Charged to affect change
INTERVIEW Laurel Bellows, president, American Bar Association:LAUREL BELLOWS, president of the American Bar Association (ABA), and with her husband, head of a Chicago law firm, would seem to have nothing to fear. But she is afraid on two fronts: for American democratic institutions and of the danger of cyber-crime and terrorism.“We are frightened and we think every country in the world should be frightened about the implications of the underfunding of our legal system,” she said. “The starvation by legislative and budgetary entities allocating funds is such that we cannot possibly maintain a justice system.
“I hope this is just inappropriate prioritisation. But in dictatorships the first thing dictators do is take over the justice system. They starve it first.” She gave a few examples: in Los Angeles county 180 courts have been closed. The Federal District Court in Illinois has just announced that the court will close every Wednesday due to lack of resources. There are courts around the country that have announced they will hear no civil cases for a year.
This is combined with a crisis in judges’ pay. “A federal trial judge is paid at the same level as a first-year associate (employed lawyer) in a large law firm. Top quality people are not going to be judges, because it means they can’t put their children through college and some are leaving. Applicants for federal judge positions now often don’t have the requisite trial experience.”
She acknowledged the difficulties in public finances, but asked: “If something has to go, can it be our justice system? It is meant to be a co-equal part of our system of government, with its checks and balances and the separation of powers. If you take that away from judges and lawyers you get a dictatorship.”
Bellows is also concerned about the capacity of the political and legislative system to combat cyber crime. “You and I go through all this security at airports now, but that is not where the real threat lies. can shut down power grids or take out the stock exchange.
“To what extent are we prepared to give up our right to privacy and individual liberty for security? What role does government play and what role does private industry play?”
These are issues on which the ABA is working, along with President Obama, she said, and this is an example of how the association seeks to contribute to policymaking and to grappling with difficult legal issues.
Bellows came into the association from the presidency of the Chicago Bar Association via the ABA’s Commission on Women, which she chaired.
Its first chair, Hillary Clinton, had done a report in 1985 which found that despite the increase in women lawyers, a number of barriers still persisted. “That’s still absolutely true. Visibility does not equal equality,” Bellows said.
Among them are the fact that only 16 per cent of equity partners in the top 200 firms are women, and there is a 20 per cent gap between their earnings and those of male equity partners. This cannot be explained by different workloads, and being an equity partner requires great time commitment, she pointed out.
The ABA is, under her presidency, developing a law firm compensation policy which will be transparent and will address invisible forms of discrimination, like the passing on to male friends of lucrative files when a senior equity partner retires.
Referring to the demands of being a lawyer at this level, she said: “We are also developing a social media conversation among young men and women about what kind of life they want. Young men don’t want that kind of life either. They want family time too.”
She has also initiated a campaign against human trafficking, though she says this is not so much a legal problem as a problem of social services for victims. “We have a huge slavery problem in the United States. We think 100,000 US citizens are in slavery, coerced by force or fraud into labour or sex by those who control them. For example, prostitutes are usually either drugged or threatened with harm to themselves or their children.”
In addition, illegal immigrants are trafficked into the country from Asia, Latin America and even Europe. For example, there are Ukrainian women trafficked in to work for agencies as cleaners, where their papers are taken away and they have no way to leave the agency.
“We are training judges, prosecutors and defence attorneys so that they can identify the victims and not prosecute them, but protect them. And we are working on business conduct standards so that corporations can clean their supply chains, down as far as possible. We have to strangle the profit out of this. Human trafficking is the second most profitable activity of organised crime after drugs, and it’s catching drugs up fast.”
All of these are challenges she relishes.
“We don’t talk enough about the power of the law and the thrill of the law. I love solving problems for people. The law affects change. Sexual harassment did not exist 20 years ago. Now we are talking about space law.”