New ABA head sets out to polish image of legal profession

Bill Falsgraf has been traveling around the United States of late, trying to get people to feel better about lawyers. He admits it's a very tough task, even for him -- the president-elect of the largest volunteer professional association in the world, the American Bar Association (ABA). William F. Falsgraf takes the reins of this 300,000-member legal lodge in August after US lawyers meet with their barrister counterparts in a special international meeting in London later this month.

The appointment of Mr. Falsgraf seems to signal that ABA is genuinely trying to shed its longtime conservative image by appealing to younger members, women, and minorities, and by bolstering public-service aspects of the law.

In an interview at the Monitor's editorial offices, the new ABA head explained that a key part of his job will be to ``change the perception of the public with respect to lawyers.''

Falsgraf says that dishonest lawyers and judges who take bribes tend to get major media attention. But the large majority, who serve their clients unselfishly and participate in pro bono (for the public good) programs to serve the poor, receive little publicity.

Also, he feels that lawyers in the US are held in low esteem because of an ``inherent distrust on the part of Americans with respect to authority.''

``They [Americans] don't like the `system.' And lawyers are part of the system. So they don't like lawyers,'' Falsgraf says.

What is the ABA doing to change all this? Among other things, it is:

Encouraging states to adopt its model rules of conduct. These guidelines on legal ethics were penned by the national lawyers group two years ago.

Urging private law firms to volunteer free legal services to the poor. In the past five years, government funds to underwrite such aid have been drastically reduced. Nongovernment lawyers participated in about 50 pro bono programs before 1981. Now, with the aid of $600,000 in ABA program grants, this number has jumped to 425.

Prodding women and minorities to enter the law profession and seek judgeships, as well as prestigious posts in corporate firms.

Actively advocating alternative means for resolving disputes, such as mediation services, arbitration, limited trials (``mini-courts''), and neighborhood legal aid.

The incoming ABA president explains that ethical problems among lawyers are increasing with the growing volume and complexity of cases. And he says that some of the younger and less experienced lawyers fall into ``legal traps'' because they are unaware of their professional moral responsibilities. ``It's not because they are fundamentally unethical. It's because they are ignorant of the requirements,'' he holds.

Falsgraf also says that law schools are reluctant to offer specific classes on legal ethics. ``The way to do it [teach ethics] is to bring in real-life situations. What happens in a criminal case when your client tells you he is going to commit perjury? What do you do?''

Falsgraf points out that the ABA's ``Model Rules'' are quite clear on this matter: ``If you know that your client is going to commit perjury, your obligation [as a lawyer] is to withdraw from representation,'' and advise the judge that you are doing so.

Legal aid to the poor is a major undertaking of private bar groups. Over 75,000 lawyers are involved in formal pro bono programs, points out Falsgraf. But he insists that volunteer efforts cannot effectively replace government-supported legal services. ``There's just a myriad of things that professional full-time employees can do that volunteers are not set up for,'' he explains. Determining eligibility standards for low-income clients, for example.

Many law firms allow associates time off from regular matters to volunteer in pro bono civil matters.

Falsgraf also points out that there is the growing need to address legal problems of older Americans, including disputes over social security, medicare, pensions, and age discrimination claims. And while law school enrollment has been on the decline in the past three years, the number of women studying the law is increasing.

``It's high time that women occupy the same position in the law profession as men,'' Falsgraf says. He predicts a ``dramatic impact'' during the next decade ``in terms of the number of federal judges, state court judges, who are women.'' Further, he says women are starting to hold ``positions of real importance in law firms and corporate law departments.''

Curtis J. Sitomer writes the Monitor's weekly ``Justice'' column.

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