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Will the American Bar Association Rediscover its Voice?

As the American Bar Association (ABA) convenes this week for its annual meeting in Chicago, I’m reminded of a strange incident that took place 25 years ago.

While I was covering the ABA’s August 1990 meeting—also in Chicago—outgoing President L. Stanley Chauvin, Jr. arrived at the Hyatt Regency Hotel with $55,000 in $100 bills, which he placed in the hotel’s central safe. The following day, Mr. Chauvin went to check on the cash and it was mysteriously gone.

The lost/stolen money was reported to Chicago police, generating embarrassing headlines in both the mainstream and legal press. Mr. Chauvin insisted that the money had been entrusted to him to hold in escrow at the last minute before his trip to Chicago, leaving him no option but to carry it with him. Speculation and jokes abounded during the conference and, ultimately, Mr. Chauvin faded into obscurity with the mystery never solved.

I rehash this story because it serves as a metaphor for the ABA today. Back in 1990, it seemed the organization was poised to use its considerable clout not just to further the interests of attorneys; but to play a larger role in the political and social debates of the time. That leadership role surfaced but soon receded, and today the ABA’s issue agenda is as much a mystery as the whereabouts of Mr. Chauvin’s cash.

Circa 1990, the ABA was on a progressive path of political activism, loudly debating issues such as abortion rights and women’s equality. In 1986, Hillary Rodham Clinton became the first chair of the ABA’s Commission on Women in the Profession. In 1992, Anita Hill’s appearance made waves at the ABA’s gathering in San Francisco.

With a liberal-leaning agenda taking shape a quarter-century ago, the conservative legal movement coalesced behind the nascent Federalist Society as a counter-measure. The Federalist Society started holding its meetings in the same city, at the same time, as the ABA’s annual meetings.

What resulted was a stalemate of sorts, and the ABA began a plodding retreat from major issue debates—focusing instead on professional development, law school accreditation, providing CLE credit, and issues of import to lawyers, but less so to society at large.

As the ABA returns to Chicago this week, it has the opportunity to renew taking positions on the major political and societal issues of 2015. It touts discussions about police misconduct, drones, legalized marijuana, and sexual equality, which are just a few of the major matters on which the ABA’s insight and perspective could prove extremely valuable. Even comparatively focused legal discussions—such as a 2015 Commission on Women in the Profession report that men remain three to four times more likely than women to appear as lead trial counsel—could have a significantly larger societal impact.

With less than one-third of nation’s 1.3 million lawyers now counting themselves as members, finding its voice and speaking out on political and social issues may be what helps the ABA regain relevance in and outside of legal circles. And who knows? It may also do our country a great deal of good.

Randall Samborn is a Senior Vice President at LEVICK, a lawyer, and a former award-winning legal affairs reporter who served two decades as the spokesman for one of the highest-profile United States Attorney’s Offices in the country.

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