ABA President's Message

Mobilizing to Preserve Legal Aid to the Poor

Tommy Wells
Photo by Dee Moore

As president of the American Bar Association, I am continually inspired by the opportunity to observe and lend support to bar activities that advance the legal profession’s core values. During the past year, one activity embodied our core values of an independent profession and access to justice particularly well. It also demonstrated how we stand up together as a profession, speak out collectively at the grassroots level and collaborate to improve our communities.

America’s lawyers quickly mobilized last fall after the government announced the Temporary Liquidity Guar­antee Program, designed to boost the banking system. Little noticed outside the bar was an interim rule that denied full federal insurance coverage for interest on lawyer trust accounts, which exist in all 50 states. Had the rule become permanent, lawyers would have been pressured to withdraw their clients’ funds from IOLTAs, whose interest provides substantial funding for access to justice programs. IOLTA programs are the nation’s second-largest funding source for the provision of free civil legal services to the poor.


The ABA and state and local bar associations across the country took immediate action. Lawyers joined discussion boards, sent e-mails, and made phone calls to express their concerns. The ABA’s Governmental Af­fairs Office in Washington, D.C., and Commission on IOLTA had been monitoring the interim rule and evaluating its anticipated fallout. In response to the issues raised by the ABA and its bar affiliates nationwide, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. solicited comments about the impact of the interim rule.

As in many instances, the ABA was doing what we do best. We coordinated the disparate voices of individual bars and individual lawyers into the profession’s national voice. We argued that the FDIC should treat IOLTAs as transactional accounts rather than accounts bearing interest for the personal gain of lawyers or their clients.

Thanks to our collective efforts, more than 500 comments were filed. ABA members also contacted their elected officials. ABA leaders met with FDIC officials and congressional leaders in Washington, D.C.

The leaders of the House Financial Services Com­mittee and the Senate Banking Committee joined more than 20 senators, members of the House Judiciary Com­mittee, and other lawmakers of both parties in calling for full insurance coverage for IOLTA accounts.

Our advocacy paid off. The FDIC’s decision supporting IOLTAs was a success for our core value of an independent profession, enabling lawyers to satisfy their fiduciary obligations to clients. Equally important, it was a victory for our core value of access to justice and all the related initiatives IOLTA programs support.

Every day, Congress and the executive branch address issues that affect lawyers, our clients and the justice system. Governmental advocacy—as demonstrated with the IOLTA issue and countless others throughout the year—is central to how the ABA advances the legal profession’s core values at the national level.

This year, it’s especially timely for government officials to hear directly from lawyers as constituents. The Obama administration and the 111th Congress are considering policies and legislation of great importance to the nation and the justice system.

How quickly the IOLTA issue was resolved showed how important it is for lawyers to build and maintain relationships with elected officials. Lawyers who participated in advocacy with the ABA on the IOLTA issue remarked how helpful it was to have established connections with members of Congress and their staffs.

The ABA can help you advance our profession’s governmental advocacy, which has achieved victories in many areas, including independence of the judiciary, federal funding for the Legal Services Corp., and protection of the attorney-client privilege.

Please join us in this important role for the legal profession by participating in the ABA’s Grassroots Action Team. Congress can make responsible decisions only by hearing from lawyers, who implement and work within the requirements of various laws and regulations every day. As lawyers, it’s our responsibility to advocate with policymakers for the profession and the justice system.

To learn more about our efforts, visit abanet.org/­poladv and click on “Join the Grassroots Action Team.”

By doing so, you will exemplify something I often remind lawyers: We can be good at making a dollar, but we’re at our best when we’re making a difference.

We welcome your comments, but please adhere to our comment policy and the ABA Code of Conduct.

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