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ABA president asks law students to 'lift as you climb’
Deborah Enix-Ross (R) with Law Society President Michelle Ní Longáin

10 Oct 2022 / law society Print

ABA President asks law students to 'lift as you climb’

The President of the American Bar Association (ABA) has challenged trainee solicitors to “look up” from their work, and think about how they can move society forward.

In a talk at the Law School at Blackhall Place last week, Deborah Enix-Ross (pictured, right) also told the students that the legal profession in the US had come a long way in terms of diversity, but expressed concern about the polarisation of political opinion in the country.

The ABA president spoke about what she had learned in a 40-year career since she qualified in 1982.

“If I had known then how long it would be, I think I would have been a bit calmer in the beginning because, in the US system, we all felt like: ‘if you don't get the perfect job right out of school, you're doomed’!” she told the students.

Enix-Ross said that she did not follow the traditional path of graduating from law school, going to ‘big law’ and then ending up as a partner after ten or 12 years.

“You are in control of your careers, and you are the ones who define what success looks like,” the ABA president said.

Enix-Ross studied law at the University of Miami in Florida, where she was one of only two black women in her class. (The other, Teretha Lundy Thomas, is now a retired judge.)

“As I was making my way, there were no people who looked like me in that profession,” she told the trainees. “There were not many women, not many people of colour, and they weren't young.”

‘Lawyers are professionals’

She urged the future lawyers to become involved in the work of bodies such as bar associations.

“This is a profession that we're in – some may call it a business, but we as lawyers are professionals,” the ABA president said.

“And in order for us to succeed, we need you involved in bar-association work,” she continued. “We need you to be the professionals that keep the profession going.”

Referring to the high percentage of women in her audience, she said that it was “a bit lonely” 40 years ago, but now things were different.

“But that's because people laid the groundwork for me to be where I was, and I try to pay that back in the work that I do in the American Bar Association,” Enix-Ross said.

She urged the students to think of involvement in their professional bodies as part of their obligation or responsibility.

Step back

Pointing to her own career, Enix-Ross also told students that there would be phases and stages in their careers.

“None of us can do everything all the time. There will be moments where we have to step back, or focus more on our families, or focus more on a particular task that we need to do,” she said.

“I think sometimes in the law, we are so accustomed to looking around – look to your left, look to your right, what are they doing? And what am I not doing?

“I want you to resist that. I want every journey to be your journey,” she continued, adding that some of the most rewarding work that she had done had been for the ABA, particularly on human-rights issues, and helping women to make their way in the legal profession.

‘Helping women helps men’

The ABA president stressed that helping women also had the knock-on effect of helping men, who often faced the same issues.

“It is really about ‘how can we enhance the profession for all of us?’ And, when we do that, and when we have our male allies with us, it makes for a better profession, because we know that our clients are looking to us to provide answers.

“And when you have only people who think the same way, you don't get the best product you need,” she added.

Differences of opinion

Enix-Ross warned, however, that this diversity of thought was an issue that the US was “struggling” with at the moment, due to the polarisation of political opinion in the US. She added, however, that this was where lawyers could lead:

“That's where we can demonstrate that we are able to have differences of opinion, differences of views.

“We can be vigorous in our defence of our clients; and then at the end when the case is over, be able to say ‘it was good going up against you’,” Enix-Ross said.

“The idea is that, in the profession, you're going to meet these people again, and so it causes us to behave in a way that's professional and ethical, because that's really what our credibility is in the profession.

“And if we can take that and demonstrate that for society at large, that’s a larger role we need to play as leaders in our communities,” the ABA president continued.

ABA initiative on democracy

The ABA has, this year, launched an initiative focusing on what it calls ‘the cornerstones of democracy’ – civics, civility, and collaboration.

Enix-Ross said that civics meant explaining to people what the branches of government were meant to do, and what they were not meant to do.

She stressed the importance of civility, which did not mean being weak or mild, but using language in a way that moved dialogue forward.

By collaboration, she added, the ABA meant that lawyers needed other stakeholders – including journalists, business leaders, and faith leaders – to help protect the rule of law.

The ABA president challenged the future solicitors to “do more” than put their heads down and work.

“Look up, and figure out how you can help move society forward; how you can help us lift as you climb,” she concluded.

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