BY HUNTER M. ABELL
It is an honor to serve as your 2023-2024 WSBA president. By way of background, I am a civil practitioner with the Spokane office of Williams Kastner & Gibbs, PLLC. I was born and raised in Eastern Washington, specifically rural Ferry County. My background includes service with the U.S. Navy, and I am currently a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve. Most importantly, I am the proud father of two beautiful little girls.11 I sometimes jokingly refer to them as the “very junior associates” on my cases. They are my pride and joy.
This column is a brief opportunity for me to speak regularly about items of importance to our profession. I treasure this chance to communicate with you at your office, kitchen table, the bus, or wherever you may be reading this issue of Bar News. I hope these messages will be helpful to you in your practice. I will strive to be judicious in how I use this modest column space.
Before beginning the bulk of this article, I want to salute my friend and immediate predecessor, Dan Clark, our 2022-2023 WSBA president. Dan served this organization with strength, patience, and a deep love for our profession. We are all better for his efforts. An extended “thank you” to Dan may be found on the WSBA’s blog at NWSidebar. Please take a moment to read it and send him a note of thanks.
For this inaugural column, I want to directly address what I see as the central challenge for our profession: the increasing lack of public trust in our institutions, including the legal profession and the bench.
Next month marks the 160th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. On Nov. 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln briefly and eloquently spoke of the history of our nation, the sacrifice of the Union troops, the stakes of the then-ongoing Civil War, and the task of the living to ensure that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
One hundred sixty years later, we are again deeply divided as a nation. In times of division, the American people look to our institutions as sources of stability and strength. Our institutions have served us well. Unfortunately, today, as we are more divided, we are also less trusting. According to Gallup’s 2023 Confidence in Institutions survey, the percentage of the public surveyed who reported having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in a variety of institutions has declined precipitously in the last 50 years:
- The U.S. Supreme Court has declined from 45 percent to 27 percent.
- The U.S. Congress has declined from 42 percent to 8 percent.
- The presidency has declined from 52 percent to 26 percent.
- Newspapers have declined from 39 percent to 18 percent.
- The church or organized religion has declined from 65 percent to 32 percent.22 Lydia Saad, “Historically Low Faith in US Institutions Continues,” Gallup, July 6, 2023, https://news.gallup.com/poll/508169/historically-low-faith-institutions-continues.aspx.
Unfortunately, lawyers are not immune from this trend. A previous Gallup survey from 2018 identified attorneys as ranking 14th out of 20 surveyed professions in terms of honesty and ethical standards.33 Megan Brenan, “Nurses Again Outpace Other Professions for Honesty, Ethics,” Gallup, Dec. 20, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx.
In short, as confidence in our institutions shrinks, the American people increasingly do not view attorneys and judges as trustworthy partners to navigate this uncharted territory.
I believe this lack of trust is an existential threat to the long-term strength of the legal profession. Without the trust of the public, we attorneys (or other licensed legal professionals) cannot effectively carry out our role. And, to be clear, our role is vital to the success of a peaceful and democratic society. The alternative to attorneys professionally advocating for our clients is the rule of law replaced with self-help and brute force.
There is, however, cause for hope. The same Confidence in Institutions survey by Gallup tells us that one major American institution modestly increased its share of public trust between 1975 and the present: the U.S. military grew from 58 percent to 60 percent of the public having a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in it. As mentioned above, I served nearly 20 years in uniform with the U.S. Navy, both as an active-duty sailor and a member of the reserve. The lesson from the military example is that, while it is difficult and takes time, trust can be re-built and expanded. Indeed, in the military context, I have heard it said that “trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets.” In the coming months, I will be drawing on experiences with the military as we consider our profession in the eye of the public.44 Even this example, however, provides cautionary data. According to the 2023 Gallup survey, public confidence in the U.S. military has declined significantly over the last three years.
The challenge is clear. The fix, however, is difficult. In the words of one of my partners at Williams Kastner, “there is no Band-Aid.” Nevertheless, we must try. Consequently, starting now, and continuing over the next 12 months, I will be focusing on strengthening the public’s trust and confidence in the legal profession in our state. This “drop-by-drop” approach will involve a multifaceted effort, including direct interactions with the public at schools, service organizations, religious groups, business groups, local governments, and the media. I also hope that it will involve the WSBA interacting with members of the public in impactful ways through targeted events hosted at the WSBA headquarters in Seattle and throughout the state. I hope to speak with audiences who do not typically hear from lawyers or, if they do, only do so in the context of negative life experiences.
As we go about this process, we need your help! I have challenged the members of the WSBA Board of Governors to join me in engaging with the public that we serve. Let me ask you: Where should we go? You know your communities better than I. Think. Consider. And let me know where and how we can interact with the public in a meaningful way. Once you have done so, please email me so we can discuss how to make it happen.55 The first WSBA member to email with a suggestion of a public event that references this footnote will receive a small gesture of appreciation from me in the mail.
I began this column referencing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. That was no accident. In my opinion, Lincoln is perhaps our greatest lawyer president.66 John Adams is, no doubt, scowling somewhere. He is also a unifying symbol at a time when our country desperately needs one. When Lincoln spoke of government “for the people,” he well understood the vital role that attorneys play in our system of government. While the present condition is not as dire as in November 1863, the stakes are nonetheless high for our country and profession today. Precisely because the stakes are high, I ask for your help in the important work of rebuilding the public’s trust in our legal profession and the bench. If trust is really “earned in drops and lost in buckets,” I ask for your help in making it steadily rain for the next year. If we do so, together, we can help re-fill the reservoirs of trust for our chosen profession.
NOTE: The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy or the Department of Defense.
1. I sometimes jokingly refer to them as the “very junior associates” on my cases.
2. Lydia Saad, “Historically Low Faith in US Institutions Continues,” Gallup, July 6, 2023, https://news.gallup.com/poll/508169/historically-low-faith-institutions-continues.aspx.
3. Megan Brenan, “Nurses Again Outpace
Other Professions for Honesty, Ethics,” Gallup, Dec. 20, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/245597/nurses-again-outpace-professions-honesty-ethics.aspx.
4. Even this example, however, provides cautionary data. According to the 2023 Gallup survey, public confidence in the U.S. military has declined significantly over the last three years.
5. The first WSBA member to email with a suggestion of a public event that references this footnote will receive a small gesture of appreciation from me in the mail.
6. John Adams is, no doubt, scowling somewhere.