Incoming ABA President Sets Agenda
Partner: Boies, Schiller & Flexner, Miami
Education: Law and undergraduate degrees from the University of Florida, where he was president of the Florida Blue Key club
Politics: Special counsel for former Gov. Bob Graham; former legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Claude Pepper
Advocacy: Early member of the Cuban American Bar Association; former president of the Florida Bar
Big Case: Worked for Al Gore on Bush vs. Gore: “In 2008, I had the privilege of speaking at a law school in China. I will never forget the questions that were asked me by the Chinese students: ‘What is it you learned from the experience of Bush vs. Gore, particularly when your side lost?’ And I said ‘I learned that in America, when we have a problem, we turn to our lawyers and not to our generals.’ ”
Stephen Zack doesn’t become president of the American Bar Association for another eight months, but the Miami attorney’s presidential in-box is already filling up.
Zack, who will be the first Hispanic to lead the 400,000-member group, says many of the issues he’ll push from day one stem from growing up in Cuba and immigrating to Florida after Fidel Castro rose to power. “Maybe, it’s my grandfather’s words that always echo in my ears,” Zack says. “He came from Russia to Cuba in the early 1900s to escape discrimination and then after all those years he was leaving Cuba because his business had been taken away and his freedom had been taken away. He told me, ‘I never expected to be an immigrant twice in my life, but I know I’ll never be an immigrant for the third time because if America falls, there will be no place else to go.’ ”
» Civics Education — Zack keeps a copy of Cuba’s pre-Castro constitution on his desk. He says it’s strikingly similar to the U.S. Constitution and illustrates the importance of civics education. “It was a meaningless document as people did not understand what was required of them,” he says. “The first thing that’s required is to know what the constitution says.”
He fears civics knowledge is waning because civics education is no longer a required topic in many public schools. A recent survey, cited last year by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David H. Souter, indicated that two out of three American adults couldn’t name the three branches of government. Another survey indicated that most high school students think the three branches are “Democratic, Republican and Independent.” As a result, Zack will devote much of his early time in office to creating an ABA “academy” in which attorneys will volunteer to teach civics in public schools. He wants the program to start this year in Florida.
“I have also asked the Florida Bar to lobby the Legislature to make civics mandatory in Florida high schools,” he says.
» Hispanic Legal Rights — While preparing for his term as president, Zack hoped to read reports exploring the issue of Hispanic legal rights in America — but he couldn’t find a single one. He says he’ll make sure the ABA writes a report of its own. He’s spearheading the creation of an ABA commission on Hispanic legal rights, which he expects will focus on immigration issues, voting rights, the Census, consumer issues, how the legal system treats Hispanics and language barriers in the courtroom.
» Law School Costs — This year, Zack also hopes to draw attention to the “high cost” of legal education. “When you have $150,000 as the amount that people have to go in debt to go through law school in some places today, then it becomes a burden that can only be lifted by accepting the highest-paying job offer wherever it might be,” he says. “The real need for legal services today is for the poor, minorities and women. Eighty percent of the minority population does not have real access to our legal system.” Zack says one possible solution would be forgiving the student loans of law school graduates who agree to work in the public sector and “represent this underserved population.”