Season 3, Episode 2 - Reginald M. Turner, president of the American Bar Association, on diversity, equal access and the rule of law

WSU alumnus and attorney Reginald M. Turner, president of the American Bar Association, joins the Today@Wayne podcast to discuss diversity, the law and the importance of equal access.

Episode Notes

WSU alumnus and high-profile attorney Reginald M. Turner, president of the American Bar Association, joins host Darrell Dawsey to talk about his tenure as head of the nation's leading organization of legal professionals, the ever-present need for diversity and equal access and the important role Wayne State plays in preparing students, especially Detroiters, for successful careers.


Reginald Turner is president of the American Bar Association, the world's largest voluntary association of lawyers, judges, and other legal professionals.

A lawyer with Clark Hill in Detroit, Turner is an accomplished litigator, government affairs advocate, and strategic advisor.

Turner is past president of the National Bar Association and the State Bar of Michigan. He served as chair of the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession and the ABA Commission on the Lawyer's Role in Assuring Every Child a Quality Education. In the ABA House of Delegates, he served as the state delegate for Michigan and as chair of the Rules & Calendar Committee, the Committee on Issues of Concern to the Profession, and the Committee on Credentials and Admissions. He is a past chair of the Fellows of the American Bar Foundation.

Among his numerous presidential, gubernatorial, mayoral, and county executive appointments, Turner served as a White House Fellow and as an aide to Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros during the Clinton administration and represented Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer on the Detroit Board of Education from 2000 to 2003. In 2003, Governor Jennifer Granholm appointed him to the Michigan State Board of Education, and he won a statewide election for a full term in 2006.

Turner earned his bachelor's degree at Wayne State University and law degree at the University of Michigan Law School.

Additional Resources

Follow Reginald Turner on Twitter

Read Hour Detroit magazine's interview with Turner

Follow the American Bar Association on Twitter

Follow Wayne Law on Twitter


Announcer:                   Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community with news, announcements, information and turn events discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission. Today@Wayne serves as the perfect form for our campus to begin a conversation or keep Wayne going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:             Welcome to the Today@Wayne Podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. Last August, Detroit native and Wayne State alumnus, Reginald M Turner was named as the new President of the American Bar Association, the world's largest voluntary association of lawyers, judges and other legal professionals. An accomplished litigator, government affairs advocate and strategic advisor who works for the Clark Hill Law Firm, Turner, an African American was appointed to the position nearly two decades after former Detroit Mayor, Dennis Archer was named the group's first ever black President.

                                    Now, as he and the group move into 2022, they, like the rest of the country, find themselves in the middle of a national conversation on diversity and a range of issues from race and voting rights to LGBTQ equality, to the role poverty plays in restricting equal access to the law. As President, Turner has made diversity, especially the diversification of the ranks of the nation's lawyers, a key priority. And he's here with us today to discuss his leadership role at the ABA and his vision for the organization.

                                    Welcome, Reggie.

Reginald Turner:           Thank you very much, Darrell. It's a privilege to be here today.

Darrell Dawsey:             Absolutely. Wonderful to have you. Wonderful to have you. Very proud of you, doing great things there. I just want to talk a little bit about your position. You're about halfway through now, your term as ABA President, right? You were elected in August of last year and your term runs through to August of 2022, as I understand. Is that right?

Reginald Turner:           Yes.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. I'm hoping you could just talk to us a little bit about the role, what's been the most rewarding part of the job so far and what have been some of the challenges?

Reginald Turner:           Well, there are always peaks and valleys with respect to the activity and there will always be the four goals of the American Bar Association, with respect to serving our members, to help them with their practices, serving the public, to ensure that we are providing access to justice throughout communities in the United States. We also engage in work to support the rule of law throughout the world. So we have a national focus and an international focus, and ultimately, it is our goal to ensure that there is access to justice for all who need the protection of the law.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. All right. What would you say is the biggest challenge, I guess, facing you and your organization as you're moving forward? What's the single, if you had to identify one or two big options, I know they're plenty, but if you had to boil it down to just a couple, what would be some of the more pressing ones?

