Cultural and legal diversity is worth more than the tourist trap

Martin Bowley QC says that conventions offer an ideal opportunity to gain a fresh perspective of the issues that concern the profession

Flying transatlantic last week on my way back from my eighth ABA annual meeting in Toronto, I pondered Chris Fogarty's question in The Lawyer: "What's in it for legal convention freaks like you?"

It certainly is not to find work. As a criminal circuiteer, I cannot recall a single brief coming my way as a result of my North American tours – not even two years ago when I managed to pack in the US, Australian, Canadian and Commonwealth conventions in less than a month.

It is not just meeting old friends at parties, receptions, lunches and dinners. It cannot just be the opportunity to explore so many of the greatest cities in the world. And this year it must surely be more than the fact that Toronto is the third most important theatre capital in the world. The real reason why I come back to the ABA is that I always return to the UK with new ideas.

The average US lawyer is even more insular than the average British lawyer – and that is not easy. But there is so much we can learn from them about the practice and profession of law. And if the average US lawyer's horizon seems too often to be dominated by billable hours, the same cannot be said for the ABA, which has a long and distinguished record of speaking loudly and bravely on a number of professionally sensitive and politically controversial issues.

Civil and human rights, the death penalty, affirmative action, judicial independence and appointments, the development of an International Criminal Court and campaign financing are just some of the areas where the ABA has taken a positive – and sometimes unpopular – line. How often do the Law Society or the Bar Council make national headlines on anything other than their narrow naval gazing, reactive agendas dominated by fees, fat cats, and arcane internecine boundary disputes?

Toronto is a great place to explore the wider perspective. It has been described as the most ethically diverse city on earth. This week it has attracted more than 11,000 lawyers, plus their families, and the ABA and its various divisions have laid on about 2,400 events.

We have a lot to live up to when similar numbers descend on London for ABA 2000. Already there are over 2,600 pre-registrants. When the ABA last came to London in 1985 nearly 1,500 British lawyers took part. In 2000 we are aiming to double that number. The main programme will be formally announced in October, but, as a member of the London organising committee, I know that it will be an unmissable event.