The Profession's Response To The Challenge Of Complacency

Thursday, June 1, 2006 - 01:00
Peter J. Kalis

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

Kalis: I graduated from West Virginia University in 1972. I spent a year at Yale Law School and was fortunate to obtain a Rhodes Scholarship. I took a leave of absence and spent three years at Oxford doing a doctoral degree in law and politics. My dissertation was on British industrial relations. When I returned to Yale I went into the second year and spent my final year as editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal.

Following graduation, I clerked for the late J. Skelly Wright, Chief Judge of the DC Circuit, for a year and went on to clerk for Justice Byron White at the United States Supreme Court. I came to Kirkpatrick & Lockhart in 1980. My work has been in litigation, with a primary focus on insurance coverage issues for major corporations. I was engaged in this practice for some 15 years, prior to becoming increasingly involved in firm management. For the past eight years I have been Chairman and Managing Partner of the firm.

Editor: Can you share with us the things that attracted you to the firm?

Kalis: Having grown up near Pittsburgh, I was attracted to the city - which is where Kirkpatrick & Lockhart originated - but the real attraction was the extraordinary group of individuals leading the firm at that time. They were a high-energy group of people, very collegial and committed to the community and to the profession. They were also having a wonderful time together building a great law firm. The combination was irresistible. Notwithstanding the fact that we have grown to more than a thousand lawyers and have 12 offices across the country and abroad, we try to perpetuate the atmosphere and culture that were so prevalent in the firm I joined more than 25 years ago.

Editor: You have also had a parallel career with the American Bar Association.

Kalis: "Parallel career" is a little excessive. I have spoken at various functions, and I have served on one or two task forces. The real crown jewel of my ABA experience has been serving as Chair of National Law Day.

Editor: Speaking of which, would you tell us about National Law Day?

Kalis: In the late 1950s the then-President of the ABA, Charles Rhyne, concluded that there was a need for the bar to take a more active role in propagating the fundamental values that we associate with the term "rule of law." He convinced President Eisenhower to establish National Law Day as a focus for such a role. Over the years, it has gathered significant momentum, not as a celebration internal to the profession but rather as a concept for the profession - as missionaries for our system of justice - to convey to the larger community. It is meant to encourage an appreciation of our special heritage and to avoid taking it for granted. I see complacency as one of the principal challenges that every democracy faces. National Law Day is among the profession's responses to that challenge.

Editor: What kinds of activities take place?

Kalis: It has been a real education for me to see National Law Day through the eyes of the ABA staff in Chicago. Law Day has a presence throughout our society. From the beginning of April through the end of May there are a variety of events, drawing upon a broad range of organizations, to celebrate Law Day and the values it symbolizes. The organizations include, in addition to bar associations and other professional groups, schools, civic and community organizations, religious groups and public service organizations of every type. The ABA staff circulates a planning guide that describes how to organize a school program or a mock trial designed to introduce young people to the profession and the values that Law Day is meant to project. My colleagues at K&LNG and elsewhere are heavily involved in these activities, and I am glad to say the original ABA vision of members of the profession serving as missionaries for the rule of law is alive and well.

There is a real challenge here. The rule of law is an abstract concept for many young people. Our schools are trying to transform this concept into something concrete, something that young people can grasp. Lawyers, as guardians of the rule of law and, at the same time, flesh-and-blood figures in our society, are uniquely placed to help in this process.

Editor: Obviously Mike Greco, the President of the ABA, came to you with this important undertaking because of your commitment to the rule of law and to our heritage of liberty under law. Our readers would be very interested to know how you came to have that commitment.

Kalis: As you know, Mike Greco is the son of an Italian immigrant. Well, I am the son of a Greek immigrant. My father was a naturalized American citizen and, like many immigrants, he had very strong feelings about this country and the blessings it bestows on its citizens. That communicated itself in a variety of ways to a young boy with an inclination to become a lawyer. At Yale Law School, in the Constitutional Law class of the late Alexander Mordecai Bickel, I was able to grasp the truly transcendent significance of the rule of law in our system. It differentiates that system from the arbitrary arrangements others must endure.

