Columbia lawyer William Hubbard will be sworn in Monday in Boston as president of the American Bar Association.
“He has achieved what for American lawyers is really the pinnacle,” said S.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Jean Toal, who is interrupting a family vacation to fly to Boston at her own expense to swear in Hubbard during the association’s annual convention.
Toal said she had been a mentor to Hubbard since he was a law student and she was a member of the General Assembly back in the mid-1970s.
“To have a really grounded experienced trial lawyer from a small state navigate all the politics in a big national organization to the extent of being able to speak for all American lawyers is just quite a wonderful thing,” Toal said.
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Hubbard, a member of the Nelson Mullins law firm and a longtime member of USC’s board of trustees, will be the first South Carolinian to lead the ABA.
There are about 1 million lawyers in the United States, and some 400,000 are members of the ABA. The group has about 600 employees in Chicago, its headquarters, as well as about 300 in Washington, D.C. As president, Hubbard is CEO of the group, as well as chief spokesperson.
To become ABA head, Hubbard, 62, spend years cultivating relationships with lawyers around the country, serving on numerous committees and rising through a legal hierarchy.
“It’s a great honor for me, and I hope the state of South Carolina, to represent the state and to lead the American legal profession,” he said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
Hubbard said he expects his 12-month tenure as president will be full of travel around the nation and world (a trip to China is in the offing), speeches, interviews with journalists, attending various bar and judicial conferences, meetings with the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Supreme Court, as well as testimony before Congressional committees – to name a few.
“It will take up the vast majority of my time over the next 12 months,” Hubbard said. Nelson Mullins is supportive, he said. Other partners will handle his legal work, he said.
Hubbard said his goals include working to close what he calls “the justice gap.”
“Despite all the efforts of pro bono lawyers and legal service lawyers, we still have a large segment of the population that is not being served by our justice system,” Hubbard said. Some 80 percent of poor people, and some 70 percent of people of moderate means, don’t have access to the civil legal system because of costs or complexity or unfamiliarity with the system, he said.
To address that, Hubbard said, he has put together a “blue ribbon commission” including academics and lawyers and technology experts that will try to help the ABA make the justice system more efficient and accessible to people with problems from disability rights to wills.
“In some states, in family court, in 95 percent of the cases, one party or the other is not represented,” Hubbard said.
Other areas: trying to get more representation for victims of domestic violence and their children, making sure children who cross the U.S. southern border illegally get due process, working to get programs instead of prison for non-violent offenders and spreading the word about the rule of law and human rights to less developed nations.
Hubbard hasn’t held political office. But since 1986, he has been a member of the University of South Carolina board of trustees – a position that requires him to lobby members of the Legislature to vote for him every four years to retain his seat.
USC president Harris Pastides said Hubbard’s tenure to ABA president will help the university and the state.
“The coattails of an ABA president are very long,” Pastides said. “Wherever he goes, he’ll be taking USC and the state with him. It’s a remarkable achievement.”
As trustee, Hubbard is known for his efforts to beautify the campus and develop architectural guidelines. “Around campus, I’m known as a tree-hugger,” he allowed. “I spent a lot of time urging them to plant trees.”
Hubbard said he hopes to attend the trustees’ meetings – “as many as I can” – over the next year, as well as “a couple of football games.”