Lawyers are leaders. In big ways and in small. It’s who we are, who we’ve always been, and who we aspire to be.
Lawyers lead in our government and, of course, in our courts. Most of the delegates to the constitutional convention were lawyers, as were nearly half of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. Today, our elected officials are disproportionately lawyers. By nature and by training, we are analytical and thoughtful. We have the well-honed ability to approach problems from multiple angles and perspectives. As a profession, we spend a significant amount of time looking for the truth—or at least for the right answer.
Perhaps it is those traits that make lawyers leaders in our local communities and in our society. How many times have you found other people looking to you for guidance on things that have nothing to do with the law, once they discover that you’re a lawyer? We have a special position of influence—certainly as to legal matters, but also to non-legal matters. We bring intelligence and rigorous thinking to the things we do. Our thoughts and our words carry weight with our friends and neighbors.
So the question is, what are we doing with this influence? How are we leading? Make no mistake, if you’re reading this then you’re already a leader on some level and to some people. Where will you take them? That’s your decision, of course, and I wouldn’t presume to tell you the answer, but I will suggest that we lawyers have a responsibility to our democracy and to our society to fulfill the expectations to lead that we took on when we entered the profession. We have a responsibility to educate others about our constitution and our judicial system, we have a duty to defend that system (and its judges) from those who attack it, and we have a responsibility to lead by example—to show our fellow citizens how to engage in civil debate, how to make evidence-based decisions, and even how to adjust our opinions and decisions when new evidence comes to light. This is what lawyers do.
So in this time of political turmoil, I see an opportunity for our members. Don’t remain silent. To be sure, our association cannot and will not take stances on political issues. The Federal Bar Association is a big tent—our FBA colleagues are conservatives and liberals and moderates and others. So is America. We in the FBA work well together, so let’s put that collegiality to work for our country. It is our responsibility as lawyers—as leaders—to teach our fellow citizens about the Constitution; to debate issues based on their merits; and, as a result of this process, to reach fair, just, and logical conclusions. This is the role of a lawyer in a democracy.
My immediate predecessor as president of the FBA, U.S. Magistrate Judge Michael Newman, is already living this role. Consider for a moment, all that our national leader accomplished in the past year. He created and implemented a nationwide civics program that placed thousands and thousands of schoolchildren in our federal courthouses where they’ve learned from our judges and lawyers about the third branch of government. He encouraged students to reflect and write about the importance of our judicial independence through an essay contest, where the impressive young winners had the opportunity to meet with Justice Sonia Sotomayor. He took the SOLACE program nationwide, expanding the safety net of lawyers looking out for one another’s well-being. Judge Newman started a Veterans Court so that veterans in the Dayton, Ohio, area can receive treatment for the mental health and substance abuse issues that are at the root of their criminal offenses.
I could go on for much longer and in far greater detail, but I think the point is made. Judge Newman will be quick to point out that all of these accomplishments are the work of many, many hands and, of course, this is true. But it is also true that Judge Newman brought the ideas, the energy, and the determination to make these things happen. In short, he led us.
We can’t all be Judge Newman, but we don’t have to be. We can each lead in our own way, in our own communities. Mentor a younger lawyer or law student. Volunteer to speak to students about the third branch or about their constitutional rights. (If you haven’t discussed these issues in a while, you’ll be surprised how well you know the subject and how much better you know it than the average person on the street.) Engage in civic discussions in your school district, your city government, your local papers. Bring your lawyerly intelligence and analysis to bear and lead others into full discussions where evidence and reason carry the day. Engage and lead.
When lawyers band together to accomplish something, as we do in the FBA, we can be startlingly effective. There is actually very little that can stop us.
The FBA is ready and able to be the fulcrum to leverage your leadership. Leaders in our sections, divisions, and chapters around the country are making a difference every day. Take for example, the Wills for Veterans initiative spearheaded by Todd Hedgepeth in San Antonio. Hedgepeth is organizing lawyers in 18 chapters to meet with veterans of our armed forces to prepare simple wills for them that they otherwise would not have. Or consider the Minnesota Chapter’s deep involvement with the Open Doors to Federal Courts program, which teaches about the administration of justice and provides a positive and inspiring message on how individuals can help to promote change. The South Carolina Chapter’s BRIDGE Program provides a rehabilitative mentorship program for individuals whose illegal substance dependency led to federal criminal charges.
The Litigation Academy created and run by the Rhode Island Chapter connects experienced lawyers and judges serving as volunteers with lawyers new to federal practice in a program to provide training in trial skills. The program both fosters improvements in the practice of law and creates mentoring and skills practice opportunities for new federal practitioners. The John W. Peck Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Chapter is heavily involved in a Summer Work Experience in Law Inc. program that furthers its mission of diversity in the legal profession through development of minorities interested in the practice of law.
These are, of course, but a small sample of the many ways that FBA members are already leading their legal and social communities. There are scores of other meaningful programs going on at the local and national FBA levels. If you created one, please share it with others. If you find another chapter’s program that speaks to you, replicate it. In my experience, the lawyers who lead these programs are happy to share their experience and knowledge.
Whether it be through a formal program or initiative, or through active thought leadership in our everyday lives, lawyers can and should continue to educate, engage, and persuade others through reason and evidence. Lawyers are the leaders our nation needs. Let’s lead.
Kip T. Bollin is FBA president and a litigation partner at Thompson Hine LLP in Cleveland, Ohio. Kip Bollin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org