ABA President Dennis Archer: His Goals - And Dedication To Diversity

Sunday, February 1, 2004 - 01:00

The Editor interviews The Hon. Dennis W. Archer, President, American Bar Association, and Chairman and Equity Partner, Dickinson Wright PLLC. Former Mayor of Detroit and Michigan Supreme Court Justice.

Editor: What are your goals as ABA president?

Archer:
Each of our four most recent past presidents launched important initiatives. These initiatives dealt with diversity, the death penalty, law school loan forgivenes for students going into public service law, judicial independence and fair judicial compensation. My goal is to see that these projects are continued by the association during my bar year. As mayor of Detroit, I found that you cannot always complete the job that you set out to do during your first term.

Bill Paul spent his entire year on the issue of diversity. He wanted it to be a long term project of the Association, one that he knew could not be completed in one year.

Martha Barnett advocated a moratorium on the death penalty so that states could review whether those on death row had received justice. She proposed that the review should include such things as an examination of DNA evidence and the competency of counsel who represented them throughout the course of the legal proceedings.

Bob Hirshon recognized that young lawyers when they graduate from law school bear a heavy burden of debt. Their law school loan repayment obligation can be as much as $60,000 to $90,000 for law school and $130,000 to $140,000 for those graduating with dual degrees. He was concerned that this would deter them from seeking public service careers whether it is with legal service entities, prosecutors' or public defenders' offices. I added to that list those who serve as lawyers in the Judge Advocate General's Corps. Bob started a program to encourage partial loan forgiveness for law school graduates who choose those kinds of public service careers.

A.P. Carlton focused on judicial independence. As you know our judges, state and federal, from time to time come under attack and need to be defended in order to preserve the independence of the judiciary. Last year we marked the 200th anniversary of Marbury v. Madison, the seminal case establishing the judiciary's status as a co-equal, independent branch of the federal government.

All four of these projects deserve continued high visibility. I am focusing my efforts during my year on using the bully pulpit provided by the ABA presidency to assure that each initiative receives attention.

Editor: Because this issue kicks off our diversity coverage this month and in March, I would like to focus on what the ABA is doing to advance the cause of diversity as well as get your thoughts on other diversity initiatives.

Archer:
One of the national programs I initiated was the Diversity in the Legal Profession Conference in October 2003. This Diversity Summit was organized by Charles Morgan, Vice President and General Counsel of BellSouth, who is the dynamic chair of the ABA Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice.

I had charged Charles and the Council to develop a diversity program that would encourage young people of color to consider law as a profession. People of color are currently dramatically under represented in our profession. In the U.S., people of color represent 30 percent of the population, yet they constitute only 10 percent of the legal profession.

We had a great meeting in October. There were 267 participants including general counsel, managing partners and leaders of the national ethnic minority bars. During the Diversity Summit corporations, law firms and others described successful programs that enabled them to recruit, retain and promote lawyers of color.

We also discussed how to increase the numbers of students entering law school by encouraging lawyers to speak at junior high schools and high schools. The lawyers would encourage students of color to get good grades and to think of law as an important career opportunity, and share with them the outstanding men and women of color who as lawyers have made a difference in their community, state and nation.

The second program deals with the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, which occurs this year. That case was decided on May 17, 1954. We are working with the Judicial Division of the ABA to involve federal and state judges and administrative law judges at all levels in programs that will be presented at high schools across America. This will enable them to talk with students about the impact of Brown, why the case was before the Supreme Court, and the consequences of the decision to terminate "separate but equal" education.

This program will allow us not to only celebrate what has been done but also to talk about what needs to be done going forward.

Since becoming president of the ABA, I have been invited to speak before a number of law firms and corporations that are working to promote diversity and are looking for best practices. They look to the ABA because we have developed a data bank that is a source of information about the most successful programs in the U.S.

Editor: Tell us about the ABA's Summit on Women.

Archer:
The legal profession has been very successful in shattering the glass ceiling, but if women put their hands on the ceiling in an effort to lift themselves up, they still will cut their hands. A lot of work remains to be done. This Summit in New York City at the Plaza Hotel May 24-25, will focus on recognizing and honoring the 65 women who serve as general counsel of Fortune 500 companies. We will also invite the managing partners of law firms to come and discuss how they promote the progress of women at their firms.

We are finding that dynamic CEOs are recognizing the outstanding quality and brilliance that women have to offer. We are encouraging law firms to open the door to more women to become managing partners and to occupy other leadership positions. For example, Charisse Lillie heads up the litigation section of Ballard Spahr.

In our firm, women hold important leadership positions. They know that they have an equal opportunity to compete for senior roles. Corporations have a strong economic interest in seeing that women lawyers are treated fairly by them and the law firms that represent them. Because women exercise so much buying power, companies are eager to demonstrate their commitment to clearing away any glass ceilings that may still exist.

Editor: Could you mention a few of the people who have contributed to advancing diversity and breaking the glass ceiling?

Archer:
The ABA since 1986 has been a real leader. The American Corporate Counsel Association also has fostered real progress. Others like Joan Guggenheim, general counsel of Bank One, invited their law firms (of which I am proud to say our firm is one) to a meeting on diversity at their corporate headquarters in Chicago. In my own city of Detroit, we have Stacy Fox who is the general counsel of Visteon, a tier one car supplier that was spun off of Ford. Then there is John Kennedy, Vice President and General Counsel for Johnson Controls, Inc., and Stacey Mobley, Vice President and General Counsel at DuPont.

