Raising the bar

Being named president of the American Bar Association is a huge deal, a chance to affect the legal profession on a large scale and in lasting ways, but there’s a catch. You only get the job for one year.

University of South Carolina alumnus William Hubbard (’74 history, ’77 law), who assumed the coveted position in August 2014 after a year as president-elect, is well aware of the short tenure, but he’s making the most of it.

“It’s been a very busy, exhilarating experience,” Hubbard says. “The schedule is packed, and I spend a significant amount of time trying to figure out how I can be the most productive in the 365 days I have to do this job.”

Under Hubbard’s leadership, the ABA is training lawyers who defend domestic violence victims and working to ease re-entry into the community for ex-convicts upon release from prison, but he cites the ABA’s response to a growing crisis involving unaccompanied immigrant children in need of pro bono legal services as perhaps the biggest highlight of his tenure so far.

“Within two weeks of visiting the border, we had in place a highly regarded, well represented group from various sections and components of the ABA, and we developed training modules and training strategies to provide pro bono legal assistance,” Hubbard says. “Sometimes these projects take longer to get off the ground, but that’s one where we saw a critical need, in effect an emergency, and were able to respond.”

Hubbard is more broadly proud of the new Commission on the Future of Legal Services, which he says, “ties all of this work together.”

The commission’s goal is to help close the justice gap by developing more efficient, cost-effective platforms for the delivery of legal services to lower-income people while still providing the protections that are the hallmark of the American justice system.

“Despite the significant pro bono participation by the legal profession — I would say we give more away than any other profession anywhere in terms of free services to help the poor — the model we’re using is not moving the needle,” Hubbard says. “If despite more effort and more hours and a culture of pro bono, you’re not closing the justice gap, then you have to look at your model and ask how you can change the model for delivery.”

And as he points out, the need is critical.

“The best studies show that 80 (percent) to 85 percent of the poor and those of moderate means in this country do not have adequate access to our justice system on the civil side,” he says. “This creates frustration, and as a result people try to resolve their legal issues through other means that are outside the traditional legal system.”

The longtime Nelson Mullins Riley and Scarborough partner and Carolina board member keeps a busy schedule, but that’s simply how he operates. And leading the ABA is a motivation to work even harder. 

“You don’t want to waste an hour, you don’t want to waste a day,” he says. “Otherwise, you’ll end the year without having made a difference.  And at the end of the day, that’s what I’m trying the hardest to do: make the world a little bit better, make our country a little bit better, make our justice system a little bit more just.”

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