ABA President Reginald Turner wants his term to focus on the organization's four goals
Reginald Turner has aspired to greater leadership within the ABA since joining the association as a law student and attending his first annual meeting 35 years ago.
Turner, who is an executive committee member of Clark Hill in Detroit, served in the House of Delegates and as chair of its Rules and Calendar Committee. He also chaired the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession.
He assumed his highest role to date in the ABA at the close of the annual meeting in August, when he became the president of the association. He spoke with the ABA Journal a few weeks later about what he hopes to accomplish during his term. The conversation, which has been edited for length, appears here.
What are the signature issues you’d like to focus on as president?
Our four goals are central to my view of the work of the American Bar Association: to serve our members; to improve the profession; to support diversity, equity and inclusion; and to support the rule of law in the U.S. and around the world.
When you spoke to the House of Delegates at the annual meeting, you mentioned the importance of strong bar associations. How do you hope to help the ABA continue to serve the country’s lawyers and judges?
Those four goals are the guideposts for the work of our association. I have had the privilege of serving as a bar president four times now, and with each of these opportunities, there are usually challenges. A bar president can’t script out his or her bar year to address only the issues that the leader thinks are the most important.
Needless to say, membership is a major priority for the American Bar Association, and I will be addressing that. I have been recruiting for years but more frequently now that I’m president of the association, and I have announced this “each one, reach one” goal. I have to be the leader on that and practice what I preach. One of my favorite new members is my daughter. She’s a first-year law student at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
So as you’re meeting with lawyers around the country, what is your elevator pitch to those who aren’t members of the association yet?
Within the rule of law, there are a number of issues that we address here and in the world, and that is an area in which it really does take collaboration, meaning having some kind of an organization with a mission and with goals, in order to make progress. As I begin my presidency, this issue in Afghanistan is an unfortunate example of an unforeseen event that requires significant attention from lawyers in the U.S. and around the world. It was the subject of my very first public statement on behalf of the American Bar Association. I had a very helpful meeting today that lasted about an hour and a half with folks from [the ABA Rule of Law Initiative] and others who care deeply about what’s happening in Afghanistan and particularly what’s happening to women in Afghanistan who are being attacked by the Taliban.
What will be the ABA’s role in helping with the ongoing situation in Afghanistan?
We’ve put out the clarion call for the rule of law in Afghanistan. And in the meeting that we held just a few hours ago, we made it very clear that ROLI is going to spearhead the American Bar Association’s efforts. They will have assistance from other entities within the ABA and, of course, they will have my support.
You’re now the third president to serve amid the COVID-19 pandemic. What challenges are you still encountering, and how will you help the ABA navigate them?
The ABA has now subsumed the pandemic task force in a variety of the entities that fed into that task force under [Patricia Lee] Refo’s leadership. So there is still much to do with respect to the pandemic, and one of the initiatives related to the pandemic was the eviction issue. We’re continuing to work on that as a stand-alone effort to ensure that we provide as much help as possible to people who are losing their housing as a result of financial issues, loss of jobs or illness. The ABA continues to support the needs of those who require access to justice.
You also have called on ABA members to mentor younger lawyers and law students. You mentioned past President Dennis Archer was a mentor to you. Were there others, and why was that so important to you?
It was actually my dad’s dream that I become a lawyer. He was a police officer, and one day after the  riot, we were getting dressed to go to the store or something. We were standing in the vestibule in our home, and as we were putting on our coats, I looked up at my dad and said, “Dad, when I grow up, I want to be a police officer just like you.” And he looked down at me and he smiled, and he said, “Son, that’s really nice, but I want you to be a lawyer like my friend Elliott Hall.” Elliott Hall was a really well-known lawyer. He had been one of the first African American lawyers in the prosecutor’s office here in southeast Michigan. He became a role model for me over the course of time.
Elliott Hall and Dennis Archer both mentored me when I was in law school and beyond. Dennis Archer actually was president of the State Bar of Michigan and came to visit the law school during my year as president of the Law School Student Senate. We bonded, and I clerked for him at the Michigan Supreme Court for two years. And during those two years, he created the Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession, which was the ABA’s first diversity initiative.
I was often sitting in his office when he was talking with Rachel Patrick, who was the staffer helping him to build this commission. So I was there at the creation. I owe Dennis Archer somuch.
Looking back at everything you’ve accomplished in the association, what are some of the roles or initiatives that stand out most for you?
The Diversity [and Inclusion] Center. It’s blossoming from the commission that I described to the wonderful, rich diversity center with many facets of diversity being addressed on the ground—sexual orientation, race, gender. Dennis Archer planted the seed that has blossomed into very wonderful fruit. And I had the privilege of chairing the commission, which was by then called the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. [I worked on] diversity programming … and now, of course, each of the diversity entities in the ABA has similar programs to bring people together and address issues of diversity, equity and inclusion.
You haven’t been president for too long yet, but what has been the most fun part of the job so far?
Meeting our colleagues—colleagues I have not had the opportunity to work with in the past—and watching them do their work to fulfill the four goals of our association. As an active member of the association for 30-plus years, you don’t get the full understanding of the breadth and depth of the services provided by the entities of the American Bar Association. But over the course of time, serving as president-elect under [Refo’s] leadership, I learned so much from her about what’s important on a day-to-day basis. And of course, Judy Perry Martinez was also very much involved in mentoring Trish while Trish was mentoring me. Teamwork makes the dream work. That’s certainly why we get involved in bar association work. You can be the greatest lawyer in the world, but when you really want to make a difference, you have to join with others to make positive things happen.
And speaking of fun, what is one thing that most people might not know about you?
I really like oatmeal raisin cookies. I’ve liked them since I was a kid. That’s my daily treat.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we end our conversation?
I talked about my father, but I certainly need to talk about my mother, because she had a tremendous positive impact on my life. I jokingly said at the annual meeting when I gave my speech that my father was a police officer, so I was heavily disciplined, and my mother was a library aide, so I read a lot. Those two things were both true. My mother was a stay-at-home mom for a number of years, but when she went back to work, she went back to work as a library aide. I spent time with her at the library, and my daughters, when they came along, spent time with my mother at the library.
One last thing: I am happily married to my wife, Marcia Turner, who is the vice president of Bally Sports Detroit. She took me to a Pistons game on our first date in 1987. She had season tickets with a couple of her girlfriends. On the day I invited her to go to lunch after meeting her, she initially said yes. Then she called me back to tell me she was not able to meet for lunch, but she had tickets for the Pistons game that night. And I said, “That’ll work.”
This story was originally published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Goal-Oriented: ABA President Reginald Turner wants to focus on the organization’s four goals.”