Dennis Ross, Vice President and General Counsel of Ford, spoke at our Diversity Summit and his message was very well received. Tom Gottschalk, Executive Vice President and General Counsel of General Motors, and E. Chris Johnson, general counsel of the domestic division of GM, have also provided historic great support for diversity. Vice presidents and general counsels of color who have been leaders and particularly active in the ABA are Paula Boggs from Starbucks and Roderick Palmore from Sara Lee.

Leadership has also come from law firms. The president-elect of the ABA is Robert Grey, also a lawyer of color. His firm, Hunton & Williams, has the enviable record of having 100 lawyers of color out of a total legal staff of 800.

Editor: Do you feel that scholarship programs are a useful way to provide a vehicle for successful lawyers who are dedicated to diversity to finance minority students through college or law school?

Archer:
This was one of the important ABA programs that Bill Paul started when he was president, and the ABA fund continues to grow. The ABA is also working to restore federal funding for the CLEO program.
Scholarship programs for minorities are also sponsored by local bar associations and law firms. These have been quite successful because the contributors can see the immediate impact scholarships have on young people from their communities. I am supporting about 12 undergraduate students through my personal foundation.

Editor: How do you feel about programs sponsored by local bar associations to encourage their members to mentor minority high school students during the school year about the advantages of a legal career and, in some cases, provide them with opportunities to work in the summer at their firms or companies?

Archer:
As I have traveled across the country speaking, I have discovered one thing about these programs. Programs like those you asked about create a bond between the students and lawyers. The students come to understand the importance of the lawyer's role in society and how lawyers can promote constructive change. Where the program provides opportunities to intern in a firm or law department, the bond becomes even closer as the students demonstrate their interest in pursuing a legal career by working hard. Those students often find that the firm or law department will provide financial assistance and work opportunities that will help them finance their college or law school education.

Editor: Has the competition among law firms to demonstrate to prospective corporate clients their dedication to diversity been helpful?

Archer:
We need to remember that we have a million licensed lawyers in the U.S. About 750,000 of them actually practice law. Out of that number, the overwhelming number of lawyers are sole practitioners. The majority of law firms have 2 to 10 attorneys. Those of us who practice in firms of 50 or more represent a very small portion of the practicing bar. However, what should never be lost sight of is that the medium sized and smaller firms all look at what the large firms do Ñ whether it is implementing a new technology or a diversity plan. When they see that the larger firms have had increased business because of their diversity plan, they will realize that they too would benefit from having a lawyer of color.

I am very proud of corporations because they are further ahead in the area of diversity than the law firms. That has been teed up as a result of the recognition that America's population base is changing. Corporations know that before long a majority of their customers will be of color and will spend their discretionary dollars with organizations that they feel are sympathetic to their needs. Businesses are channeling more of their dollars to minority vendors. For example, Johnson Controls Inc. is a tier one automobile supply company with headquarters in Milwaukee. They now are the twelfth U.S. corporation to be recognized by the Billion Dollar Roundtable doing a billion dollars a year with vendors of color.

So, yes, competition among law firms who demonstrate their commitment to diversity is very helpful.

Editor: You mentioned Charles Morgan of Bell South earlier. How important has the leadership of outstanding general counsel like Charles been in bringing about a recognition of the importance of diversity by corporate America?

Archer:
If you go back in time, Harry Pearce, when he was Vice President and General Counsel of General Motors, was the first to send a letter to all their outside law firms encouraging them to become more diverse. That was in 1988 when the ABA first started its Minority Counsel Demonstration Program. Rev. Dr. Leon Sullivan, a member of GM's board of directors, pioneered the Sullivan Principles and the efforts to break down apartheid in South Africa. He brought to the attention of GM and to corporate America the work of demographers who pointed out that the complexion of the typical American consumer was changing. This was captured in the phrase "The Browning of America." I believe he provided the initial impetus for GM and the other automobile companies to become active advocates of diversity.

GM's Otis Smith was one of the first vice presidents and general counsels of color at a major U.S. corporation and a dedicated advocate of diversity. Jack Martin, Vice President and General Counsel of Ford Motor Company in the 80's, was also a pioneer. With Jack's encouragement, Ford at that time did more business with minority owned law firms than any other corporation in America.

The key going forward is the amount of progress that we make in the next 25 years. I have asked the ABA and the national ethnic bar associations to meet 10 years from now to discuss developments following the University of Michigan case and where we go in the next 15 years. Justice Sandra Day O'Connor expressed her hope that within 25 years there will no longer be a compelling state interest in considering race in connection with law school admissions. Much work will have to be done if her dream is to come true.

Corporate general counsels have an obligation to advise their companies about social and legal changes that may affect their companies' future success. You do a great service by bringing to the attention of your readers the thinking of leaders like Charles Morgan, Stacey Mobley, Tom Gottschalk, Joan Guggenheim, Paula Boggs, Roderick Palmore, George Madison and a host of others about the browning of America and the need for their law firms to get aboard the diversity bandwagon. Many smaller companies and small law firms will follow the lead of larger companies and law firms. By letting them know what the leaders are doing, your newspaper is playing a vital role in assuring that the message about the need to become more diverse reaches smaller companies and their selection of law firms, including the smaller law firms they select to service them.