The Lawyer As Public Citizen: The American Bar Association Leads The Profession Into The Future

Tuesday, November 1, 2005 - 01:00
Michael S. Greco

Editor: Mr. Greco, would you tell our readers something about your background and professional experience?

Greco: I was born in Italy in 1942, and came to America at the age of seven. My mother was American, my dad Italian. After the war my family immigrated to the United States and we settled in Hinsdale, a suburb of Chicago, Illinois, where my mother had been born. I did my undergraduate work at Princeton University and legal studies at Boston College Law School, where I served as editor-in-chief of the law review and class president. Following a clerkship on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City, I joined the Boston law firm of Hill & Barlow. By prior agreement, the firm permitted me a 9-month leave to become a Fellow at the University of Florence Law Faculty. I returned to Hill & Barlow after the Fellowship and spent 31 years there until the firm closed its doors in 2002. I then had the good fortune to join the firm of Kirkpatrick & Lockhart Nicholson Graham. The two firms have a great deal in common: outstanding lawyers, dedication to providing excellent service to clients, a view of lawyers as problem solvers, and a strong commitment to public service and the well-being of the greater community. These are important attributes for me, because they constitute the background that I bring to my ABA presidency and the initiatives that I am implementing during the coming year.

Editor: Will you share with us the factors that went into your choice of the law as a career?

Greco: I decided that I wanted to be a lawyer at a very young age, in junior high school. The village of Hinsdale was a very close-knit, caring community, and it occurred to me that one of the principal reasons that it was so appealing had to do with the many lawyers who devoted so much time to the needs of the town and its inhabitants. Outstanding lawyers, who practiced in Chicago law firms or in Hinsdale by day, in the evenings and on weekends also served on the School Board, on the Planning Board, on various other important town committees and commissions, and in a variety of civic and community roles. I realized that these townspeople were problem solvers who functioned at the very heart of society, who cared for their community and who worked to improve society. In time, I came to understand that the most important place that members of our profession occupy in society is that of public citizen, dedicated to the common good, and that this has been a vitally important societal role of lawyers for centuries.

Editor: Would you tell us about your practice and how it has evolved over the course of your career?

Greco: I am a trial lawyer by background. Most of my work has involved commercial litigation, and over time that has become both more complex and more sophisticated. More recently I have also been engaged in arbitration and mediation, and in recent years my work as an arbitrator in complex business and other disputes has become an increasingly important part of my practice.

Editor: You have also had a parallel career with the American Bar Association. Would you tell us how you got started and then how your ABA career evolved?

Greco: I became active in the bar shortly after coming back to Boston from my Second Circuit clerkship in New York. Within a year I was active in both the Boston Bar Association and the Massachusetts Bar Association, and shortly thereafter I became a member of the American Bar Association. In time I became increasingly active with the Massachusetts Bar, serving on the governing board by the late 1970s and then, in 1985-86, serving as president. The MBA presidency was a wonderful experience. One of the highlights of that year was my appointing, with the Governor, a commission that examined the unmet legal needs of children, and that made a dozen recommendations, several of which were enacted into law protecting the rights of children. During my year in office I became a Massachusetts delegate to the American Bar Association House of Delegates, and I have served there ever since, in various capacities.

Over the years I was asked to chair a number of committees by ABA presidents, including the ABA Standing Committee on Federal Judiciary, which evaluates the President's federal court nominees, including United States Supreme Court nominees.

When I completed that assignment, I became chair of the ABA Section of Individual Rights and Responsibilities, an entity that I and many others consider to be the conscience of the ABA. Eventually, I was asked to consider becoming President of the ABA.

Editor: As you enter the office of President of the ABA, what are the principal items on your agenda? What do you wish to accomplish during your term of office?

Greco: During my term I want to implement certain initiatives that I believe will benefit society in general, that will help make the practice of law more fulfilling for lawyers, and that will enable lawyers to serve their clients, the public, and society more effectively.

The President of the ABA has an opportunity to take a long, hard look at the profession and its contributions to society. There are three primary initiatives that I am implementing. The first derives from what I believe to be the indispensable role that lawyers play in the community. I have appointed a commission to help reinvigorate the public service mission of the legal profession. It is called the ABA Commission on the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Theodore C. Sorensen, Special Counsel to President John F. Kennedy, are serving as the honorary co-chairs. Mark D. Agrast, of Washington, DC, is chairing the commission. Mr. Sorensen was present when the Peace Corps was established under a President who inspired young people to serve their nation and the world. He sees a need, as do I, for the profession to embrace the spirit that created the Peace Corps. The Commission will provide important guidance on ways that the legal profession can make more time available for lawyers to perform pro bono and pubic service work.

My second initiative came to mind during the national debate surrounding the Terri Schiavo case. I was astonished at the irresponsible criticism directed by some of our governmental leaders and others at the judges who ruled on that case. Attacks on judges for doing their job in a fair and impartial way pose a serious threat to our form of government. The loss of an independent judiciary and loss of public respect for our judiciary would be a serious blow to our democracy. An independent judiciary is what protects the rights and freedoms of the individual and the rule of law. Anyone who understands the concept of separation of powers that the Founders embedded in the U.S. Constitution understands that this is what has allowed our country to flourish for more than two centuries.

