Executive Director's Report

It's a Small World

Henry White.
Photo by Paul Berg

In these increasingly tough economic times, there is more opportunity than danger for the ABA. If history is any guide, our association should weather the current economic storm without incurring major damage. Over the past two decades, our membership has remained remarkably constant. It has never dipped below 340,000 practicing lawyers. This year, it is 352,000. If we do see a decline in revenue, we have contingency plans in place to reduce our expenses proportionately.

But during the same 20 years, our membership has never risen above 362,000 practicing lawyers—even as the total number of lawyers in the nation has risen 60 percent in the last two decades, to 1.1 million lawyers today. If we’re to seize the opportunity to sub­stantially increase the number of practicing lawyers in the ABA, we need to make the case that we’re rel­evant every day to the professional lives of all of America’s lawyers. And we can start by addressing head-on two myths about what we do.


First is the myth that our work on national legal issues doesn’t affect attorneys who practice on a state or local level. Why, some lawyers ask, should I join the ABA if my practice is primarily conducted in the city where I reside? My state and local bars satisfy my needs for legal information, continuing legal education and professional networking, these attorneys say.

But national and local legal issues are not so neatly divided. Congress and the long list of federal agen­cies touch the lives of millions of Americans—and their lawyers—every day. Work involving Social Security, Veterans Affairs, Medicare and Medicaid—to name just a few federal programs—are the bread and butter of legal practice for hundreds of thousands of attor­neys nationwide.

The ABA is the national champion of those lawyers. Membership in our association gives them access to the latest information affecting their practices and the opportunity to affect policy both on a national level and in the lives of their individual clients.


The second myth is that the good works the ABA does internationally, including through ROLI, its Rule of Law Initiative, are meaningless to lawyers whose practices don’t extend beyond their local community. How does it benefit me and my clients, some lawyers ask, that the ABA has programs in 40 countries fighting against human rights abuses and human trafficking, and for judicial independence and strong legal professions?

Our answer is that the more we can spread the rule of law, the less opportunity there will be for armed conflict. That’s not just our view but also that of the federal government—a view supported, through both Republican and Democratic administrations, with substantial funding for our overseas projects.

And it’s not just the political leadership but that of the military that recognizes the value of our international work. We recently received inquiries from the U.S. Central Command about how robust the ABA ROLI activities were in certain countries—and whether or not we could enhance our activities.

In my view, there can be little argument that all of us benefit from exporting the rule of law, rather than shipping our sons and daughters to foreign lands to be put in harm’s way. What could be more personal and local—and of more value to lawyers and their clients all across the United States—than that?

If we’re to succeed in building our membership, we have to make the value of membership personal and compelling. We can start by communicating much more strongly that our efforts in Washington, D.C., and overseas have real-world consequences in every city, town and village in America.

And this effort falls squarely on the shoulders of you, our members, as well as the ABA staff!


May 18, 1896

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