My grandfather made his way through Ellis Island more than 100 years ago, drawn to the United States for the promise of freedom and opportunity that was unsurpassed by any other place in the world.
In his most optimistic dreams, however, he could not have imagined his granddaughter would be named president-elect of the American Bar Association (ABA). I intend to work hard not only to fulfill the goals of this organization, but to ensure that its greatest mission — to pursue justice and defend liberty for all citizens — remains at the forefront of all our efforts.
We are all too well aware that many in our country no longer see the opportunity for freedom and prosperity that compelled my grandfather to leave everything he knew. Our goal of pursuing justice and defending liberty cannot hope to be realized until all of our citizens believe that the justice system treats them fairly regardless of their color, gender, religion or income.
We must be willing to openly admit that we can do better. At a time when many are questioning whether the concept of “justice for all” applies to them, the ABA must lead by implementing strategies across this country to ensure that our citizens can believe that the civil and criminal-justice system truly serves everyone.
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Much has been said in our country’s recent political dialogue about the expanding gap in wealth inequality and access to opportunity. There are few places we see more evidence of that than in the justice gap.
We now have a unique opportunity before us. Technology has changed the way every aspect of our economy does business. The law profession cannot, and should not, hesitate to adopt its use to assist in meeting the large unmet needs of legal consumers in this country.
Through innovation, we can maximize the tools that technology affords us to make legal information more readily available to all persons otherwise unable to afford an attorney. We can provide pro se litigants with greater access to the information and forms they need to navigate a complex judicial system, and recognize that there are multiple new forms of assistance for the millions of Americans who seek legal assistance, but who have been turned away for years for lack of funding.
In our own practices, for the most part, attorneys have not embraced the meaningful change that technology could provide either. The ABA can provide leadership to assist in the adoption and implementation of innovative approaches, whether it’s learning to use project management software or knowing what specific services cost so they can offer clients fixed fees.
Our profession’s need for innovation cannot stop there. It seems not a week goes by where you don’t find an article in a major national newspaper commenting negatively on the state of legal education. We must embrace a system that actually trains law students to gain the practical hands-on skills that will allow them to solve a client’s problem in a practical and efficient way.
I believe the ABA is the only group in this country capable of getting everyone in the same room, talking to each other about whether and how the system of legal education should be re-designed. As the law practice becomes ever more specialized, we continue to teach and test as if everyone is planning to be a general practitioner. We must be a leader in evaluating how we can do better in educating and testing the competency of the future lawyers of our country.
The ABA also has a critical role to play in the world. Time and again, when lawyers around the globe learn of my involvement in this Association, they ask if there is a possibility that we could assist their country in adopting some of the core principles that have made our country’s justice system one to be emulated around the world. We should embrace this opportunity, whether it is in Argentina or Vietnam.
When I started as a summer associate at the law firm of Greenberg Traurig, of which I am now co-president, it had one office in Miami. During my career, the firm expanded to 38 offices around the world, exposing me to a pace of change in the legal profession that is only gaining speed with each passing day. In the next few years, the practice of law will look very different. The ABA must serve as the guiding light that will help current attorneys adapt to these changes, help new lawyers find their way and encourage future generations to join us in the fight to provide equal justice for all.
Hilarie Bass is president-elect of the American Bar Association. She is co-president of Greenberg Traurig.