Good morning my fellow officers, members of the Executive Committee, Board of Governors members, justices, judges, Georgia lawyers, staff, guests, friends and family. I am honored to have the opportunity this morning to share with you my program initiatives as I take the helm of the State Bar of Georgia. As I begin my remarks, I hope each of you will be listening for how you can become more involved, and how you can volunteer your time, talent, treasure and energy as we roll out our programs.
This year our Immediate Past President Buck Ruffin focused on the celebration of major milestones in history, including commemorating the 225th Anniversary of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, and celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the unified mandatory Bar in Georgia. My installation as the 52nd President of the State Bar of Georgia continues the focus on historical moments. As I take office, I will become the first person of color and the first African-American—to have the honor to serve as president of our professional institution. I am proud that my peers believe that I am deserving of the privilege and capable of serving you and the citizens of Georgia who count on our Bar to protect them. But my remarks this morning are less about me and who I am, and more about what I want to see us do this year as a State Bar.
I do not take the responsibility of being your president lightly. In fact, for several months now I have been hard at work developing my plans for the 2014-2015 Bar year with a team of dedicated lawyers and friends who have helped me shape my programs for next year and who have committed to assist me with the implementation of the same. Team, (you know who you are), I thank you for all of the time and energy that you have provided toward this effort.
Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded, and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” The practice of law is not a right. It is a privilege! Along with this privilege, comes a moral obligation to ensure that all the citizens of this great state have reasonable access to legal services. Those of us honored with the privilege have a duty and a responsibility to make sure that everyone has access to a lawyer when coming into court. No one should lack access to valuable legal services during the most vulnerable times of their lives. Could you imagine someone in your family needing to get out of a violent relationship, needing to probate a Will, needing to obtain a guardianship for an older family member, needing a divorce, or needing to collect child support to meet the day to day needs of a child, without anyone to turn to for the legal assistance required to meet their need?
Many citizens experience great difficulty trying to navigate the legal system without a lawyer. Often they walk away from the experience with a negative attitude toward the legal profession as a whole and a lack of confidence in the fairness of our system of justice. As lawyers, we must strive to reduce ANY sources of negative public perception, and the harm to the public that our profession was created to prevent, by ensuring that all citizens regardless of economic status or where they live have access to a lawyer. We can do better. We as leaders of the Bar need to fully support Georgia Legal Services, Atlanta Legal Aid and other legal service agencies who are out there trying to fill the needs of the underserved. Have you done what you can to support these existing programs?
In addition to making a financial contribution and agreeing to take on pro bono cases for these agencies, there are several options we as a group can initiate to address the problem of civil legal defense for indigent and marginally employed Georgians. We have an Access to Justice Committee and a Civil Legal Services Task Force working in this area and developing solutions to this problem. This year, I plan to do the following:
Encourage you as leaders of the profession to donate and raise funds for the institutions that are helping meet the needs of indigent citizens and encourage others to do so as well.
Encourage you as leaders, to lead by example, in the provision of hours of pro bono legal services personally and through your firms.
Implement a plan to ensure that there is a lawyer in every county in Georgia through a program similar to the placement of doctors in underserved areas. Lawyers agreeing to such a placement would receive some level of relief from the debt incurred in their study of law at our state law schools. Lawyers so placed would be supported by the local economic development authority, if there is one, in addition to a network of senior lawyers who are moving into retirement, but still want to utilize their skills and experience to assist with legal matters. In this way, young lawyers would have the opportunity to discuss matters with more seasoned lawyers throughout the state using computer technology.
Encourage adoption of the applicable recommendations of the Civil Legal Services Task Force by the Board of Governors.
Work with the Supreme Court to make sure that our suggested courses of action is acceptable and that the court feels that we are taking an aggressive position to address this critical issue.
In addition to working on ways to improve access to justice by indigent and marginally employed citizens in Georgia, I also plan to reach out to young people to enhance their education on the importance of their rights as citizens. Civics instruction in our schools has been severely cut, and in some cases eliminated. We can do better. My plan is to use an interactive computer based civics instruction program called iCivics. iCivics was created by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to help social studies teachers throughout the country address the void created by the elimination of civics instruction in high schools. I believe this is a very important investment in our future. It is in high school that we learn about civic responsibility, the roles and duties of each of the three branches of government, our rights under the constitution, how a bill is passed in the legislature etc.—all important issues in shaping responsible citizens and beginning to plant the seeds in some young people to become responsible lawyers.
