President's Message

Facing Challenges in Crisis Mode

Extraordinary times require extraordinary efforts from lawyers

Posted Jan 1, 2009 3:00 AM CDT
By H. Thomas Wells Jr.

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Tommy Wells
Photo by Dee Moore

As the ancient curse would have it, we live in interesting times. The meltdown of world financial markets has joined other ur­gent issues as we anticipate the transition to the new presidential administration and Con­gress. These times prom­ise a sea change for government, private industry and the legal profession.

The economic crisis is affecting every business and line of work, and lawyers have been hit relatively early and hard. Though the ABA can’t reverse the business cycle, it’s during times like these that our members can take excellent advantage of association resources.

Programs, publications and other activities throughout the ABA connect lawyers across the country to share best practices on career and professional development, law firm management and substantive law practice issues. This is an opportune time to seek out these resources, get involved and make a difference for our practices, our profession and our communities.

Aside from affecting individual lawyers, the financial crisis also risks undermining the profession’s core value of access to justice, particularly for people of limited means. The lackluster economy could reduce funds for bar foundations and other nonprofit organizations that nurture access-to-justice programs. This is especially troublesome at a time when many people desperately need legal help with matters such as foreclosures, bankruptcies and securing unemployment benefits.

A major source of access-to-justice funding comes from state interest-on-lawyers’-trust-accounts programs. Last fall, after the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. increased coverage on interest-bearing deposit accounts to boost confidence in the banking industry, the ABA mobilized state bar associations and others to advocate for provisions that would protect IOLTA accounts. This is crucial because IOLTA programs fund innovative activities that support legal services for the poor. These include educational loan repayment assistance programs for public interest lawyers, legal information websites and hotlines, and resources for victim services, court-appointed special advocates and pro se litigants.

TASK FORCE WILL RESPOND

A good deal of change resulting from the financial crisis is likely to involve major new federal regulations. It’s unclear what the specifics of such regulations will be, but the potential implications are great for all lawyers. The ABA has formed a task force that will examine the expected new regulatory developments, analyze their potential impact and coordinate the ABA’s response. Task force members include former agency general counsel and others with high-level experience in government and financial services.

In these extraordinary times of crisis, we need to be vigilant in protecting the independence of the legal profession and our ability to represent clients. To do so effectively, we must be able to com­municate confidentially with our clients, and these communications must be shielded from undue government interference.

On the heels of another business crisis several years ago, the Securi­ties and Exchange Commission proposed regulations under the Sar­banes-­Oxley Act that would have weakened client confidentiality and damaged the attorney-client relationship. While the ABA ultimately succeeded in getting the proposal withdrawn, we must remain attentive to potential regulations that could affect our service to clients and their constitutional rights.

The economy is driving much of the change we’re anticipating, but the bar has many other areas of advocacy to pursue during the government transition. Over the years, the ABA has made numerous policy proposals for improving the justice system and promoting the rule of law, and we will continue to do so. These proposals, which are adopt­ed by the ABA’s nationally represen­tative House of Delegates, include recommenda­tions to help the new administration and Congress achieve these objectives. Working with the ABA’s Governmental Affairs Office, we are thankful for your support as we set priorities for our lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C.

We do, indeed, live in interesting times. With your help, I look forward to meeting the challenges we face and promoting the rule of law now and in the future.

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