New President

Friday, August 22, 2014 - 11:21

The Editor interviews William C. Hubbard, President, American Bar Association.

Editor: Please describe your practice.

Hubbard: My practice is business and commercial litigation. Until I became president-elect of the ABA, I chaired the Business Litigation and Employment Law group – one of the large groups at my law firm, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, LLP. Lately, I have been handling matters arising in the energy and public utility field.

Editor: Tell us about the work of the ABA Commission on the Future of Legal Services.

Hubbard: A priority for the ABA this year will be the work of the Commission on the Future of Legal Services. The ABA has taken a hard look at many of the effects of technology and globalization on the legal profession over the last several years. A significant recent effort was the Ethics 20/20 initiative to recommend revisions to the Model Rules of Professional Conduct to account for globalization and technology advances. Our other major recent effort was the Task Force on the Future of Legal Education.

This year, we hope to build on those initiatives, as well as the Legal Access Job Corps, by establishing the Commission on the Future of Legal Services. The commission will evaluate how we can help bridge the justice gap in this country, make better use of technology, and develop new, innovative platforms for access to justice and new opportunities to meet client needs.

For too long, we’ve tried to do things the same way in the legal system. We are tradition bound, and sometimes rightly so. But we’re at a point where our clients and the public are looking to the legal profession to be more accessible, more efficient, and more user-friendly.

Other industries have transformed themselves. For example, no one banks the way we once banked. We don’t shop the way we used to shop. So we also need to look at different ways we can deliver legal services. If we can take advantage of technology and innovative approaches to the delivery of legal services, we could potentially significantly close the justice gap in our country and better meet the needs of our clients.

About 80 percent of the poor in our country do not have adequate access to legal services. Increasingly, people of moderate means are not using lawyers. They’re going it alone. We see that particularly among small business owners. We need to be more accessible to the poor and to those of moderate means. We need to evolve as a profession by taking advantage of developing technologies and innovation to close the justice gap. The result will be a justice system that is more efficient and more accessible for everyone.

It’s important to understand that in 2012, $66 million was invested in legal technology startups. A year later that number jumped to $458 million. These investments were not made in law firms, but in technology companies.

We want to marry this legal services industry with our current justice system so that we preserve public protection as we innovate and evolve. That way, we can look out for the public interest and at the same time protect the independence of the legal profession.

Editor: Should the ABA develop a blueprint to help lawyers and judges adapt to technology and globalization?

Hubbard: That blueprint will be one of the products of the Commission on the Future of Legal Services. We hope to develop resources for judges, solo practitioners, and lawyers from businesses and firms of all sizes to help them adapt to the future in a way that protects client interests. This effort is not just a top-down exercise. We are having grassroots meetings across the country. We hope to combine that bottom-up approach with some of the best academic and creative thinking from outside the legal profession. We will break down silos that have traditionally prevented the kind of exchange of ideas that is necessary for the legal profession to adapt.

Editor: Why is improving access to justice for the poor of importance?

Hubbard: The Constitution says, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice . . .” It is the first priority in the Preamble. Our founders understood that you cannot have a constitutional democracy if you don’t have a strong justice system. You can’t have a fair and strong justice system if so many of the poor and middle class don’t have fair access to that justice system. It’s an empty promise. Our obligation as lawyers, as members of a self-regulated profession, is to provide that access.

Often, the poor are the most vulnerable in our society. Many of the poor don’t realize they have legal issues – for example, when they receive an eviction notice, they often see it as a personal failing, not a legal problem. We need to engage in a public education effort that will expand access to our justice system and to legal services. Perhaps we can do that because 86 percent of the adults in this country below the poverty line own some type of mobile phone, and a majority of those own a smartphone. Why can’t some of that technology be used to start a legal process if someone receives an eviction notice?

Editor: What about overuse of incarceration? Attorney General Eric Holder gave a powerful speech on that topic at last year’s ABA annual meeting. What other issues or priorities will the ABA be addressing during your term?

Hubbard: General Holder’s message was important and well received. The ABA's effort on this goes back about a decade, when Justice Anthony Kennedy spoke to the ABA about the incarceration problem in our country. Ever since, the ABA Criminal Justice Section has been bringing resolutions and working on programs to educate the public and change policy to reduce over-incarceration.

The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. There’s an over-incarceration of persons of color. Because most of the criminal cases in our country come through state courts, legislatures and courts must work together to reform state laws that would divert nonviolent offenders to alternatives to imprisonment.

I’m very proud of the efforts in my own state of South Carolina, where we’ve reduced the prison population in just three years by almost 10 percent. South Carolina flipped the rates of those incarcerated for nonviolent and violent offenses so that a significant majority of those now in prison are those who have committed violent offenses. More effort should be made to find alternatives to imprisonment.