This will be a pilot program to be undertaken in a few school systems this year. Hopefully, the program gains momentum and more school systems will sign on. I am pleased to say that the YLD is working in collaboration with us on this program. Our plan is to place a resource lawyer in every middle school or high school classroom where the teacher is using the iCivics course curriculum. The resource lawyers will serve as a support to the teacher, and reinforce the concepts presented through the computer-based iCivics curriculum. The resource lawyer will be expected to visit the classes at least twice a month to help add real world examples by sharing relevant cases, joining field trips, and facilitating classroom dialogue to reinforce the subject matter being taught by the teacher.
The iCivics program was introduced to me by Judge Dorothy Beasley, but Justice Carol Hunstein is the state chair for the iCivics program in Georgia and Evelyn Davis and Ashley Herd are the two attorneys who have served as coordinators of this program for our state. With your help, we can get this program rolled out to our schools using funds from Cornerstones of Freedom. You will hear more about this program throughout the year. I hope that each of you will consider volunteering to assist with a classroom, if we are working in a school system in your area. We will build a stronger citizenry and we will be a stronger Bar as a result of our outreach.
Finally, I hope you will join me in working to increase the awareness of and relevance of the State Bar to all of our members. Some of you may remember that we conducted a survey in January to help collect information from our members on a wide variety of topics. It would be an understatement to say that I was surprised by some of the revelations regarding 1) members’ lack of knowledge about what our State Bar does, and 2) why it is relevant to them. We can do better. We can do so much better. I hope to reverse this dynamic by reaching out to members of the Bar to communicate with them more effectively about the operations of our State Bar, services offered by the Bar and how they can get engaged in its programs and committees. I have already started this work as I made committee appointments. As I considered appointments, I worked to intentionally reach out to lawyers who have not been as engaged in the State Bar. I have asked them to serve. I have also changed the leadership of numerous committees to foster new and fresh ideas across our committees.
It is important that all of our committees and sections not only do their work, but promote the work they are doing! To communicate this agenda, I have scheduled a meeting with all of the committee chairs and section leaders of the State Bar on July 22. In that meeting, we will discuss how, as the mandatory bar, we create a customer service mindset that helps us to be more relevant to our members.
In addition to these new efforts, I plan to continue and build upon several programs created by my predecessors. I plan to continue SOLACE and the Suicide Prevention Programs. I will be adding these programs to our Lawyer Assistance group so that all of the assistance services that we offer to our members as a Bar association, are housed under one umbrella and are easy to find and access. We will need to hire someone to assist with communicating the existence of these programs to our members and coordinating delivery of these services.
I plan to continue to work with our Supreme Court to address their needs, including salary increases for judges and full staffing of the judiciary.
I plan to continue our legislative program—and in a way that our Bar is not tagged as the “fourth branch of government.” Our Bar has a long and accomplished history of securing passage of our Bar sponsored bills (legislation recommended by the Advisory Committee on Legislation and approved by this Board). I will work with our legislative team and our director of governmental affairs to continue our rich legacy in this area.
I plan to work in an open and cooperative spirit and manner with my fellow officers and the members of the Executive Committee. I also want to work to strengthen the administrative functions of the Bar as we transition in a new executive director. I want to make sure that the State Bar communicates more effectively with our satellite offices and that relationships with lawyers across the state are enhanced. This likely will require significant improvements in our computer and communications technology, but it will serve us well. We also need to finish the renovations to the fifth floor of the State Bar Headquarters, so that all of the building is lease-ready and parking obtained for future tenants of this space.
It is going to be a busy year. I am convinced that if we work together we can build on an incredible foundation and legacy, and that we can do even better. I am committed to working with all of you to make the State Bar of Georgia more responsive to those in need of our services, more engaged with our next generation of citizens, and more beneficial to our members. I hope that you will support me in these efforts. I look forward to our work together. Let me know what you will do to help!