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Incoming ABA President James Silkenat puts a job corps for new lawyers at the top of his agenda


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Photo of James Silkenat by Callie Lipkin.

It didn’t take long for James R. Silkenat to recognize that serving as ABA president is a life-changing experience.

And even though he won’t start his one-year term until the close of the 2013 ABA Annual Meeting in mid-August, Silkenat has been experiencing the turmoil of the presidential experience since last August, when he officially was confirmed by the House of Delegates to be president-elect. Under the ABA Constitution, the ABA president-elect serves a year in that capacity before automatically becoming president.

“I was surprised how quickly my life started to change right after last year’s annual meeting,” said Silkenat, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester in New York City, during an interview with the ABA Journal at the end of May. He has been kept busy with speaking engagements; considering candidates for the dozens of appointments the president makes to various ABA committees, commissions, task forces and other entities; planning his presidential initiatives; and helping current President Laurel G. Bellows, the principal at the Bellows Law Group in Chicago, keep up the momentum on her initiatives.

“It’s a challenge, but an adventure too,” said Silkenat in reference to the variety of matters he’s dealing with. “It’s like juggling a bowling ball, a hacksaw and a creampuff all at one time. They’re all important, but each one has a different consistency.”

And then there are the colds. Occasional run-ins with flu bugs are almost inevitable, given the amount of time ABA presidents and presidents-elect spend in airplanes, meeting rooms and banquet halls. Moreover, foreign travel is becoming more common for ABA leaders as the legal profession takes on more global dimensions.

Silkenat clearly was fighting a doozy during the interview, and he explained that he had picked it up during a trip to the Middle East with a delegation of lawyers from the Section of International Law to meet with lawyers and judges from Israel. As an aside, Silkenat noted that, while the United States has the world’s largest population of lawyers in sheer numbers, Israel has the most lawyers on a per capita basis.

TAKING ON TWO ISSUES AT ONCE

One of the initiatives that already is getting much of Silkenat’s attention is the Legal Access Job Corps, which essentially would seek to address two key concerns currently facing the legal profession: the unmet legal needs of disadvantaged communities and the oversupply of lawyers—many of them unemployed—in some regions of the United States.

While the project still is in a formative stage, the concept, Silkenat said, is that it may be beneficial to find ways to fund freshly minted attorneys who would be willing to locate to areas of unmet legal needs. The payments to the lawyers would be tied to their work on behalf of people who do not otherwise have access to lawyers or who cannot afford to hire lawyers.

As an illustration of the issue, Silkenat pointed to South Dakota, where some areas simply don’t have lawyers. In one county, he said, the closest attorney is 200 miles away. To address the problem, the South Dakota legislature recently approved funding to move some young lawyers to those areas and to pay them a salary for a period of time.

Experimental programs also are underway in other locations, such as the University of Miami School of Law, which has created a job corps that places graduates in public agencies, public interest organizations and judicial chambers in Florida and other parts of the country. Participants receive a $2,500 monthly stipend and must attend professional development sessions on a weekly basis. The fellowships run for six months, enough time for the lawyers to build bridges to new employment opportunities.

Similar programs that combine the opportunity to receive salaries for serving low-income clients while building practice skills are in place or being planned at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco and at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.

Key questions, Silkenat said, are whether programs like this can be replicated around the United States and whether some sort of nationwide program would be practical. The other big question, of course, is where funding would come from, especially for a federal program. In recent years, Congress already has been reluctant to increase funding for the Legal Services Corp., which channels that money to local offices that provide civil legal services to the poor.

Silkenat has named three co-chairs for a task force that will begin work on this initiative in conjunction with the annual meeting. They are Allan J. Tanenbaum, general counsel and managing partner at Equicorp Partners in Atlanta; Eric T. Washington, the chief judge of the District of Columbia Court of Appeals, the district’s highest court; and Patricia D. White, dean at the University of Miami School of Law.

The Legal Access Job Corps initiative ties in with current efforts by the ABA to look at the state of legal education in the United States, said Silkenat. The Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, created in 2012 by then-ABA President Wm. T. (Bill) Robinson III, is focusing primarily on economic issues related to legal education, licensing of lawyers and the role of law schools in improving the delivery of legal services. The task force has set a target of issuing its recommendations this fall, which means they could be considered by the House of Delegates as early as February at the 2014 midyear meeting in Chicago. (Robinson is the member-in-charge of the Florence, Ky., office of Frost Brown Todd.)

“This will be a watershed in how the United States looks at legal education,” Silkenat said. “Interesting questions are being raised about whether there’s a better way to do what we’re doing in legal education.”

But Silkenat said it’s also difficult to assess what the reaction might be if the task force includes some fairly drastic measures among its recommendations. “Nobody likes change,” he said. “It’s too easy to continue doing what we’re doing. But we all have a stake in this. The legal profession needs to do a better job of serving the public.”

A potential hot-button issue that Silkenat said the ABA should not back away from is gun violence. “It’s a very emotional and challenging issue,” he said, “but surveys show that most Americans believe we need to do something about gun violence. The question is what.”

Silkenat noted that the ABA has been involved in efforts to find ways to reduce gun violence since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963. But although the House of Delegates has approved more than a dozen policy resolutions since then that are intended to reduce gun violence, Silkenat suggested that the association’s most effective role might be in advancing the dialogue on the issue.

“Perhaps we have an educational role to play,” he said, “and perhaps we can lead a national conversation on how we can all be safer without impinging on Second Amendment rights.”

Silkenat has submitted a request that the Board of Governors create a 10-member advisory committee to the Standing Committee on Gun Violence. Creating the advisory committee will allow the ABA to tap into the expertise of a wider range of experts on the issue, he said.

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Where the buffalo roam: In one county in South Dakota, the closest attorney is 200 miles away. Photo by Shutterstock.com.

WATCH OUT FOR THE CURVEBALL

Silkenat said immigration law reform and election law issues also will be on his agenda in the coming year. Regarding immigration law, he said the ABA should follow up on policies the House adopted recently that support measures to increase legal services to those dealing with immigration issues. And he said he will ask the Standing Committee on Election Law to look at how the disparities between voting rules at the state level might be addressed. “We need greater rationality in how the system runs,” he said.

But even with a full agenda of issues he wants to address, Silkenat knows there will be some curveballs out there waiting for him—some unanticipated issue or crisis that is bound to have an effect on his term. “Issues sneak up on us,” he said, “and we can just hope we’re prepared to respond when it comes.”

Musing again at the end of the interview about the occasional quirks of serving as ABA president, Silkenat said, “The question that always comes up is: ‘Are you having fun?’ The answer doesn’t occur to you. There’s so much going on all at the same time that it can be hard to have deep, philosophical thoughts as you’re doing it. And I am having fun.”

To prove that last assertion, Silkenat said he will again sponsor an ABA Night at the Movies in San Francisco during the annual meeting. He introduced the event in February at the midyear meeting in Dallas, giving attendees the chance to relax with beverages and snacks while watching My Cousin Vinny. The annual meeting feature will be The Paper Chase.

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