Two cheers for democracy

While British lawyers spent this month's American Bar Association (ABA) conference forging contacts and drumming up business, their American colleagues spent much of their time debating euthanasia. And when they weren't discussing physician-assisted suicide, they were grappling with a host of other social issues.

It all left the Brits a tad bemused. As one senior barrister mumbled: “I have lots of opinions on things but I don't go on telling everyone about them.”

While the Bar Council and the Law Society do occasionally speak out on pressing legal issues such as court fees, US attorneys tilt their spear of righteousness at every social windmill going. But some US lawyers have had enough of the ABA's campaigning style.

Writing in The Wall Street Journal on the eve of the conference, Washington attorney Theodore Olson, one of the ABA's 542 voting members in the policy-making House of Delegates, said many lawyers were sick of the organisation's style: “The ABA's liberal agenda is pervasive and overpowering, and permeates even the selection of programmes and presentation of awards.”

The Washington Post predicted that new president Jerry Shestack, who has spent 20 years championing human rights, would drive the ABA even further to the left. But the debate over the ABA's “liberal” agenda left Shestack a touch grumpy. “Get off my back on social issues,” he told a press conference. “We're not a social organisation. We're not a political organisation.”

Of the 900,000 lawyers in the US, 370,000 are ABA members, yet it has no powers to regulate the profession it represents. As Law Society president Phillip Sycamore observed, the ABA has only the power of influence and the power to speak out.

Many lawyers, however, dislike underwriting an organisational bureaucracy that takes a public stance they don't always agree with. Just as the Law Society has difficulty pleasing both sole practitioners and City managing partners, the ABA has difficulty speaking as a united profession.

And, unlike the Law Society, disgruntled ABA members can simply leave the organisation, further undermining its ability to be an authoritative voice.

Some critics have even formed ABA Watch, a pressure group made up of more right-wing lawyers, which attempts to steer the ABA away from its liberal agenda.

But many ordinary lawyers support the ABA's outspoken style. Expat British citizen and Californian firm Wendel Rosen Black & Dean partner Gillian Ross backed the ABA's style. She said that although her 24-partner firm's major concern was not euthanasia but how to compete in the international legal marketplace, she was happy with the way the ABA worked. “I think the bar associations speak for our social conscience; we encourage them to take that role.”

Now Shestack is asking UK solicitors and barristers to take a greater role in publicly highlighting human rights abuses.

Bar Council chairman Robert Owen QC strongly supports the idea of a united front of bar associations championing human rights, and denies it will lead to lawyers dabbling in sensitive politics.

But Western lawyers who attack the human rights attitudes of Asian, Middle Eastern or African courts or governments risk being accused of cultural imperialism, no matter how genuine or worthy their concerns.

And the experience of the ABA is that both the Bar Council and the Law Society will have to be careful not to leave their army of members behind if they ride off to join Shestack's human rights crusade.