around the bar
August 2, 2009

Opening Assembly Remarks by ABA President H. Thomas Wells Jr.

Access to Justice, Independent Judiciary and Legacy of Lincoln Among Themes

It’s a pleasure to be with you as we meet in Chicago, the ABA’s headquarters city and such a wonderful Annual Meeting destination. Jan and I renew our love with Chicago every time we visit. We hope you have plenty of opportunities to enjoy yourselves while you’re here.

Aside from its world-class architecture and showcases for the arts and culture, Chicago has nurtured some of the finest lawyers we’ve produced in America. Among them, of course, are the President and First Lady, who met as young lawyers at the Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin.

On Hubbard Street, a block from the ABA’s offices, is the old Cook County Criminal Courthouse. There, in 1924, the great Clarence Darrow delivered an impassioned plea to the jury—12 hours long—which spared the lives of his clients Leopold and Loeb.

On Michigan Avenue, just a few blocks from here, is the Chicago Hilton and Towers. It was known as the Stevens Hotel when it opened as the world’s largest hotel in the 1920s. A member of that Stevens family was a 7-year-old boy named John, who went on to attend law school at Northwestern University and develop a career as a talented antitrust lawyer. John Paul Stevens was later appointed as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in Chicago. Today, he’s the senior associate justice on the U.S. Supreme Court.

And, of course, it’s our fortune that we’re meeting in the Land of Lincoln during the bicentennial year of our great lawyer-president. Unlike other lawyer-presidents whose careers focused on government service and other callings, Lincoln had a thriving practice until shortly before his election. A number of his cases, in fact, were based here in Chicago, including many involving his railroad clients.

So to borrow a phrase from Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, it is “altogether fitting and proper” that the bar celebrate how his role as a great leader was shaped by his role as a great lawyer.

This is why bar associations throughout the nation celebrated Law Day this year with the theme “Lincoln: A Legacy of Liberty.” It’s why we presented the reading from Lincoln’s “Notes from a Law Lecture.” His advice about compromise, about peacemaking, and about relating to clients resonates to this day.

Lincoln developed his wisdom long before law schools in America were commonplace. He learned about the law from his own life experiences and initiative.

Lincoln’s family lived in near poverty, and they had early problems with the law. His father lost part of a Kentucky farm due to title flaws and was involved in litigation over other farm properties.

When he was 18 years old, Lincoln faced a legal challenge involving his operation of a ferryboat. After hearing the young man’s successful defense, the justice of the peace advised Lincoln to “read up a bit on the law.”

Lincoln did so, devouring the Revised Laws of Indiana. “The more I read,” he said, “the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed.”

Lincoln answered the call to practice law. Many of you know I say that because I’m from the South, and we have a saying about becoming a lawyer: We say you are “called to the bar.”

Our calling is not to a trade, or to a business, but to a profession. We are not technicians who blindly carry out the will of our clients. Instead, we practice as professionals. We exercise moral and ethical judgments—independent moral and ethical judgments—when we represent those who seek our help. We must render independent legal advice even when it’s advice the client doesn’t necessarily want to hear.

Our calling enables us to advance our profession’s common core values—values that include access to justice, independence of the bar and the judiciary, diversity, and the rule of law.

With your help, the ABA and lawyers everywhere advanced our core values and made a difference this year.

For our value of access to justice, we secured a significant boost in federal funding for legal services. Pro bono programs throughout the country are helping the legal needs of the poor by handling foreclosures, evictions, and other consequences of the economic crisis. We have so much more to do, but the bar’s commitment to working on resolving our pressing access to justice issues is ringing louder and clearer than ever, especially during these difficult times.

Our efforts to preserve an independent judiciary have been strong. We’re pressing on with our lobbying to secure reasonable pay for our federal judges. And the ABA’s extensive, apolitical, peer-based investigations and evaluations of prospective federal judicial nominees serve the American people by helping to ensure a well-qualified federal judiciary.

We’re also working to uphold the independence of our state courts. Our national summit on “Justice is the Business of Government: The Critical Role of Fair and Impartial State Courts” attracted delegations from 37 states and territories, and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was our honorary co-chair.

On our core value of diversifying our profession, we have lots to do even as we take steps in the right direction. Our work necessarily focuses on people from groups with persistent, documented challenges to their full participation in the legal profession and to their rights as citizens. The ABA presidential summit on diversity this year attracted 200 bar leaders to share ideas and strategies for moving forward on these critical issues.

Our core value commitment to the rule of law remains strong. I was inspired as I visited countries such as Mexico and Qatar to promote the ABA’s work in this area. It is work that is very much appreciated by our sisters and brothers overseas. On display in the ABA Office of the President is a plaque we received this year from the legal team of Chief Justice Chaudhry and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan. It thanks the ABA for our steadfast support as their lawyers in black business suits were tear-gassed and rounded up in their struggle to preserve the rule of law.

Our focus on rule of law isn’t limited to foreign lands. Our important work here at home is manifold, including support for fair hearings for immigration detainees and ABA immigrant rights projects in border communities.

This is just a small portion of the work we do day in and day out to advance our common core values.

We hold to our core values no matter what our practice area is. No matter what our political outlook is. No matter who are clients are.

We hold to our core values in times of war and in times of peace, in prosperous times and impoverished times, in periods of calm and in periods of crisis.

Regardless of the challenges that face us—indeed, largely because of those challenges—we as lawyers are called on not just to make a dollar, but to make a difference. Thank you for joining me and for giving me the pleasure to serve and make a difference with all of you.