James R. Silkenat, 66, a corporate lawyer in the New York office of Boston law firm Sullivan & Worcester, began his one-year term as president of the American Bar Association in August. In town recently to attend the International Bar Association’s conference and scout event locations for the ABA’s annual meeting in Boston next year, Silkenat spoke with Globe correspondent Gail Waterhouse about changes in the legal profession and the challenges it faces.
How long have you been involved in the Bar Association?
Back in the ’70s, the ABA was putting together its first delegation to China, and at the last minute they decided to take a young lawyer. They invited me to go, so I had to join the ABA.
What are some issues you are hoping to address?
The big issue right now at the moment is court funding. Sequestration is messing up US courts in very serious ways, huge problems with courts closing one or two days a week, not having money to pay for security, not having money to pay for translators.
And what can be done to change that?
Essentially it’s educating Congress about why courts are different, what impact it has if you don’t have fully functioning courts.
Some people are coming out of law school with a lot of debt and not the best job prospects. Do you think this is an issue?
The ABA is now looking at how we can make the system less expensive for students, so they come out of school with less debt, and can choose the kinds of legal careers that are of most interest to them. If they want to go into legal services work, it’s hard to do if you’ve got $150,000 in debt.
Let’s talk a little bit about the Legal Access Jobs Corps.
There are parts of the US where there just aren’t lawyers. At the same time, you have lots of young lawyers coming out of law school, looking for experience, looking for training, looking for a job. Is there a way to combine those two? There are maybe a dozen models around the country, some organized by law schools, some by bar associations. We’re going to look at the creation of a national thing that does this every place at the same time.
Where do you see technology playing a role in the legal profession?
One of the areas where it might play a role is in access to justice. If you’re in South Dakota, do you really need to go out to the far boonies, or can you do this by video conference? Technology can help, just in connecting people who need help with lawyers, and with making the whole process less expensive.
What do you see as some things the profession could improve on?
Connecting with young lawyers coming out of law school. I’m hoping we can promote ways to provide training to young lawyers and give them access to resources and mentors so that they can get a career up and running quickly. Working with young lawyers is the key to having a successful bar association.
You have been on a couple different boards promoting diversity in the profession. Where do you see the legal profession on issues surrounding diversity and leadership?
That’s one of our big failings. The legal profession generally doesn’t look like the public it serves. The ABA has been working very hard to increase the number of minority students in law schools, working to make sure they have opportunities once they graduate, leadership opportunities at the bar, in law firms. On the gender side, a big issue for really all law firms is the pay gap between women and men partners.
Are you keeping your day job? Or is this now your full-time job?
The firm is very supportive. They recognize that this is going to take lots and lots of time. It’s important for me to stay involved with clients and work on stuff that keeps me sensitive to what other lawyers are doing.
Are you going to be able to sleep at all this year?
Apparently not. I’ve been in the office almost a month now, and sleep has not come up.