Skip Navigation LinksHome > News Media > Speeches > 05-04-06

Remarks for American Bar Association Initiative:
Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession
May 2, 2006

Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Associate Justice
Supreme Court of the United States

I am glad to be associated with the effort American Bar Association President Mike Greco has spearheaded, the Renaissance of Idealism in the Legal Profession. Renaissance means rebirth, so it is fitting to recall some of the prominent proponents of idealism and public citizenship among lawyers in generations past.

The Chief Justice who presided over the construction of the Supreme Court building in the early 1930s, William Howard Taft, famously said: "We must make it so that a poor [person] will have as nearly as possible an equal opportunity [to access justice]." "[A]shamed as we [should] be of it," Taft commented, "that is not the fact." He urged the profession to strive to make the ideal a reality. Louis D. Brandeis, known in his days at the Bar as "the people's lawyer," devoted as many hours to nonpaying clients as he did to those who retained him.

Reginald Heber Smith, as a partner in the Boston firm Hale and Dorr in the early twentieth century, inaugurated the practice of calculating lawyers' fees by "billable hours," a practice today thought to dampen the pro bono spirit. Yet the originator of "billable hours" is far better known for a book he published in 1919, titled Justice and the Poor, an exposé of the vast differences in the quality of justice available to the rich and the poor in the USA. His groundbreaking study galvanized efforts to narrow the gap, including formation of the first confederation of legal aid providers in the United States (the National Association of Legal Aid Organizations).

An earlier example is featured in a film in which Justice Blackmun played the cameo role of Justice Joseph Story. A mid-nineteenth century lawyer named Roger Baldwin (not related to the Roger Baldwin who in the next century founded the American Civil Liberties Union) ably represented the rebel slaves on the ship Amistad. His devoted pro bono service helped to secure the captives' freedom and their return to Africa in 1841.

In our own time, inspirational lawyers are many. They include Marian Wright Edelman, brave civil rights advocate in the 1960s, and founder of the Children's Defense Fund in 1973. Urging other lawyers to use their talent and training to advance the public good, she said: "If you don't like the way [things are], you change [them]. You have an obligation to change [them]. You just do it, one step at a time."

Great member of the Great Generation, and former President of the American Bar Association Chesterfield Smith, insisted that it is the Association's responsibility to assure there will be a lawyer, when needed, for those unable to pay. In Chesterfield's words:

Those lawyers who [simply] cannot overlook the social ills of the justice system, the legal profession's deficiencies, its failure to make adequate legal services available to all, seem to me to be the ones who cherish the legal profession as a noble calling.

True enough, law and lawyers have fared rather badly in many a song and story. In grand opera, for example, lawyers are barely there. In Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, a lawyer has a bit part, but his assistance is so ineffective, he manages to get for his client a few extra days in jail. The lawyer who appears in Porgy and Bess ups the price to get Bess a divorce when she tells him she was never really married to any beau before Porgy.

Celebrated writers from Shakespeare to Sandburg have harbored a lingering distrust of the lawyers' trade. Charles Dickens, in Bleak House, put it this way:

The one great principle of the English law is to make business for itself. There is no other principle so distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.

Sadly, many think of lawyers that way to this day.

But the legal profession has in its ranks legions of men and women striving to change that perception, jurists devoted to, and at work for, the public good - people who are the best of lawyers and judges, the most dedicated, the least selfish. This audience is filled with jurists of that kind, lawyers who are guided by Dr. Seuss's gentle maxim: "A person's a person, no matter how small," and should receive the representation promised by the pledge of "Justice for All."

It is generally not ideology that keeps lawyers from helping to repair tears in their communities, nation, and world, and in the lives of the poor, the forgotten, the people held back because they are members of disadvantaged or distrusted minorities. It is more likely to be apathy, selfishness, or anxiety that one is already overextended. Those are forces not easy to surmount. Yet lawyers who consider themselves not simply tradesmen working for a day's pay, but members of a true and learned profession, will make the effort to overcome inertia, the workloads on their tables, and the shortness of the day, for the rewards are great. Lawyers fare best in their own estimation, and in the esteem of others, my life experiences teach, if they do their part to help move society to the place they would like it to be for the health and well-being of today's children and of generations to come.



SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES 1 First Street, NE Washington, DC 20543