What's top of the agenda?

This year's ABA boasts a year of firsts with plenty of official and unofficial debates. Anne Gallagher anticipates the topics

As the ABA annual meeting draws near, the association can boast of a new era. A woman president is poised to take the helm in August for the first time in the association's 117-year history, and with her comes a hectic agenda.

Plans for change include more outreach efforts to legal consumers and forthright ways of looking at the growing phenomena of non-lawyers serving the profession; a new site on the burgeoning World Wide Web and a host of new technology products and services for members. With these changes the 400,000-member group is adapting to what one Bar leader calls the monumental pressures of change in the profession.

But even as the ABA steps up its efforts to enter the modern era, it is faced with the simmering issues of a prominent member's departure and a possible backlash from its recent decision to settle a year-long US Justice department investigation into possible competition violations.

Although New Mexico lawyer Roberta Cooper Ramo, has broken the ABA's male dominated ranks as its first woman president, gender is far from an issue on her agenda. Instead she plans to open a new era of public understanding about the justice system.

“We have become a nation of constitutional illiterates, easily swayed by slogans and assailed by half-truths,” she says.

In an opinion poll in May, 45 per cent of US consumers surveyed by the ABA reported that they are losing respect for the US justice system, in part due to their experience in observing the OJ Simpson trial.

During her year-long tenure, Ramo hopes to launch a national civics and education programme to legal consumers across the country. That will include educating consumers about their rights and powers in the US justice system.

“It is critical to our democracy that the American people have faith in the integrity of the justice system,” adds Ramo.

Ramo's message will also focus on issues that traditionally have not been high priorities for other ABA presidents.

She plans to tackle the issue of domestic violence and its damaging effects on children who witness abuse. She will also call on lawyers to push for reforms and provide free legal assistance to battered women and children.

According to Ramo, there is a parenting problem in the American society “Some [parents] don't take the time, some don't have a clue,” she says.

Bullied by increased competition from accountants and consultants, the legal profession's battle is hardly over as a growing number of non-lawyers become part of the legal profession.

From paralegals to do-it-yourself lawyering, competition from non-lawyers is an issue Arizona lawyer and ABA leader Lowell Rothschild is examining.

“In Arizona, a husband and wife can now go to an electronic law machine at their local courthouse, pay a $15 fee, punch some buttons, respond to an interactive computer and be granted a divorce,” explains Rothschild. This shows the US legal market has changed from a seller's to a buyer's market.

To address the changes displacing a lawyer's traditional roles, Rothschild has created an ABA taskforce to study how the profession can respond. “Today, the lawyer is just one part of a full legal services delivery team. That team involves lawyers and non-lawyers, relies upon technology and focuses on solving both the client's business and legal problems,” says Rothschild, adding that the ABA remains a leading proponent in the use of legal assistants as part of the legal service delivery team.

There is little question that technology is one of the hottest trends sweeping the legal landscape in the US and beyond. With its own World Wide Web site (http:.//www.abanet.org) up and running since March, the ABA has kept apace with technology. Now, it is readying itself to launch a new set of technology products and services for members that include a universal email directory, home pages for 57 association sections, free technology consulting services, and member discounts on the technology service providers.

According to David Hambourger, director of the Legal Technology Resource Centre, the new services – packaged under the name ABA Network – will help members conduct association business on-line 24 hours a day if necessary.

“ABA Network will keep our members ahead of the technology curve and help them meet the changing needs of their clients and their law practices,” he says.

Amid these positive developments there lingers the more political side of the ABA. On 27 June, the US Justice Department announced it had reached a settlement with the ABA to end the government's year-long investigation into the association's alleged anti-competitive practices as the law school ombudsman on accreditation issues.

While accreditation had traditionally been the province of law professors and deans, the ABA pushed during the past two years to become a larger part of the oversight process. But in its zeal to be a player, the ABA was said to have written letters telling law schools they must hire more law librarians, raise faculty salaries or improve their physical plants. These efforts drew the attention and ire of critics and justices, charging that the ABA was in effect acting as a collective bargaining agent with law school presidents and top guns to raise law school salaries and drive up the cost of legal education.

Capping the announcement of the consent decree – in which the ABA will back off in the accreditation fray – was the angry resignation of prominent New York judge Joseph W. Bellacosa, chair of the ABA's section on legal education.

“The sitting judge of a state's highest court can no longer prudently participate in the publicly contentious and unappreciated law school's accreditation function,” wrote Bellacosa, a judge on the New York Court of Appeals, in the July issue of Syllabus, a legal publication. Bellacosa both resigned his seat on the section counsel and his 25-year membership in the ABA.

This story is looming as the largest non-agenda item at the annual meeting. “It's a fight that could turn into a backlash against the ABA board of governors,” claims an unnamed source.

But it is an issue most of the 20,000 attendees are unlikely to notice. With thousands of legal programmes and a slate of high-profile speakers such as possible presidential nominee Colin Powell and former White House press secretary Dee Dee Meyers, the so-called simmering story may not even make it to the first cocktail party.

Anne Gallagher is The Lawyer's US correspondent.