Bar association chief retorts to criticism


Baltimore lawyer J. Michael McWilliams became president of the 370,000-member American Bar Association (ABA) at the group's annual convention this month.

Mr. McWilliams, 53, a senior partner in the Baltimore firm of Tydings & Rosenberg, is the first Marylander to head the association. He takes office at a time when lawyers and lawsuits are being blamed for some of the nation's economic problems.

Q: President Bush and Vice President Quayle are blaming trial lawyers for generating too many lawsuits and hurting the nation's competitiveness. How valid are those comments?

A: The ABA is a non-partisan organization dedicated to HTC improving the legal system and does not endorse any candidates for office. We're not at this time going to get into responding to the rhetoric of this very highly charged political season.

Q: Let's ignore the source of the criticism. Do you feel there are too many lawsuits?

A: The way we have dealt with statements like that about lawyers is to rely on the facts.

And we have stated in the past that the issues raised by those who say there are too many lawsuits -- that tort litigation is out of control -- simply are not backed up by the facts.

The National Center of State Courts reported that about 100 million lawsuits were filed in 1990. About 18 million were civil cases. If you look at those, only 10 percent were tort cases [cases in which someone claims to have suffered personal injury property damage.]

That means that tort cases are less than one-half of 1 percent of all lawsuits.

The bottom line is that the context in which the president and the vice president are making charges about trial lawyer litigation is in the context of one-half of 1 percent of the state court caseloads.

That is not to say there are not problems in that area. There are some problems on which we agree with the administration and some on which we don't.

We're working to deal with those problems.

Q: Lawyers have taken a lot of heat over the years and they often complain that their poor public image comes from a lack of understanding about the legal system. Is that the case, or is much of the criticism deserved?

A: We lawyers can't be too thin-skinned. There's always going to be lawyer-bashing.

As long as you've got a losing side to a lawsuit, as long as you've got a couple of rotten apples in the barrel, there are always going to be those who have a negative perception of the legal community.

And it's true that many people don't know or understand the profession.

Lawyers are notoriously bad about blowing their own horns for all of the good things they do.

Q: The ABA voted this month to fight laws that would restrict a woman's right to abortion. Anti-abortion groups say the ABA should no longer be able to screen federal judicial candidates now that it has taken this stand. Does the association's position create a conflict?

A: The ABA takes positions on hundreds of issues and has for many years. The taking of these positions is entirely different from the processof rating judges. Those ratings are based on competence and integrity. Candidates are not evaluated in any way on the basis of philosophy or ideology. There is no litmus test. They are not even asked whether they agree with ABA positions on such issues as abortion.

Q: You said in your speech to the ABA convention that the country's justice system is on the verge of collapse. What do you mean by that?

A: Our theme this year is "justice for all and all for justice." The focus, what the theme entails, is that we don't have justice for all. We have justice for some. And we won't have justice for all unless we get a broad-based national commitment.We need a system of justice where there is equal access, adequate representation for all and sufficient and balanced funding.

Q: You have talked of a "justice deficit," in which underprivileged people often cannot afford fair access to the court system. What will the ABA do to try to change that?

A: Our board of governors has just approved the formation of a coalition of justice, which will consist of lawyers and non-lawyers and work with public service groups such as the League of Women Voters.

The coalition's purpose will be to promote the implementation of our recommendations for providing adequate funding to the judicialsystem. It will lobby for federal funding.

Q: Minority and women lawyers complain that there is still a lot of discrimination in the profession when it comes to employment and promotions. What is the ABA doing to address their concerns?

A: There's been progress. We've had efforts under way for some time to address gender and racial bias. The bottom line is that it's still there, and we encourage state and local bar associations to continue to do studies showing that it's still there.

Q: What would be your advice to anyone contemplating law school and a career in the legal profession?

A: I would tell those who are contemplating law school that you ought not go into law with the idea that you'll get rich. But you will make a decent living and can contribute to the public good in a way that no other profession can.

I don't think we have too many lawyers. Eighty to 90 percent of the people who cannot afford lawyers are not getting legal service.

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