Georgia Bar Journal — December 2013
A. James Elliott— A Man of Purpose, Professionalism and Commitment to Access to Justice
This year, the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism (the Commission) is celebrating its 25th anniversary. This is both a time of reflection and a time for recommitment to the purposes and ideals of the Commission. It is a distinct opportunity to pay tribute to those persons who created the model institution of lawyer professionalism in Georgia and the nation and who exemplify those ideals. One such person is A. James Elliott, co-founder of the Commission—a man of purpose, professionalism and commitment to access to justice.
Supreme Court of Georgia Justice Robert Benham often articulates the pillars of professionalism as: competence, civility, community and public service, and commitment to ensuring access to justice. These qualities and involvements make a consummate professional, and Elliott is just that. He has held many titles in his 47-year career as an attorney, including: practitioner, partner, professor, dean, chair and president. His rich experiences and contributions to the profession, bar and community reflect his commitment to professionalism. He has been the pilot and the pilot light for some of the most significant initiatives affecting lawyers and Georgians in the last four decades.
Elliott, a Georgia native, grew up in Atlanta where he attended J. C. Murphy High School. He recalls spending his Sundays attending church and enjoying suppers afterwards where he shared values and stories with friends and family. He enjoyed summers with relatives in Rutledge, developing his character, personal history and values. Elliot’s values are evident, simple, yet strong. To him it is important to achieve and continue to strive for professional excellence. It is important to help your neighbors, especially those less fortunate. It is important to recognize the humanity in and be kind to all you encounter. Perhaps, it is most important to treat others as you would like to be treated—a basic biblical tenet and the premise of professionalism. Elliott brought his direction— his moral compass—to the legal profession.
Elliott developed his professional competence by receiving his B.A. in Economics from Emory University in 1963. He honed his leadership skills in college as a member of the Senior Honor Society, serving on the College Council (student government) and as president of his fraternity, Sigma Chi. He continued his education at Emory where he received his J.D. in 1966. In law school he was named to the Bryan Honor Society and served as associate editor of The Journal of Public Law, as vice president of the Student Bar Association and on the Honor Council. He has remained a strong supporter of Emory, serving on the Emory University Board of Visitors, chair of the Coca-Cola Challenge (University Annual Fund), chair of the Law School Council, board member of the Association of Emory Alumni, chair of the Law School Fund and president of the Law School Alumni Association. In 1997, Elliott received his MBA from Kennesaw State University and was named to Beta Gamma Sigma.
Admitted to the State Bar of Georgia in June of 1966, Elliott embarked on a stellar career, practicing 28 years with the Atlanta law firm of Alston & Bird, from 1967-95. He was named a partner in 1971 and specialized in commercial real estate with an emphasis on foreign investment in U.S. real estate while chairing the real estate department and professional personnel committee.
Since 1996, Elliott has been the associate dean at Emory Law where he teaches professional responsibility, banking and commercial real estate finance. While practicing, he began to use his skills as a teacher and scholar, serving as an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law from 1972-82. He has chaired or served on the panels of approximately 30 CLE seminars sponsored by the American Law Institute/American Bar Association, Practicing Law Institute, Warren, Gorham & Lamont Publishing Company, Georgia Institute of Continuing Legal Education and Atlanta Bar Association. This practitioner turned law school administrator and educator is an avid advocate and exemplar for students learning practical skills and serving their communities. Elliott is concerned about the future of legal education and would like to see law schools reduce the number of students admitted, so that the schools do not produce 40 percent more graduates than for whom there are available jobs. He believes that recent law school graduates need to be assured that there is good opportunity for them to obtain a full-time legal position. He would also like law schools, especially higher-ranked institutions, to fully appreciate that they need to do more to prepare graduates to be ready to practice law. Elliott would encourage the Supreme Court of Georgia—in its role of regulating the legal profession and approving lawyers to become licensed—to consider a dual track for approval to take the bar examination. In addition to the traditional track of fitness plus competency evidenced by completion of a three-year law school curriculum, Elliott would propose that after fitness determination, law students complete two years of the law school curriculum and a one-year practical skills internship. He posits that the new track could reduce the students’ law school debt by one-third, while maintaining their competency to take the bar examination.
This leader from Emory has also been a leader of Georgia’s legal community. He served the State Bar of Georgia in its highest capacities, first as president of the Younger Lawyers Section (now Young Lawyers Division) in 1976, then as president of the State Bar from 1988-89. He served on its Executive Committee (1975- 80; 1984-90), Board of Governors (1976-90), State Disciplinary Board (1976, 1987-90) and chaired its Real Estate Section (1974) and Legal Aid Committee and the Institute of Continuing Legal Education Board of Trustees.
As State Bar president, Elliott emphasized the need to assist lawyers with personal issues that interfered with their ability to practice law competently. This resulted in the development of the Lawyers Assistance Program (LAP) as an in house Bar program. LAP addresses issues such as alcohol and drug use, depression, mental illness and lawyer suicide. This program continues to provide a resource for lawyers to meet their needs for rehabilitation and restoration of their competence.
His other Bar-related activities include chairing the Supreme Court Commission to Evaluate Disciplinary Enforcement from 1994-96 and the governor’s select Commission for Judicial Selection from 1987-91. He is a fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers, American College of Mortgage Attorneys and the American and Georgia Bar Foundations. Other bar association memberships include: the American Bar Association, International Bar Association, Atlanta Bar Association, Old War Horse Lawyers Club (president) and Lawyers Club of Atlanta.
