From The President

Message from President Rodney Acker 2020-2021

In 2020 the American College of Trial Lawyers celebrated our 70th Anniversary.  Our 70-year history is marked by our unwavering adherence to our Mission Statement:  “to maintain and improve the standards of trial practice, ethics, and the administration of justice through education and public statements on important legal issues relating to its mission.  The College strongly supports the independence of the judiciary, trial by jury, respect for the rule of law, access to justice, and fair and just representation of all parties to legal proceedings.”

The prestige of the College makes it particularly appropriate for it to speak with authority to the issues relating to its mission.  The College is the only organization who counts every Justice on the United States and Canadian Supreme Courts as Honorary Fellows.  The ranks of Past Presidents include former U S Attorney and Court of Appeals Judge Griffin Bell, Justice Lewis Powell, and Watergate prosecutor Leon Jaworski.  Membership in the College is by invitation only and limited to those lawyers in a state who are “unquestionably and eminently qualified” and are considered by their peers, after thorough investigation, to be “outstanding and considered the best in a state or province.”  Fellows are nominated without their knowledge by Fellows who have observed them in trial and judged them to be of the highest skill, ethics and collegiality.

Like the legal profession and society as a whole, the College found itself adjusting almost overnight to a new set of rules on how we live and operate.  In the months since March, Zoom has more than doubled its revenue over the same period in 2019 and claims to have added 175,000 new licenses.  We have seen not just Zoom meetings, but Zoom depositions and even some Zoom trials.  Nowhere was the change more evident than the College’s first virtual national meeting.  The Virtual Annual Meeting had more Fellows registered than any national meeting in the history of the College-- more than 650 Fellows registered.  The meeting was conducted from a conference room near the national headquarters with only President Doug Young, Executive Director Dennis Maggi, and myself present.  Many of those registered for the meeting had not attended a national meeting for a while.  Missing of course was the friendships and fellowship that are a mainstay of our in-person meetings.  Our hope is that after seeing the quality of the speakers, even without the fellowship of an in-person meeting, that more Fellows will return when we can gather in person. 

The College pursues its mission through a number of committees representing the approximately 66 State and Province Committees in the United States and Canada, and over 30 General Committees.  Those committees have published White Papers with recommendations for improvement on areas such as judicial independence, the attorney client privilege, the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, and books such as the Anatomy of a Patent Trial.  The committees have developed programs for training and mentioning young lawyers in trial skills and instructing lawyers of all ages on ethical issues in trial practice through training videos.  The College has remained relevant by focusing on issues facing our profession and our nations by creating the new Committee on Judicial Independence and the recent Equality and Justice Award to honor persons who have fought for equality and justice and against racism.  The challenge for the coming year, or at least until a vaccine or treatment allows us to return to business as usual, will be how these committees can operate when they meet only virtually.  This will be a particular challenge for those committees involving College sponsored competitions such as the National Trial Competition, the Sopinka Cup Trial Competition, the Gale Cup Moot Court, and the National Moot Court competitions.  The College’s mentorship initiatives will also be a challenge with so many Fellows working virtually from home. Fellows will need to be particularly vigilant in identifying potential candidates for Fellowship when the opportunity for in-person interaction is severely limited.  While the pandemic presents new challenges, I am confident that the Fellows of the College will meet them in pursuit of our mission.

One of our newest committees, the Committee on Advocacy in the 21st Century, was created in the days immediately following the pandemic to address the challenges in the administration of justice.  The Committee is tasked with two important responsibilities.  First, it will monitor the use of remote video in pretrial, trial, and appellate proceedings, and modify the “interim guidance” documents issued this summer to reflect best practices.  Second, it will gather information and make recommendations to the Board about the role the College should play on the need for technological and case management changes in the court systems of the United States and Canada that will advance the administration of justice and access to the courts. The eight interim guidelines are posted on our website and I encourage you to read them.

The College offers many opportunities for Fellows to serve and contribute.  I hope you will take the opportunity to become involved if you are not doing so. The general committees offer many opportunities to participate, the competitions offer opportunities to judge and mentor the law student competitors, and state committees offer participation in a number of projects.  For example:

  • the Teaching of Trial and Appellate Advocacy Committee offers opportunities to teach and mentor through the Trial Boot Camps and Diversity in the Courtroom Trial Advocacy Program;
  • supporting access to justice through the Access to Justice Distinguished Pro Bono Fellows program;
  • judging (virtually at the moment) both trial and appellate law school competitions in both Canada and the US; and
  • mentoring younger lawyers through the Task Force on Mentoring.

I am excited and honored to be the 71st President of the ACTL.  Judy and I have developed many close friendships in the College through working on committees and attending state, regional and national meetings.  We look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones in the coming year.  While that may mean virtual meetings for the time being, we hope that soon changes and we can meet in person before the year ends.