A Worthy Standard
Last month in Atlanta, it was my great honor and highest professional privilege to receive the gavel of the presidency of the American Bar Association.
Making the moment particularly poignant was the gentleman I received the gavel from. Dennis Archer, a lifelong friend and my direct predecessor to this post, is the very embodiment of the citizen-lawyer. Teacher, lawyer, justice, mayor—one year ago Dennis shattered the racial barrier at the ABA’s highest level, becoming the first person of color to be its president. That he did so with such grace and professionalism surprised no one and inspired everyone. It is an honor to follow in his footsteps.
In my life I have benefited from the footsteps of many others, as well —people who have touched and inspired me along the way. My father, a master sergeant in the U.S. Army, taught me the value of honor, discipline and hard work. My mother, an elementary school principal and community activist, still provides unconditional support, love and advice.
I have also been surrounded by the most extraordinary lawyers. Oliver Hill, the champion civil rights lawyer and co-counsel in the Virginia companion case to Brown v. Board of Education, has been a mentor and role model. At 97, he continues to demonstrate what dignity and honor are all about, and I cherish our frequent chats. Lewis Powell, ex-U.S. Supreme Court justice and ABA president, is a founder of my firm, Hunton & Williams, and the “radical moderate” whose leadership and character greatly influenced me. My good friend Douglas Wilder, ex-governor, professor and renowned Virginia statesman, personifies the lawyer as public servant. The amount I have learned from these fine lawyers is incalculable, and I would not be where I am today without their influence.
What I’ve learned since that 23-year-old youngster entered Washington and Lee University law school in the 1970s is that our profession is strongest, lawyers are most satisfied, and society is best served when we fuse the notions of being a lawyer and being a citizen. Our professional and civic responsibilities are not different hats to wear interchangeably depending where we are. Instead, let us think of our professional and civic duties as parts of the same hat—one worn by the disciplined, committed, respected citizen-lawyer who applies the same sense of honesty, accountability and fairness to all aspects of life.
All Americans should make public service a civic responsibility, serve a purpose higher than themselves and advance the age-old human ambition to leave the next generation in better shape than the last. All should want to answer John F. Kennedy’s call to “ask what you can do for your country.” But we who make our living in the law enjoy the perfect nexus between our professional and civic selves. This is the reason most of us became lawyers, and it explains why so many are leaders in civic arenas as well. The law is, after all, the catalyst for the two greatest desires of all societies: liberty and justice. So, in this way, lawyers’ work is indistinguishable from our nation’s civic life.
When we zealously represent a client’s interests, we do so because our civic society depends on the law’s usefulness and relevance. Conversely, when we lead a community group or run for elected office or speak out on a public policy issue, we do so with a lawyerly attention to due process, fairness, respect and honest discourse. Our legal and civic sides complement each other. Our public service makes us better lawyers. And our training as lawyers makes us ideal civic leaders.
Our profession has the strictest code of conduct of any profession. But we have a broader responsibility that extends beyond our work in the courtroom or law firm. We have the responsibility to be positive forces in our communities, to foster healthy dialogue over destructive vitriol, to speak out when we see injustice and lift up those who need our help. These are the responsibilities of the citizen-lawyer—to stand tall, defend liberty and pursue justice.
I am proud to be your ABA president. Over the next year, I will use this page to share with you what I believe are the challenges confronting us and the opportunities available to us. In either, we need only apply the standard of the citizen-lawyer to find our way. I look forward to our time together.