When I studied in Britain in the mid-1970s, it was at a time of enormous stress, and some people were taking the law into their own hands. There was a moment or two when I wondered whether that society would be able to survive as we had come to know and admire it. I went on to have the good fortune to work for two great jurists who believed that law was a kinetic force in the lives of all Americans and that it had to be pursued with conviction, devotion and passion. These experiences had a profound effect on my perception of the rule of law and, if any were needed, on my commitment to it.

The theme of this year's National Law Day - "Separate Branches, Balanced Powers" - strikes a particular chord in me because of my time at the United States Supreme Court. When I clerked there, I was struck by the intimacy and modesty of the institution as compared to the two other branches. The equalizer is the rule of law, and, of course, the Supreme Court is the guardian of this concept.

I have known Mike Greco for many years, and we have had many occasions to share our convictions about the rule of law.

Editor: Please tell us why the 2006 theme was selected. Is there a message here? Are we losing ground in the appreciation and comprehension that American young people bring to their view of our government and the way it works?

Kalis: "Separate Branches, Balanced Powers" was selected by Mike Greco in consultation with the ABA staff. It is one of the core principles of our constitutional democracy, along with the right to a jury trial and other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights, the Commerce Clause, the inherent powers of the President and other core principles. Unlike some of the other National Law Day themes, however, the separation of powers has not been articulated and promoted to the extent it deserves. This year's National Law Day, accordingly, is an attempt to start to remedy this state of affairs.

Editor: Everyone appreciates the importance of drawing attention to the rule of law and the ways in which it underlies our freedom as a people. How do we go about transforming this occasional recognition into a permanent feature of our civic life?

Kalis: One view is that a celebration of the rule of law once a year is insufficient to underscore the importance this concept has in our life as a nation. The other view is that it becomes more special for the relative infrequency of the celebration. I believe that the rule of law, in all of its varied aspects, is alive and well in our society. For all of its deficiencies, our system of justice results in outcomes that are fair, as a matter of substance and process, and thoughtful. Not all the time, for no system is perfect, but enough of the time for most of our people to have a profound trust in that system. I am among those who think that going to the mountain top once a year to proclaim the unparalleled functionality of our system makes the celebration more, not less, special. I like the idea of coming together once a year to remind ourselves how unique such a system is and how fortunate we are to be its beneficiaries.

Editor: We are a country of immigrants. Never more so, it seems, than today. Please share with us your thoughts about how we bring the newest arrivals to our shores into the fold so far as the rule of law is concerned.

Kalis: One of the signature challenges of this century is the movement of people across borders. The preservation of core values in the face of such movement is something that many societies face today. Our country has a commitment that goes back two centuries to a particular brand of constitutional democracy - a commitment that defines us as a people - and we have a special obligation to all new entrants into this country to introduce them to the rule of law and to the enormous positive energy that it releases.

This is something that my father felt a century ago when he came here. In the formal process of immigration and naturalization there continues to be a civic education feature. But, of course, not all new entrants to our nation follow that formal process. Whatever their pathway, we must introduce immigrants to the concepts that underlie our freedom as a nation. We must continue to rely upon and support our public education system as a primary means of integrating new arrivals into the cultural and social fabric of the country. It has served us well in this regard for the past two centuries. I do not mean to minimize the challenges, however. They are as daunting today as they have ever been, perhaps more so. Because we have been successful in bringing new entrants into the fold in the past, we may be in a better position to face the new wave of global immigration than societies that are experiencing it for the first time.

Editor: What are the consequences if we are not successful in this effort?

Kalis: We simply cannot afford to fail. The last time we experienced a large disenfranchised segment in our society, the country was ripped apart. It is at the heart of our mission to bring people into the mainstream. If we fail in that mission, we emerge as a very different people and nation.

Editor: And the consequences for the rest of world - and particularly for places which have not know the rule of law - if we do it well?

Kalis: We have been perceived, to borrow a phrase, as the shining city on the hill for people throughout the world. This is not something that we should take for granted. Rather, it is something to be earned every day. In my view, promoting the rule of law is one of the best ways of ensuring the continuation of this splendid image as well as the reality behind the image.