President's Letter

The Power of Convening: ABA's legacy and continued impact of convening minds and shaping progress

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ABA President Mary Smith. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Bar Association.

In 1878, 75 visionary lawyers from 20 states gathered in Saratoga Springs, New York, driven by the pressing need for national cohesion in a decentralized legal landscape, marking the formation of the American Bar Association. They could scarcely have imagined that 145 years later, the association they created would become the largest voluntary bar in the world.

The essence of that historic meeting lies in the power of convening—uniting minds in a shared space. It’s a force that has remained at the heart of the ABA’s mission throughout its existence.

Uniting minds

The word “convening” carries with it an intrinsic potency. From that initial assembly to today, the ABA has exemplified the power of bringing thoughtful minds together to achieve consensus and drive transformative change. Leaders like Simeon Baldwin leveraged the ABA’s platform to champion standardized regulations in the burgeoning railroad sector. In 1908, the ABA established the Canons of Professional Ethics, guidelines that have evolved into the Model Rules of Professional Conduct in use today and provide a comprehensive ethical framework for lawyers. We also fostered an unprecedented shift in legal education from apprenticeships to structured law school curriculums.

Lifting our voices

The ABA consistently has harnessed our ability to assemble for progress, advocating for judicial independence and unbiased decision-making. Our groundbreaking pro bono initiatives democratize access to justice, and our special commissions work tirelessly to ensure the participation of historically underrepresented groups. We nurture and link emerging young lawyers to succeed, and our resource-rich focus on mental well-being ensures a balanced legal profession. Such efforts can even have a global impact, such as our Rule of Law Initiative that connects legal luminaries worldwide, emphasizing universal justice. Each of these endeavors is a testament to the ABA’s unmatched capability to pool expertise, spark change and uphold the pillars of justice.

Every year, we bring together a diverse array of legal experts and speakers to highlight and address the challenges faced by and contributions of many groups, including Black attorneys and communities. Similarly, during Women’s History Month, we intensify our efforts to celebrate the achievements of pioneering women in the legal field, providing platforms for dialogue and nurturing female leadership. This commitment ensures the legal profession truly represents a breadth of talents and viewpoints, reinforcing the ABA’s role in promoting inclusivity.

Charting the future

Today, guided by the theme of “Lifting Our Voices, Charting the Future,” the ABA remains a beacon, not merely uniting individuals but incubating ideas that foster dialogue and shape the trajectory of this profession.

Our Presidential Speaker Series embodies this enduring commitment. Designed to elevate discourse and connect powerful ideas to those poised to enact them, it offers a platform for an eclectic and distinguished array of thinkers, trailblazers and changemakers. To date, we have been honored to host esteemed guests, including former U.S. ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder; labor rights champion Dolores Huerta; and acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese. Each delved into today’s pressing issues, from advocating for global peace and workers’ rights to confronting past transgressions in the name of justice and accountability.

In December, we eagerly anticipate a riveting conversation between Jeh Charles Johnson, former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, and former federal judge J. Michael Luttig. Focused on the foundational tenets of democracy at a time when ours faces unprecedented threats, their discussion exemplifies the ABA’s dedication to facilitating critical dialogues that can shape our future.

Convening is not merely about bringing people together—it’s about creating synergy, driving change and fostering progress. When the collective minds and voices unite, the potential for impactful change is boundless.

The ABA, in its rich history and continued efforts, remains steadfast in its mission to effect meaningful change in the legal landscape and society at large.


Follow President Smith on X @ABAPresident or email [email protected].

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