Annual Meeting 2008

House of Delegates Passionately Debates ABA's Goals

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In the 25 years since the ABA’s policy-making House of Delegates took a comprehensive look at the association’s mission and goals, the number of ABA goals has grown from seven to 11. This morning, the House decided it was time for a little housekeeping.

But first, it held a passionate debate over whether serving ABA members or protecting the rule of law should be the Association’s pre-eminent goal. It eventually sided—by the narrowest of margins—with serving members.

The ABA Long Range Planning Committee proposed Resolution 121 (PDF), which sought to “define a powerful, inspirational statement that simply and concisely states the core concepts of the association and encapsulates those concepts in the fewest words possible.”

The old mission read:

“The mission of the American Bar Association is to be the national representative of the legal profession, serving the public and the profession by promoting justice, professional excellence and respect for the law.”

The proposed mission read:

“To serve equally our members, our profession and the public by defending liberty and delivering justice as the national representative of the legal profession.”

The association’s 11 goals—which overlapped considerably—were consolidated by the committee to four: Serve our members; improve our profession; eliminate bias and enhance diversity; and advance the rule of law. Each had one or more objectives listed under them, which provide greater detail about how each goal is to be accomplished.

Introducing the measure, committee chair Thomas Z. Hayward Jr. of Chicago claimed the four goals were all equal. But he added, “It was the consensus of our committee that we have the order right.” It was that order that sparked the most contentious debate of the House session so far.

Former ABA President Michael S. Greco of Boston—a law partner of just-departed ABA President William Neukom, who asked the committee to revamp the mission and goals—offered an amendment (PDF) to put advancing the rule of law first in the order of goals, and serving members last.

“The issue is whether the American Bar Association from this day forward will define itself as a trade association or as a noble profession—whether it’s changing its highest priority from serving the people we are bound to serve or serving our own interests,” Greco said. “The proposed statement will tell the world that the goals lead off with serving ourselves.”

Maury Poscover of St. Louis, who is a former chair of the ABA’s Standing Committee on Members, defended the measure. “Unless and until we are a member-driven organization, we can’t succeed in any of the objectives we set for ourselves,” he said.

Robert Stein, a former ABA executive director and current member of the House, spoke in support of the amendment, saying “We’re making a statement to the lawyers of America, to the public and to the courts. We need to give people a reason to join this association.”

Patricia Refo of Phoenix, who is the incoming chair of the ABA’s membership committee, strongly defended the proposed mission, saying, “Our members are the soul of this association. Our members are those who we are bound to serve. Without them, we have nothing to say in Washington. For this body to vote that our members should be last would send an awful signal to our current members and the many lawyers in America who are not yet members.”

The amendment went down to defeat by a margin of just 13 votes, with a final tally of 214 to 201. It was the first vote of this session of the House that was close enough to merit an actual count of the delegates.

The House also rejected an amendment to change the proposed mission from “delivering justice” to “pursuing justice.” The amendment was defeated on a voice vote.

The committee’s proposed mission and goals were adopted by wide but not overwhelming vote, conducted by a show of hands.

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