On Tuesday, Miami lawyer Hilarie Bass took the reigns of the American Bar Association. She will be steering the nation’s 400,000-member professional association as the group’s 141st president. The organization’s mission includes improving the profession and assuring meaningful access to justice.
The position gives Bass an opportunity to continue working on issues she has championed throughout her career, including equal access to the law and diversity within the profession. Bass will be the eighth female president of the ABA, and the second president practicing in Miami. [The first was Stephen Zack, president from 2010-2011.]
As one of the country’s highest-profile female attorneys, Bass has represented major clients including Microsoft, Hilton Hotels and the government of Brazil. She is now co-president of Greenberg Traurig, an international multi-practice firm with 38 offices worldwide and approximately 2,000 lawyers.
Though she frequently represents clients with millions of dollars on the line, for Bass, some of her most important work was a pro bono case on behalf of two foster children. Her work led to the elimination of Florida’s 20-year-old ban on gay adoption, which was declared unconstitutional.
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Bass will serve a one-year term for the ABA, where she has served in various leadership positions since the mid-1980s, including chair of the litigation section and Florida’s state delegate. The group boasts over 400,000 members, making it the country’s largest volunteer professional organization.
While her work has brought her national attention, she’s stayed strong in her Miami roots. She graduated from the University of Miami School of Law, where she edited the law review, and now serves on its board of trustees. Last year, she donated $1 million to the school.
Bass has big plans for her ABA tenture, which she discussed with the Miami Herald.
Here are excerpts from the conversation:
Q. The ABA is essentially a professional organization. Why is it important to non-lawyers?
A. Well one of the most important things about the ABA is we vet all the federal judges. [In previous administrations this occurred prior to nomination; under Trump, it occurs post-nomination.]
We are actively engaged in defending the rule of law in the United States and across the world. In more than 80 countries, we are helping to assist in the creation of constitutions and adversarial systems, and teaching people how separation of powers work and why it should be implemented in their country.
We also accredit law schools and draft model ethical rules for lawyers, which specifically benefits both lawyers and their clients.
Q. Does the ABA have an impact on the national agenda, and if so, how?
A. Basically any legislation that directly impacts on the civil rights of our citizens is one that likely the ABA is going to be lobbying on behalf of U.S. citizens, not just U.S. lawyers.
So for example, we advocated for Medicaid. We speak up when judges are criticized. We advocate for adequate funding of the justice system — that includes judges as well as legal aid programs. ... Anything that affects a US citizen’s civil rights, the attorney client relationship [or] the judiciary, the ABA is out front.
We lobby on criminal justice reforms, so we have specific policy on minimizing incarceration, making sure juveniles aren’t incarcerated for life without parole. We lobby for the elimination of discrimination, immigration reform, the independence of the judiciary, national security and civil liberties.
Q. Are there any benefits to Miami to have the ABA president be from here?
A. First of all, we’ll be bringing the board of governors to Miami in October.
But any community any ABA president is from is a particular spotlight. It certainly shines a spotlight on that area’s legal community, reinforcing its reputation for quality legal representation.
Q. What are your goals for the coming year, and why are they important to you? How did you determine these goals?
A. Well, I chose them for a combination of thing that were particularly timely as far as topics in the news, as well as those that had a personal resonance to me.
So, one of the ones we’re focusing on is the future of legal education. Another project that I’m working on next year will be one that’s based on the question of why women are leaving the profession.
We are instituting a project where we will be pairing law firms and in-house counsel departments, as well as bar associations and other legal groups, to partner with more than 350 homeless shelters across the country, and the point is to be able to provide direct representation for homeless youth. We have more than half a million homeless youth in this country, many of whom make their way to shelters that have no ability to solve their legal problems.
We’re asking law firms to help provide the representation of homeless youth in the shelters once a month. So we give advice to homeless youth on basic issues of concern to them such as how they qualify for benefits, getting identification, helping to get re-entry to schools.
Q. Fact checking and verifying claims is a hot topic in the news lately. What is the ABA doing to increase transparency and truth around legal matters?
A. Something we launched Tuesday is called ABA Fact Check. The goal is for the ABA to be the definitive source for what the law is.
So, if a statement is made in public discourse about what the law is that we know is incorrect, within a matter of hours we will post on our website what, in fact, the law says in that particular area, so that both the media and the American citizens can look to the ABA for the definite answer on what the law is.
Q. A lot of women leave the legal profession in their 40s and 50s. How does this impact the profession, and what do you think can be done to address this?
A. We know that women start out after law school as 50 percent of outgoing lawyers... but by the age of 50 the number of women remaining in the profession is close to half that. And we understand that women are leaving in their 40s and 50s, at a time that they should be reaching the epitome of success based on their time and experience.
So we’re going to do a national study, starting with a summit at Harvard, which will focus on why women are leaving and whether there are structural changes that need to be made at law firms to make sure this resource doesn’t walk out the door.
We all recognize the importance of having a diverse legal profession that that represents the communities in which they practice. It’s critically important that we as professionals are hospitable to the diverse attorneys as well as all others. Clients want to see diverse attorneys in the profession. We need to make sure that we create an environment where diverse attorneys are incentivized to stay.
Q. Like other professions, law is being disrupted. Some traditional first-year tasks are being overtaken by robots. Meanwhile, many firms are hiring less. How is the ABA adjusting education to fit current and future needs?
A. We’ve created a focus group to study the future of legal education. In particular, to study why bar passage rates have fallen, as well as what skills a future lawyer will need 30, 40, 50 years from now.
That’s the whole purpose of the commission on legal education. To make specific recommendations on lawyers on the future —what skills they will need to develop — and to assist law schools in identifying what they will look like.