The collateral consequences of imprisonment are also a significant issue. One major initiative of the ABA is to focus states' attention on the many statutes that prevent those who have completed their sentences from re-entering society. The ABA needs to help those who have served their time to become more productive citizens by encouraging policymakers to take a hard look at those statutes.

We'll be focusing on two other priorities this year. One is the scourge of domestic violence. One out of three women in our country is a victim of domestic violence, and 15.5 million children a year witness acts of domestic violence. We need to continue to develop programs and train more pro bono lawyers to represent these victims.

We also must continue to improve diversity and inclusion within the legal profession. We still have far to go not only in attracting persons of color to our profession, but also to seeing that women and persons of color rise to leadership positions in corporate law departments and become partners and managing partners of law firms. We need to develop a more robust pipeline beginning at the grade school level to encourage minorities and women to consider law as a profession.

Editor: Why is independence of the judiciary of particular concern to the ABA?

Hubbard: The independence of the judiciary is essential to protect the minority against efforts of the majority to trample their rights. Justice Kennedy said that the independence of the judiciary is not to allow judges to do what they want, but to do what they must. Whenever judges issue an unpopular ruling, money often flows into political campaigns to try to take those judges out. That is a great threat to our constitutional democracy, to the balance of power, and to the protection of individual rights.

Editor: At this year’s annual meeting of the ABA, Chief Justice Roberts gave a stirring speech about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. How is the ABA planning to commemorate that milestone?

Hubbard: We are most grateful to the Chief Justice for sharing such thoughtful and inspiring words. At the ABA, we have been planning our Magna Carta educational and programmatic efforts for about five years now because we view Magna Carta as a symbol and an important foundation for our own constitutional democracy. We plan to take advantage of this opportunity to engage in a broad public education effort.

We find in Magna Carta the seeds of all of those principles we hold dear. Over time, as our own Constitution was developed, those seeds came to bear fruit. We want to highlight Magna Carta, we want to celebrate it, and we want to educate the public about it as a means of helping to ensure the continuing strength of our constitutional democracy.

Law Day this year will be about Magna Carta as a symbol of freedom and liberty. Throughout the year, the ABA will be offering programs in schools that include a YouTube video contest encouraging young people to write a play or vignette celebrating Magna Carta. 

In addition to publishing two outstanding books on Magna Carta, we have traveling exhibits that are going around the country. The ABA’s celebration will conclude on the 800th anniversary itself at Runnymede on June 15, 2015. Leading up to that, about 800 ABA members will travel to London for a series of programs that are centered around Magna Carta. On the day itself, we will all travel out to Runnymede for a celebration that we anticipate will be led by the Queen herself.

Editor: How wonderful! How does a young lawyer get involved with the ABA?

Hubbard: Young lawyers need direction. They need mentors and sponsors who can see the value of giving back to the profession by helping a young lawyer develop leadership skills and public speaking skills. Young lawyers need to learn more about the interconnectedness of our legal system.

One of my goals as ABA president is to convince managing partners of law firms and general counsel to encourage young lawyers to get involved in the organized bar, not only for their own personal and professional growth, but also because without a strong organized bar, our system of justice as we know it is vulnerable. There are two prongs to the preservation of our justice system. One is the independence of the judiciary, and the other is a strong organized bar. If we’re going to enjoy the privileges of self-regulation, then we have a concurrent obligation to make sure that our profession stays strong and that we support the organized bar in its public service and access to justice efforts.

Editor: Do corporate counsel have a place at the table when issues of concern to them are being considered by the ABA?

Hubbard: We eagerly seek the participation of corporate counsel in the ABA. As corporate law departments have grown in size, they have grown in importance in our justice system and in the legal profession. We need that voice in the American Bar Association. There are about 3,500 different entities within the ABA. Most of our large sections have specific corporate counsel committees. We have a number of corporate counsel who represent different entities within our policy-making House of Delegates. The chair of the Commission on the Future of Legal Services is a corporate lawyer for a major corporation. We want the skills and the perspective that corporate counsel bring to the profession. We want that voice heard loud and clear in the ABA.

Let me mention one other thing about that, and that’s why I think the ABA is so important. There are certainly corporate counsel organizations, even within the ABA, that devote themselves solely to corporate counsel. Within the ABA, there are many groups that support prosecutors. There are groups of judges and trial lawyers and tax lawyers. The ABA is an organization where all of these perspectives can be brought together, where ideas are shared and silos broken down so that what emerges is a strong voice for an independent profession that is the ABA.

We encourage people to get out of their comfort zones where they talk only to people like themselves who do what they do. They all come together under one umbrella, the ABA, which has such a fundamental role in preserving and strengthening our justice system.