'The people's representatives for change'

A dialogue on the US justice system is top of Roberta Cooper Ramo's agenda, discovers Anne Gallagher

As Roberta Cooper Ramo prepares to become the first woman president in the 117-year history of the American Bar Association this August, a new era dawns for the US legal profession. But now that Ramo has broken the gender barrier, she plans to herald a new era of

public understanding about the justice system.

While Ramo, 52, will be a woman pioneer as head of the most influential group of lawyers and judges in the US, the agenda for her year-long tenure as ABA president reflects a genderless determination to bring the message of justice and the value of the legal system to the American people.

“There's a lot of talk about a leadership problem, but there's a fellowship problem too. We're all armchair quarterbacks,” she explains.

But empowered with an increased understanding of the law, the legal system and its constitutional foundations Ramo believes that Americans can be more actively involved in shaping the future of their communities, themselves and the national agenda.

As a spokesperson for the legal industry, Ramo hopes to launch a national civic programme as she travels across the country and around the world in the next year.

That will involve creating a national dialogue on the justice system and how it serves US citizens.

“The justice system doesn't belong to lawyers, it belongs to the people of America. Our job as lawyers is to explain to the American public that what we do is right and to listen to them to make sure that those things we do wrong are changed,” she says. “We as lawyers are the people's representatives for change. But all of us, lawyers and non-lawyers, have to help bring about solutions.”

Ramo will also focus on issues that traditionally have not been high priorities for other ABA presidents. For example, she plans to tackle the issue of domestic violence and its damaging effects on children who witness abuse.

During the year, she will also call on lawyers to push for reforms and provide free legal assistance to battered women and children.

“These are not women's issues. These are family issues,” Ramo explains.

“All of us have to work very hard to figure out how we can blunt the effect of domestic violence on children.”

For Ramo, one solution is the new national commission she created for the issue, which combines the collective talents of representatives from the legal, medical, educational, law enforcement, victim advocate, psychological and corporate communities.

The new commission is yet another first for Ramo and the ABA. But she says it is a sign of things to come. “I may be the first woman president of the ABA, but I'm not going to be the last.”

Ramo agrees she is a role model for other women and credits her success to the support which she receives from her family.

“People who receive support from their families are in the best position to succeed,” she says. “My parents were great supporters and now I receive enormous support from my husband and two children. This is one of the reasons why I believe so strongly that we can all help the integrity of the American family by addressing the issue of domestic violence.”

Ramo herself has had to juggle family life with life as a lawyer. “Working and raising small children is very challenging and you must keep family life at the top of your priority list,' she says.

She and her husband, New Mexico cardiologist Dr Barry Ramo, make dinner together “a sacred ritual” despite working 60 to 70 hour schedules. “That pushes the dinner hour to 9pm or later. But we both believe quality time is important.”

She says many people are losing faith in the justice system and that such concerns must be taken seriously.

“Dialogue can have a powerful effect, particularly because I believe the American people have forgotten, or maybe generations of Americans don't understand, the brilliance of the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

“It is important to remind people why this country has been so successful and explain that lawyers played a big role in bringing about that success.”