ABA leader pledges to work on access to justice

James R. Silkenat, a partner in the New York office of the national law firm of Sullivan & Worcester, took office as president of the American Bar Association at the conclusion of the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco earlier this month.

He will serve as president until the close of the ABA Annual Meeting in August 2014.

During his term, Silkenat will lead the ABA’s development of a Legal Access Job Corps, which seeks to address both the country’s growing unmet legal needs and the underemployment of recent law graduates.

“Instead of looking at the dearth of jobs and the large number of unmet legal needs as two separate silos, we will find ways to match young lawyers who need practical job experience with disadvantaged clients who need legal assistance,” Silkenat said.

“For every client served by a Legal Services Corporation-funded program, another person who sought help was turned down because LSC did not have the resources to help them,” Silkenat said, emphasizing the importance of the coming initiative.

Silkenat said the ABA would continue its advocacy for proper funding of state courts and warned of the consequences of across-the-board budget cuts, known as sequestration, on the federal courts.

Sequestration “particularly imperils the delivery of effective legal representation to poor people accused of federal crimes,” he said, noting that “the $350 million reduction in the federal judiciary’s budget for fiscal year 2013 has resulted in an 8 percent cut to the network of high-quality federal defender offices around the country. It has forced the layoffs of many experienced lawyers who have devoted their professional careers to the underappreciated and underpaid work of representing indigent federal defendants.”

“This is a deep embarrassment for a nation grounded on the rule of law,” Silkenat continued.

Silkenat also will urge the ABA’s involvement in legal education reform and will work to mobilize lawyers to educate policymakers and the public on legal issues, and he will seek policy solutions concerning immigration, gun violence and election law.

On curbing gun violence, Silkenat will work with Congress on gun violence legislation, specifically seeking out better, more comprehensive background checks and effective tools to prosecute straw purchases of guns.

On the issue of immigration, Silkenat said that “as the national voice of the legal profession, the ABA has a unique interest in ensuring fairness and due process in the immigration enforcement and adjudication system.”

Silkenat has a long record of service at the ABA. Before his election by the ABA House of Delegates last year as the association’s president-elect, he was a member of the ABA Commission on Women in the Profession and the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. He also served as co-chair of the ABA Solo and Small Firm Leadership Coalition.

Silkenat also served as chair of the ABA Section of International Law (receiving its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007), chair of the ABA Section Officers Conference and chair of the ABA Standing Committees on Membership and Constitution and Bylaws.

Silkenat has been a member of the ABA House of Delegates since 1990.

He is a former member of the ABA board of Governors and its executive committee and is a former national chair of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation.

Silkenat is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the American Law Institute, and he served as chair of the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights (now Human Rights First).

A frequent author and lecturer, Silkenat is the editor or co-editor of 14 books and author of more than 100 articles on legal and justice system issues.

In his legal practice at Sullivan & Worcester, he helps coordinate the firm’s international business practice.

Silkenat, who grew up in the Kansas City area, received his Bachelor of Arts from Drury College in Springfield, Mo., his Juris Doctor from the University of Chicago School of Law and his Master of Laws in International Law from New York University School of Law.