LINDA KLEIN - ABA president

The Big Interview...Linda Klein

When did you decide to become a lawyer? Why?
I knew early on that I wanted to be a lawyer. My grandfather told me stories about life during the depression. He taught me the value that all people should be treated with dignity. He taught me that lawyers protected people who needed help. So I never gave much thought to another profession. I wanted to help people so I pursued law school, a law career and joined the bar.

Starting out, what did you expect from a career in the law? Has it lived up to your expectations?
As a lawyer I have made wonderful friends in my fellow members of the bar, done some interesting and challenging work, and helped my community. Being a lawyer has exceeded the expectations I had when was in law school.

How did you get into the areas of law you are known for today? By design? Chance? Both?
I took opportunities that were offered. I took cases that other lawyers avoided, and I succeeded by working hard and digging deep. I found that the harder I worked the luckier I got. These cases led to others.

What differences do you see in today’s legal market compared to when you started?
There were fewer women and people of color in the law profession when I started. I was the only woman in the law firm where I started and knew I had to succeed or I would be the last. For over 25 years now, close to half of law school graduates have been women, entering the workforce at the same rate as men. Today, for the first time, women are the majority of those entering law schools. And there are more women and more people of color in the profession today, so we’ve come a long way.

But much work remains to be done before our profession is as equitable and fair as it should be. For example, women in law firms receive 77.4% of the compensation of men, one of the widest gaps among industries in the US. The imbalance is even more dramatic for women of color. The American Bar Association is working to close those gaps and open our profession to diversity and inclusion, and elimination of bias is Goal III of the ABA, part of the bedrock that underpins our organization.

Linda Klein"Women in law firms receive 77.4% of the compensation of men, one of the widest gaps among industries in the US. The imbalance is even more dramatic for women of color. The American Bar Association is working to close those gaps."

Another significant change in the profession is the rise of technology. When I began practice the profession was just learning to use online legal research. No lawyers had computers on their desks. The "computer" was a word processor that did not spell check.

What achievement/s are you most proud of?
I accepted my first pro bono case three months after becoming a lawyer. It changed my outlook on life and the profession. My client was a disabled widow trying to collect life insurance benefits from her late husband’s policy. She was so disabled, she never knew I was helping her get the money she needed at the end of her life. But I knew, and it was a powerful feeling to help someone in need.

I am also very proud of our work in Georgia to help the indigent victims of domestic violence get the legal assistance they need. Back in 1997 as I was becoming president of the State Bar of Georgia, federal budget cuts threatened the existence of Georgia Legal Services. So I decided that the Georgia Bar needed to work with other organizations to make Georgia one of the first states in the nation to provide state funding for legal representation for our poorest neighbors. The focus was on the indigent victims of domestic violence. We got the money [$2 million]. In fact, every year since then, the General Assembly has provided funding.

What have you enjoyed most during your career in the legal profession?
I enjoy every day. Each new day presents a new challenge. Of course some days are better than others, but I love what I do. Helping clients is certainly exciting and interesting. And, lawyers are some of the best people I know, so I enjoy working with other lawyers on client matters and on bar service activities.

And enjoyed the least?
Having to explain to clients and the public why underfunding our justice system causes delays in resolving their problems.

Why should students get involved in the ABA?
Everything in life, and every job, is built on good relationships and connections, and for law students there is no better connection than being part of the ABA, one of the world’s largest professional associations. And ABA membership for law students is free. That membership offers career-building opportunities and gives law students tools and resources to help them succeed in school and beyond, and provides access to benefits, perks and discounts they can’t get anywhere else.

For $25, the ABA offers law students a Premium Membership, which includes free resumé review, $250 off BARBRI bar review courses, a free copy of the annotated version of ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct, discounts on study guides and more. Membership connects law students with some of our more than 3,500 entities and helps them use the ABA to blaze their legal path.

"There is never a wrong time to defend the Constitution and the rule of law, but this is a particularly important time."

Who is your legal hero?
My friend, former Georgia Chief Justice Carol Hunstein. She overcame incredible obstacles early in life to even be able to go to college and then more obstacles to have the opportunity to attend law school. She does everything with integrity. She is the epitome of a fair and impartial judge.

What career would you have in your second life?
I might have chosen the field of education. My sister, Marla, is a teacher and a very good one who is making a difference in peoples’ lives.

What are your hopes and fears in the coming years?
America’s rule of law is the gold standard for the world and American lawyers are its guardians. Right now, programs we [the ABA] value are facing challenges. We know there is a threat to eliminate federal funding for Legal Services Corporation, which ensures that everyone has equal access to justice under the law. We need adequate funding for the Legal Services Corporation because LSC provides hope and help to hundreds of thousands of Americans every year. It is a bipartisan necessity.

It is vital, too, that our judiciary remains independent and free from political pressure — independent from party politics, independent from the other branches of government. This is a defining moment for our profession and our nation. We will be actively involved to protect due process and legal representation.

We also must insist on fundamental respect for our laws and the people they protect. There is never a wrong time to defend the Constitution and the rule of law, but this is a particularly important time. American lawyers will defend the Constitution.

What advice would you give students trying to enter the legal profession today?
Regardless of what your first job is as a lawyer, be prepared to work hard. Take the job no one else wants to do, learn the job, excel in the job, enjoy working and connecting with others involved, then move on to the next job no one wants and repeat all of the above. You will develop contacts that will last throughout your career and you will earn the reputation of being a person willing to take on the toughest or worst job and doing it well. Better jobs will follow because all leaders want someone on their team who excels in whatever they do. Soon, you will be the leader. And take pro bono cases. Do good. It will remind you of why you became a lawyer in the first place. You will love the pro bono work you do.

"Take the job no one else wants to do, learn the job, excel in the job [...] and repeat all of the above."