Reginald Turner:           Well, access to justice is always important and it runs through the full panoply of issues, whether it is landlord-tenant matters or big, global diversity issues, access to justice and supporting the rule of law are absolutely essential. For example, the ABA has a Rule of Law Initiative program that works with nations around the world to ensure that there is a conversation about protecting the rule of law and having protocols in place that make it clear as to what the law is in various nations and how that law is protected and carried out on a day to day, week to week, month to month basis in the courts, in police actions and in the political activities of those nations. The ABA has had a hand in helping to create new constitutions for new nations, helping existing nations to draft their constitutions or revise their constitutions in ways that will protect the rule of law, that will give citizens some of the freedoms or all of the freedoms that we take for granted the United States.

Darrell Dawsey:             Now, when we talk about the rule of law around the world, there are some people who would point to some of the things that have happened here in the United States, especially in the last few years, that would suggest that we might want to focus as well on the issue of the rule of law here in America. I don't want you to take a particular political position, but I am just curious, are you concerned at all, based on some of the things that we're seeing about just the rule of law here in the United States and where we're headed?

Reginald Turner:           Well, I think that our great nation has always had challenges. I recognize that our nation was born in a revolution when we threw off the yoke of British rule in the United States and formed a brand new nation, the United States of America. Over the course of time, that seed blossomed from the original colonies into what we now have as 50 states and some US possessions around the world. So we have a great constitution, as amended after the civil war, with the protections for people of color, the freed slaves, and to allow the right to vote, which wasn't of course, fully realized in any meaningful way until the Voting Rights Act was passed nearly 100 years later.

                                    So we will always have challenges with respect to the rule of law in the US and around the world, because there are always people who want to put their own advantages before the public welfare. That is why the rule of law is so important. And to have systems that not only are effective in supporting the law, but also in gaining public support for the rule of law.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. All right. I want to go back, I want to circle back to what we were talking about with regards to diversity, because I know that's a big part of your platform there. And history tells us, of course, that the American Bar Association was not always receptive to diversity, it was not always receptive to African Americans, so much so that black lawyers actually formed their own association, the National Bar Association, I believe it was in 1925, because they weren't allowed to join the ABA. So your presence here, as well as some of your predecessors, clearly shows that times have changed and that's a great thing, but the issue of diversity obviously remains on the table. [crosstalk 00:08:36] if you could just get into it with us, a little bit about why. We talk about diversity, the need, diversity, equity, inclusion, but why is it so important, particularly as it pertains to the legal profession? Just talk a little bit about that.

Reginald Turner:           Well, I was a child that grew up in the City of Detroit understanding that the protection of the public is something that is an honor for an individual to have. And I saw that a lot through my father who was a Detroit police officer. One of my most vivid early experiences was the 1967 riot in the City of Detroit. Racial tensions had just gone to a complete boil, there was police brutality in the City of Detroit, and the department was not doing very much about that. The rebellion was a very, very, very scary time, days on days on end. My dad was working 24/7 with his fellow police officers, trying to restore the rule of law in the City of Detroit.

                                    After the riot, our family was looking for ways to heal our troubled psyches after the smoke, the burning, the shootings and the police brutality that led to all of the disruption. My parents were, they were very smart. They found a program with Focus: HOPE. I don't know if you remember Eleanor Josaitis who ran Focus: HOPE. We were in a city-suburban exchange program with the [Lattanzio 00:10:54] family from St. Clair Shores, Michigan, and that was my first introduction to diversity and inclusion. We did home and home visits with the Lattanzio family and had picnics together. It really helped me to understand that people of different races can congregate, can learn about each other, can build friendships and build bridges instead of walls. I've tried to pass that along to my children as well.

                                    We've always tried to be open and to fulfill, in my view, the very important task of ensuring that there is diversity and inclusion in all aspects of the work and play that we engage in over the course of time. My experiences were deepened in terms of the level of effort and the actual outcome when I became a law clerk for Dennis Archer, when he was a Justice of the Michigan Supreme court, and he was the first person of color to be President of the American Bar Association. During the time that I was clerking for him at the Michigan Supreme court, while he was engaging in his ABA activities, I watched him create what was then called the American Bar Association Commission on Opportunities for Minorities in the Legal Profession.

Darrell Dawsey:             Wow.

Reginald Turner:           That's a mouthful, isn't it?

Darrell Dawsey:             That's a lot.

