Continental Breakfast: ABA President James Silkenat
American Lawyer chief European correspondent Chris Johnson meets regularly with senior figures in the legal world at their favorite breakfast joints to chew over the industry's tastiest talking points. Johnson's guest this week is the newly elected president of the American Bar Association, James Silkenat. On the menu: how to fix the “broken” U.S. legal system and improve access to justice.
"Happy New Year," I tell Sullivan & Worcester's James Silkenat, as he arrives at the table.
The waiter looks at me as if I’m on day release from a local psych ward. It's a strange thing to say at the end of September, after all—Rosh Hashanah has been over for three weeks, the Gregorian calendar doesn't end for another three months, and the Chinese New Year falls a month after that.
But Silkenat, the new president of the American Bar Association, just smiles in acknowledgment. In one of his first official appointments since starting his new role in August, he is here in London to take part in celebrations marking the opening of the “legal year” on October 1—the period in English and other common law jurisdictions during which judges sit in court. In an antiquated ceremony that dates back to the Middle Ages, Silkenat will meet heads of other national bar associations and law societies in the Law Society halls at Chancery Lane, before the group proceeds to a service at Westminster Abbey, attended by the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice, and some of the country’s leading judges.
No such pomp and circumstance for us: We’re meeting for breakfast at his hotel, the Park Tower Knightsbridge. I wasn't overjoyed by his choice of venue—in my experience, a hotel buffet breakfast does not a productive meeting make. But it turns out that the Park Tower serves an à la carte menu in the adjoining—and outstanding—One-O-One restaurant. Silkenat has been a regular visitor at the hotel ever since a six-year stint in the early 1980s as in-house counsel at the World Bank's International Finance Corporation, whose offices are nearby. A keen runner—he runs every morning, whatever the weather—Silkenat says he also likes the Park Tower for its proximity to the leafy idylls of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. Indeed, he has already pounded the pavement before our 8 a.m. meeting, running his usual route through the parks, past the various embassies on Kensington Palace Gardens, and then down toward Buckingham Palace.
"It’s getting harder as I get older, but it’s just wonderful to run here," Silkenat, 66, says.
The waiter is still hovering at our table, so we put him out of his misery and order. Silkenat asks for eggs Benedict with a side of white toast, and practically half the drinks on the menu: black tea with sugar, orange juice, and ice water. I opt for eggs Royale, a variant of eggs Benedict with salmon instead of ham or bacon—which the restaurant bizarrely and erroneously terms a “contemporary” eggs Benedict—and a cappuccino. They may have got the name of the dish wrong, but they certainly got the cooking right, with the creamy hollandaise striking just the right balance between richness and sharpness.
As ABA president, Silkenat has already laid out a series of initiatives surrounding legal education, court funding, immigration, gun violence and voting rights. "There’s so much on my plate at the moment," he says, apparently unaware of the situational pun.
But perhaps his most interesting proposal—and the one likely to have the greatest impact—is a scheme designed to tackle two seemingly contradictory issues: lawyers struggling for jobs while members of the public struggle for lawyers.
"The U.S. is facing a paradox surrounding access to justice," Silkenat explains. "On the one hand, too many people with low and moderate incomes cannot find or afford a lawyer to defend their legal interests. Most folks are having to solve their problems without legal assistance, which is just inappropriate and not what our Constitution demands. At the same time, too many folks are graduating from law school and finding it difficult to get jobs or to gain the practical experience they need."