President's Letter

Diversity of Viewpoints: Civility turns down heat, increases light to attain results

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Deborah Enix-Ross

ABA President Deborah Enix-Ross

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan said at her 2010 confirmation hearing: “What I’ve learned most is that no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom. I’ve learned that we make progress by listening to each other, across every apparent political or ideological divide.”

It is especially important for the legal profession to promote and accept diverse viewpoints as it works to bridge the polarization and erosion of trust in our democratic institutions. According to the ABA Survey of Civic Literacy 2023, 85% of respondents believe civility is worse compared with 10 years ago. An annual Gallup Poll reported that Americans’ confidence in its institutions fell to just 26% in 2023, the lowest since Gallup started measuring it in 1973.

But there is hope. The ABA survey also found that 79% of respondents want government leaders to work toward compromise. To achieve this will require those of us in the legal profession to model generosity in our thoughts and behaviors as we respect views beyond those that give us immediate comfort and self-assurance.

This does not mean that we need to agree with each other all the time. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, true peace is not the absence of tension but the presence of justice. As a mediator, I can assure you that the negotiating table is not known for its absence of tension. But with compromise, results can be achieved.

My legal training and experience, and especially my involvement in the ABA, have shown me the value that lawyers offer: our careful consideration of issues rooted in the law, and our deliberative approach.

When legal professionals actively listen to diverse voices, our capacity for critical analysis and decision-making is strengthened. A diverse legal profession—and not just ethnic and gender diversity—ensures various perspectives are brought to the table. By engaging in robust debate, we challenge our own biases and sharpen our arguments.

Promoting diverse viewpoints within the legal profession starts with our educational institutions. Law schools must prioritize inclusive learning environments that encourage disparate perspectives. Students must engage in respectful discourse and feel free to challenge conventional wisdom. Aspiring lawyers exposed to these skills will be equipped with the tools needed to become effective advocates for justice in a diverse and evolving society.

Civility and compromise must be cultivated in law schools if we are to restore faith in our democracy among young people.

Our legal system is built on the foundation of debate, negotiation and consensus-building. As lawyers, whether we are in the courtroom, in mediation or arbitration, or at the negotiating table, we must model the behavior we wish to see in our communities.

The ABA Cornerstones of Democracy Commission worked the past year to highlight the need for civics education in our schools and public education in our communities. The commission focused on how citizens can engage with government and each other civilly and collaboratively. It promoted and advanced the three Cs—civics, civility and collaboration—to a wide audience and will continue spreading that message at this year’s annual meeting in Denver.

Together, we can work to maintain and improve our representative democracy, which, despite its many flaws and challenges, is the best guarantor of freedom our world has seen. Achieving this will involve a commitment to listen to other perspectives without rancor and a willingness to compromise. Saving our democracy might require us to “agree to disagree.”

I am told that the three best words in the English language are “immediate past president.” That is only true because it means that I have had the honor and privilege of serving the ABA and its members this past year. I will continue to work for the ABA and for the betterment of the legal profession. I know my successor, Mary Smith, will continue the tradition of dedicated ABA presidents and lead the association to even greater heights.

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