Reginald Turner:           Today, that first ABA diversity entity, that first intentional effort to bring diversity and inclusion in an established way at the American Bar Association originated right here in downtown Detroit, through Dennis Archer. Today, now, almost 30 years later, the ABA has a very, very, very, very large diversity center in the organization in which we deal not only with racial diversity, we deal with ethnic diversity. We deal with differently abled diversity. We deal with issues of gender, sexual orientation, and the full panoply of diversity issues are now addressed by the American Bar Association in what we call our Diversity Center now, with the various entities. I've been very proud of the work, and following in my mentor, Dennis Archer's footsteps, I had the opportunity of chairing one of those diversity initiatives that is now called the ABA Commission on Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Profession. I was the chair of that before becoming President of the-

Darrell Dawsey:             Tell us a little bit really quickly. What was your role as chairperson of that commission?

Reginald Turner:           Our biggest program in the Diversity Center for Racial and Ethnic Diversity was to hold the Minority Council Program, where we would bring diverse lawyers from around the nation together once a year to first get to continue legal education, but also to engage in activities that would help to sharpen all of our acumen, with respect to advancing diversity and inclusion in our work, in our community services, in our political activities, to open the door for those who had previously been denied opportunity in a variety of ways.

Darrell Dawsey:             Okay. All right. Well, listen, I know you're a busy man. I'm not going to hold you up too much longer. There's one question I'm just hoping you might be able to speak to it a little bit, and just is moving away from some of the more serious issues, but you're a very accomplished man. You've done a lot of fantastic things, you're a proud Wayne State alumnus. I was just wondering if you could talk just a little bit about the role that Wayne State played in helping shape your outlook and helping to develop you professionally.

Reginald Turner:           Wayne State University was really a godsend for me in the sense that my parents were both public servants and they didn't make a lot of money and they had four kids to educate. So when I graduated from Cass Tech High School, it was not possible for me to go off to a private college or really, any college where I would have significant tuition. So my dad got me a job loading trucks at the United Parcel Service in the evening. So I went to school during the day, and unloaded trucks at UPS at night, and got my tuition paid for out of my own pocket. My parents allowed me to live at home so I wouldn't have a room and board, and my younger brother did the same thing. He went to Wayne State and worked his way through Wayne State. He had a different job, but my father and mother were very proud of the fact that we were making our own way.

                                    It was a great experience because actually, that was probably the second biggest factor in my ultimately deciding I wanted to be a lawyer. The first was when I was very young, when my dad and I were going out to run some errands one day. And we were in the vestibule at our home in Northwest Detroit. I looked up at him and said, "Dad when I grow up, I want to be a police officer just like you." He said, "Son, that's really nice, but I want you to be a lawyer like my friend Elliott Hall." And it stuck. My dad lived to see me become a lawyer, and to this day, I have opportunities to see Elliott Hall and remind him that he was a role model when I was seven years old.

Darrell Dawsey:             And for those who may not know, Elliot Hall is a titan in the legal profession and is also a proud Wayne State Warrior.

Reginald Turner:           Absolutely. Yes, sir.

Darrell Dawsey:             Well, listen, Reggie, once again, I really want to say thank you so much for taking the time out of your busy, busy schedule to sit down and just give us a few minutes. Before I let you go, I just want to open up the floor, give you an opportunity to talk about anything that maybe we didn't get a chance to touch on, or is it something that you want to emphasize or underscore before we get here?

Reginald Turner:           Well, yeah. I think my favorite part of the lawyer's oath is the part that makes clear to lawyers that we have a duty to help to make society more fair. It's in the lawyer's oath. There's a part of the lawyer's oath that says, I shall never reject, from any consideration personal to myself, the cause of the defenseless or oppressed, or delay anyone's cause for lucre or malice. With a lot of help from a lot of people, a lot of support and a lot of advice, I've tried to live out that part of the lawyer's oath during the course of my career, access justice for those who need it, providing legal services to level the playing field and create a better nation.

Darrell Dawsey:             Well, you certainly have the history that backs that up. Well again, Mr. Reginald M Turner, thank you so very much. We appreciate you joining us here on the Today@Wayne Podcast and I hope we can get you back again soon.

Reginald Turner:           Thank you, Darrell. It's been a privilege to be with you today, and I thank your listeners for allowing me to be with them for a bit today as well.

Darrell Dawsey:             Absolutely. Our pleasure. You take care.

Reginald Turner:           Thank you. You too. Take care. Bye-bye.

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