A Tale Of Two Bars

China's national bar association, the All China Lawyers Association, this year is commemorating its 20th anniversary. The American Bar Association, founded in 1878, is in its 129th year. ACLA's growth and impact on the legal profession in China during its first two decades bear comparison to that of the ABA during its first quarter century.

I have had the opportunity to observe first-hand the many achievements of these two great national bars, and to work with ACLA's leadership during the past twelve months on issues of mutual interest. The strengthening relationship between the ABA and ACLA thus provides grounds for optimism not only for the two organizations but for the role of the legal profession in our two nations.

My first visit to China was in November 1986, the year of ACLA's birth, when I led a delegation of lawyers and judges on a 22-day mission to China. My next trip was not until 19 years later, in my capacity as president of the ABA. On the latter trip I had the opportunity and pleasure to meet with ACLA's president, Mr. Yu Ning, and his ACLA colleagues, and with leaders in China's Ministry of Justice to discuss substantive issues of common interest to the legal profession in our countries. I also observed remarkable changes that had occurred since my earlier trip.

For example, the entire lawyer population of China in 1986 - which was also ACLA's membership - was fewer than 3000. It is now 110,000 and growing.Many of the important issues that ACLA has addressed these past 20 years have interesting antecedents in the ABA's early years.

The 120 or so lawyers from across the U.S. - leaders of state bar associations - who traveled to Saratoga, New York, in 1878 to form America's national bar association did so because of a pressing need to address serious problems and issues then besetting America's legal profession and society. What were some of those troubling issues in the ABA's infancy?

There were no standards for legal education in the U.S. There were no codes of ethics for lawyers or judges. The administration of the justice system frustrated and angered the public due to ineffectiveness and perceived unfairness. Consumer protection laws were many decades away, as was any serious consideration for the protection of the environment. There were denial of civil rights and discrimination toward racial and ethnic minorities and women, in both American society and the legal profession ( Brown v. Board of Education would not be decided for another 75 years). Access to the justice system was denied to the vast majority of America's poor, and even today 80 percent of the legal needs of America's poor continue to be unmet each year. Women and persons of color were denied full and meaningful entry into the legal profession, and even today lack of diversity in the legal profession persists. The concept of a Rule of Law movement supported and advanced by the ABA is a phenomenon of only the last fifteen years, with creation of ABA CEELI, followed by similar rule of law initiatives in Asia, Africa, Latin America and increasingly here at home. The list could go on.

For its part, ACLA (which unlike the ABA is under the supervision of the Chinese government), has made notable progress on those issues that it has made a priority during its first twenty years. ACLA committees have not only played an important role in China's economic reform, but have also become influential in advocating for an enhanced role for lawyers' participation in such areas as environmental protection and criminal justice.

The legal profession in China, through the daily efforts of 110,000 lawyers who strive to incorporate law and legal standards into discussions with and advice to enterprise, government, and the citizenry, is one of the strongest forces in China for creating genuine rule of law - for the important reason that lawyers are treating law as relevant and as a source of authority.

Importantly, ACLA in recent years has been increasing substantially its outreach to and participation in the international community of lawyers and jurists, thus facilitating greater understanding between China and other nations on legal cultural differences and similarities, and helping China to integrate better into the world community. This I know first hand because of the opportunities I have had during the past twelve months to meet and collaborate with President Yu and his ACLA colleagues at conferences and meetings across the world. We enjoy a strong and growing friendship, both professional and personal, based on mutual respect and trust.

ACLA, on behalf of the legal profession in China, is unambiguously and understandably proud of its increasing openness and participation with its counterparts in the international community. Primary among the reasons to welcome such participation is the great potential presented for a united legal profession in all nations to serve as a strong force for advancing the rule of law throughout the world. The rule of law not only protects the dignity of all peoples, but the stability that it ensures in legal systems is vital to the economic development of nations.

And so I commend ACLA for the important progress it has made in its first twenty years on the issues that it has been able to address. Other issues await ACLA's attention, and that of the legal profession in China, as is the case with the ABA and the profession in America.

The ABA, ACLA and bar associations throughout the world have had and will continue to have a vitally important role in improving the legal profession and its ability to serve humankind. To be sure, in its 129 years the ABA and its members have achieved a great deal and have much to be proud of. But in America we still have a long way to go before fulfilling the eloquent promise etched above the entrance to the U.S. Supreme Court building: 'Equal Justice for All.'

As important as achieving that fundamental goal is for our nation, and for all nations, equally important is the global journey of all nations working together to achieve it.

Published December 1, 2006.