Observing common core values can help lawyers make a difference, American Bar Association president H. Thomas Wells, Jr., told students at Samford University's Cumberland School of Law Thursday, Oct. 9.
The basic values of access to justice, an independent bar and judiciary, and attention to diversity all undergird a treasured fourth: the rule of law.
The values espoused by the ABA are the same for all arms of the legal profession, Wells said, whether a lawyer practices on Wall Street or Main Street, or in corporate or criminal law.
"These values unite us, inspire us and enable us to make a difference," said Wells during a talk sponsored by Cumberland's Cordell Hull Speakers Series. "As lawyers, we are at our best when we make a difference. Our profession is more than just a job or trade."
Wells, a partner and founding member of Maynard, Cooper & Gale, P.C. in Birmingham, began his one-year term as president of the national lawyers' group in August.
He said that the American legal profession shares the "Called to the Bar" concept with the English, noting that the only other profession considered a calling is the ministry. "Lawyers minister in the realm of justice, and our mission is public service," he said.
Wells challenged the audience to always be mindful of certain core values as they study, teach and practice law.
Access to justice is not always a given, and many needs of Alabama's poor go unmet, he said, citing examples of homeless children who are denied schooling, and military men and women who must fight to regain jobs after serving their country.
The ABA fosters pro bono work, sets standards and makes resources available to assist such victims, he said, helping "to give a voice to those who don't otherwise have a strong voice."
To preserve an independent bar and judiciary, all parties must adhere to professional standards, he said.
"It boils down to individual choices of how we conduct ourselves. Be faithful to your integrity as a person, and to the ethics of your profession," he said, suggesting that lawyers can often best serve their clients by being independent advisors "who can say no" when that is the best advice.
Ethics codes have helped the profession remain self-regulating thus far, but that status is not necessarily guaranteed. After the Enron scandal, for instance, accounting became a federally-regulated trade. "And that could happen to the legal profession if we are not attentive," he cautioned.
The profession's 100-year-old national ethics code is modeled after the first state code, which was Alabama's, he noted.
Lawyers must help uphold the independence of the judiciary, he said. "Politics has no place in the courtroom."
Recognition of diversity is important to the profession, which doesn't benefit when persons face systemic barriers to schooling or career. "We must be vigilant that courts are accessible to everyone," he said.
The ABA has assisted other countries who look to the U.S. system as a rule of law model, and it needs to be heard on the rule of law's central place in society.
"All can find common ground on core values," said Wells. Lawyers and law students must speak out on issues related to those values, "not to make a dollar, but to make a difference."
Wells is the third ABA president from Alabama. Henry Upson Sims, the late Birmingham lawyer for whom the Cumberland moot court board is named, led the ABA in 1929-30. N. Lee Cooper, a founding member of Wells' law firm, was president in 1996-97.