A political career seemed unlikely for Dennis W. Archer, who grew up in a home without indoor plumbing and went to work as a caddy at age 8 to help pay the bills.
He graduated from college and was teaching learning-disabled children in Detroit when his future wife insisted he study law. Archer had never met a lawyer, but he enrolled in night law school.
He graduated from the Detroit College of Law in 1970, and was appointed to the Michigan Supreme Court 15 years later. But he grew restless as he watched Detroit's economy decline and violence surge. He was elected the city's mayor in 1993 and served two terms.
Archer, president and the first black leader of the American Bar Association, urged about 70 University of Maryland School of Law students yesterday to pursue a career in public service and become involved in their community. He was the second guest speaker in the university's Leadership in Public Service program, which showcases contributions of leading lawyers to inspire students to better their communities.
"Lawyers have the power to change injustice, change society, help those in need and make lasting contributions," said Archer, 62. "We stand up when others stand aside."
Archer characterized lawyers as healers who help troubled people and administer justice. He recalled how President Franklin D. Roosevelt helped mend a nation with his New Deal and how President Abraham Lincoln, also a lawyer, stood up for abolishing slavery.
Archer also stressed the importance of following the canons of law. Don't lie to clients, keep a clean desk, return phone calls and get malpractice insurance, Archer told the audience.
"The practice of law is just a unique, wonderful privilege," he said. "Whatever you do, be ethical."
Dondrae Maiden, a third-year law student, said Archer's speech motivated him to continue his plan to clerk for a judge after graduation.
"He reassured me I came to law school for the right reasons - to serve the public," said Maiden, 24.
The school's leadership series began in November with guest speaker Harry S. Johnson, the current and first black president of the Maryland State Bar Association. Future speakers have not yet been scheduled.
Before Archer's speech, Law Dean Karen Rothenberg listed his accomplishments and honored him with the Leadership in Public Service award.
Archer began serving his one-year term in August as president of the ABA, which boasts more than 400,000 members. He has been touring colleges and earlier this week spoke with Georgetown University students. He visits the University of Alabama tomorrow.
"He's our role model," Rothenberg said. "I don't think he sleeps."