This past August the American Bar Association commissioned a Harris Interactive survey on the public's understanding of the separation of powers and the role of the judiciary in our society. The results were very disturbing. There exists a fundamental lack of knowledge about how our government works. If the people do not understand their rights, it is easy for those rights to be subverted, even taken away altogether. It is also easy to foment attacks on the judiciary when people don't know what the judge's role is. An informed public, one that understands the role of the judiciary in protecting our rights and the rule of law, is the best safeguard against such attacks.

To this end, I appointed the ABA Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers. The honorary co-chairs of the commission are retiring Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley. The working chair is Robert Rawson, the partner-in-charge of Jones Day's Cleveland office and a lawyer of great distinction. Bob has just stepped down after many years as Chairman of the Princeton University Board of Trustees and possesses distinguished credentials to lead what is essentially an educational initiative. The Commission includes several former members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, retired judges, former members of the Executive Branch, and the current heads of the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Council for the Social Studies. The Commission will examine the teaching of civics throughout the country and make recommendations for improvements where needed.

The third initiative has to do with improving access to the civil justice system for lower-income Americans. I have appointed the ABA Task Force on Access to Justice to address the issue. In 1987, after I finished my term as president of the Massachusetts Bar, I chaired a study on the legal needs of the poor in Massachusetts. We found that 70-80% of the legal needs of the poor go unaddressed year after year. Those findings, similar ones from other states, and studies undertaken in the early 1990's by the ABA, helped in the effort to persuade Congress to increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation, and, at least for a few years, additional funds were forthcoming. Notwithstanding our profession's strong commitment to pro bono services, however, the United States today ranks near the bottom among developed countries in funding for legal services for the poor. The ABA Task Force on Access to Justice is headed by Associate Justice Howard H. Dana, Jr., of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, who twice served (by appointment of two U.S. Presidents) on the governing board of the Legal Services Corporation. The Task Force has two goals: to promote the establishment of commissions on access to justice in all 50 states; and to make recommendations to the ABA on an idea whose time has come: a defined legal right to counsel for indigents in civil cases dealing with serious family, housing and health issues, similar to the constitutional right that the U.S. Supreme Court set forth in the 1962 case Gideon v. Wainwright for indigents facing imprisonment on the criminal side.

Those are my three primary initiatives. I will also carry forward the work of ABA President Robert Grey's Task Force on the Attorney-Client Privilege, which is continuing its work this year.

Editor: One of the themes of our publication concerns the progress of the rule of law, particularly in places that have not known it in the past. Would you tell us about the role that the ABA plays in this area?

Greco: The ABA has four rule of law initiatives. The first, the Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative, or CEELI, was set up after the fall of the Soviet Union and consists of teams of judges, lawyers and law students who help, for example, the Balkan countries develop legal systems that are free of corruption. Over the past seven years the ABA has established similar rule of law projects in Asia, Latin America and Africa. The ultimate goal for all of these initiatives is to enable countries with weak or even non-functioning economies to begin to attract foreign investment through the implementation of the rule of law and stable judicial systems. Even the most attractive investment opportunity is going to be ignored by investors if a fair and impartial judicial system is lacking and there is no guarantee that the investment is going to be protected from predatory interests.

This past February I visited the Republic of Georgia to meet, among others, the newly installed Chief Justice of the Georgia Supreme Court. He is a young man - 32 years of age - charged with addressing the judicial corruption that is a holdover from Soviet times. At the time we met he had been in office for three days. He told me that he had deferred a number of meetings with heads of state so that his first official meeting would be with the incoming ABA President, in gratitude for all that the ABA, and American lawyers and judges, have done in his country to help build a free and stable legal system. His compliment, which I accepted on behalf of all American lawyers and judges, and similar ones in other developing countries that I have visited, indicate that the ABA's rule of law efforts are making an important difference in these countries.

Let me add that the civic education survey I mentioned a moment ago suggests, regrettably, that the rule of law is being taken for granted in our own country. The ABA Commission on Civic Education and the Separation of Powers is working to ensure that our country continues to be governed by that principle.

Editor: Is it possible to win the war on terrorism without subverting the rule of law?

Greco: It must be possible for us to win the war on terrorism without subverting the rule of law. The ABA is on record in its support of the Administration's efforts to secure our nation, and also on record about the need to secure our civil liberties and freedoms. The ABA believes that to keep someone in prison for years on end, without being charged, without access to counsel and without independent judicial review of the incarceration, violates the fundamental due process and fairness tenets of our democracy. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with this position in its rulings in June 2004. If we do not fiercely safeguard the principles that have guided us for so many years, then, in violating the rights to which these detainees are entitled, we run the risk of surrendering those rights for all of us. The rule of law protects everyone, or no one.