A Legacy for the Legal Community
In the legal community, Elliott has been an effective leader and innovator. When he sees a need, he seeks to fill it efficiently, effectively and pragmatically. Elliott considers what he accomplished in his Bar leadership roles his most significant professional achievements. His legacy in the legal community is threefold: he is a co-founder of the Georgia Legal Services Program; he is a co-founder of IOLTA; and he is a co-founder of the Commission.
Co-Founder of Georgia Legal Services Program
Elliott has consistently been a creative leader in efforts in Georgia to ensure access to justice for all Georgians. While president of the Younger Lawyers Section, he cofounded the Georgia Indigents Legal Services Program and served as its board president. This public interest law firm later became the Georgia Legal Services Program, which has provided legal services to close to 1 million Georgians. In 1991, Elliott received the Arthur Von Briesen Award, which is given annually by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association to one lawyer in private practice for substantial volunteer contributions to the legal assistance movement for the poor.
Architect of IOLTA for Funding Civil Legal Aid
Seeing the need for reliable, permanent funding for civil legal aid, Elliott, along with Cubbedge Snow Jr., orchestrated the development of the State Bar’s mandatory IOLTA Program. As president of the State Bar, he played a pivotal role in Georgia’s adoption of the IOLTA Program. Today, the Georgia Bar Foundation is responsible for allocating IOLTA funds and has distributed more than $100 million to organizations like Atlanta Legal Aid Society and Georgia Legal Services Program. “Without that money, these legal services organizations could have not provided anything like the amount of service they have provided,” Elliott says. “It’s nice to be able to look back and see that you were a part of something that has provided a lot of help to a lot of people.”
Co-Founder of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism
During his Bar presidency, Elliott was one of five men, including Supreme Court of Georgia Justices Thomas O. Marshall, Charles Weltner and Harold Clarke, and then Emory University President James Laney, that co-founded the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism after determining that the antidote to growing unprofessional behavior in the State Bar was for the Supreme Court of Georgia to institutionalize professionalism by creating a professionalism organization. The Commissions’ mission is “to support and encourage lawyers to exercise the highest levels of professional integrity in their relationships with their clients, other lawyers, the courts, and the public and to fulfill their obligations to improve the law and the legal system and to ensure access to that system.” In regard to the Commission’s overall effectiveness, Elliott says “from the beginning we recognized that no empirical data would show well that Georgia lawyers were professional or unprofessional.” However, from anecdotal evidence over the years from Georgia lawyers, he finds that “lawyers who were initially forced by mandatory CLE to attend a professionalism program and who were tempted to leave early, often found themselves engrossed in the subject matter and exchange of the participants.” That the Commission was the first statewide commission founded by a court to address lawyer professionalism is of itself a significant fact. Encouraged by Georgia’s bold first step, judges and lawyers in other states followed and established commissions on professionalism.
Commitment to Inclusion
Elliott was recently recognized by the State Bar of Georgia’s Diversity Program during the 2013 Fall CLE and Luncheon Opening Program. The seminar provided a dialogue on the historical and practical perspective of diversity in the State Bar of Georgia, particularly in its leadership. As president of the Younger Lawyers Section, Elliott appointed a number of women to leadership positions and encouraged their involvement with the State Bar. While serving as Bar president, he appointed the first African-American female lawyer to serve on the Board of Governors. This appointment was a catalyst for more diverse lawyers to participate with the Bar at all levels, for positive changes in the Bar programs and policies, and for more fairness and inclusion in the courts. It also served to improve the public perception of access and fairness in Georgia courts and its judicial system. This action, taken by Elliott just 25 years ago, is perhaps even more significant as the State Bar of Georgia will welcome its first African-American president, Patrise Perkins-Hooker, in June.
One aspect of professionalism is community and public service. In addition to his Bar and legal services activities, Elliott has had a longtime involvement with community organizations and institutions. Beneficiaries of Elliott’s service include: the American Heart Fund, Canadian-American Society of the Southeastern United States, Atlanta Chamber of Commerce- Environmental Task Force, Georgia Committee for Ethical Judicial Campaigns, Woodruff Arts Center, Trinity Presbyterian Church, Leadership Atlanta, Leadership Georgia, United Way and Emory University. Elliott has served on the corporate boards of: U-K American Properties, Crescent Banking Company and Crescent Mortgage Company.
Elliott advises today’s new lawyers that they are not precluded from giving time and financial support to those needing but unable to pay for legal representation. He recognizes that it is difficult to be a lawyer, yet he advocates that wise choices can be made to achieve some life balance and lots of professional satisfaction.
At the other end of the career spectrum, Elliott posits that senior lawyers will be able to adjust to the situation when they can no longer do what they may have done for 30, 50 or more years. Senior lawyers have the opportunity to use their great talents and experiences as volunteers and mentors, if only for one day a week at a legal aid office and for the benefit of others.
It is clear that Elliott is a champion for justice and professionalism. His purpose in life has been to uplift justice. His direction has been to ensure justice not only for those with easy access, but also for those who could not afford it. This gentleman, esteemed practitioner, leader, community servant and law professor has a lifetime of purpose that has positively affected thousands of Georgians. Sometimes the power of one and the use of that power makes changes for many. In Georgia, we are fortunate to have Elliott in our lawyer ranks and we all owe him a wealth of gratitude for his courage, efforts, purpose and direction.
Avarita L. Hanson is the executive director of the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism and can be reached at email@example.com.