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A.P. Carlton Jr.: Reflections of an ABA President

A.P. Carlton Jr.: Reflections of an ABA President

The following interview was conducted for the September/October 2003 edition of North Carolina Lawyer magazine following A.P. Carlton’s term as president of the American Bar Association. An abridged version of the interview is published here in tribute to Carlton, who died Thursday, May 25, at the age of 69.

A.P. Carlton Jr., only the second North Carolina lawyer to ever serve as president of the American Bar Association, recently completed his term at the ABA Annual Meeting in San Francisco. It was, to say the least, an eventful year for the globetrotting Raleigh attorney.

Having since settled into a pace that is only slightly less hectic as a partner in the firm of Kilpatrick Stockton, LLP, Carlton recently found time to recount the highlights of his presidency in a Question-and-Answer interview for North Carolina Lawyer.

A.P. Carlton Jr., right, with NCBA President Norfleet Pruden and President-elect Allyson Duncan at ABA Day in Washington, D.C., in April 2003. (Photo by ABA/Rob Crandall)

Q. What is the role of the immediate past president in the ABA?

A. There are some trailing responsibilities. You’re still a member of the board and you still have an officers’ position. Primarily the president-elect year is planning and appointments, the president’s year is executing. In both of those years you have other duties on behalf of the association. You go speak, you go do officer/presidential things.

The immediate-past president continues to travel for the association and gives speeches. I am doing a speech next week with a corporate governance super conference sponsored by Forbes where I share the podium with “Cap” Weinberger. So I have some continuing responsibilities, and then I also do whatever (President Dennis Archer) and (President-elect Robert Grey) want me to do. The way I put it to my partners is that I got 50 percent of my life back in San Francisco when I handed Dennis the gavel, and the rest of it comes in pieces over the next nine to 12 months.

By next April I will be fully operational here; the challenge between here and there is to get me back in the saddle with my clients, who all have things going on. I am general counsel to the Duke student newspaper, The Duke Chronicle, and I had a conference call with the general manager and the chair of their board this morning because their agreement with the university is coming up for renewal, and they want to start a foundation.

It is all great stuff and stuff that I enjoy doing. I will be doing three things: working through those trailing responsibilities, picking back up on important client matters, and making sure that I leverage any opportunities that are out there for the firm. I was fortunate that two or three of the big projects that my clients had just waited for me; for some reason the timing worked out on them. But when I had to have things done, I had great support here from partners and associates here who stepped in and took care of things for me.

The NCBA Board of Governors honored A.P. Carlton Jr. at the 2004 winter meeting.

Q. What do you see as the biggest difference in the ABA and the NCBA?

A. Complexity. The ABA has become a very complex body. I don’t know if you’ve ever counted the number of entities in the North Carolina Bar Association, but if you count all of the volunteer entities in the ABA – commissions, committees, boards, sections, divisions, task forces, the whole gamut – we have over 2,300 volunteer entities.

When I am having fun explaining that to somebody like a civic club or a business group, I say “and that means that somewhere, somehow, every day, somebody is engaged in some kind of mischief, and sooner or later it pops up and you have to deal with it.” The ABA has such a broad range and long reach, the complexity of it is the big difference. The ABA has a $180 million annual budget and 950 employees.

Q. What does your ABA experience mean to your career and your firm, which you joined while serving as president-elect?

A. My move to Kilpatrick Stockton was a tremendous career move for me, and I am looking forward to working right on here because this is such a marvelous institution. And I now have a platform that I can work off of and realize some of the opportunities that come to anybody who has had the job of president of the ABA. For example, we represented the NBA going into Charlotte, and that was a referral from the president of the State Bar of New York. The firm is in a good place right now.

We have reinvigorated and rejuvenated our London office. A large Chicago firm (Altheimer and Gray) recently imploded. They had a huge London office, which put themselves in a position where they marketed themselves to all the other American firms there, and we won the beauty contest.

We were competing against people like Kirkpatrick & Lockhart – a firm that people confuse us with – and Reed Smith ... some major firms ... so the firm is doing very well. It is a vibrant firm that has a great future and I am happy to be a part of that. The idea is that when the ABA responsibilities trail off and the client business grows, we will continue to make sure that we realize those opportunities that are out there.

Q. The late Willis Smith, the only other North Carolinian to serve as ABA president, proceeded to the U.S. Senate. Do you have similar political aspirations?

A. Not really. I am a lawyer and I like practicing law, and I am and have been close enough to all of that to satisfy any political desires that I might have. Terry Sanford and Jim Holshouser have been law partners, almost all of the current members of the Council of State are friends and are people that I have supported, and almost all of the members of the (N.C.) congressional delegation are all close friends.

I have been flying back and forth to Washington now for three years with Mike McIntyre, Bobby Etheridge and David Price, and now Brad Miller. They are all people that I have known 20 years anyway, so I am close to it, but I don’t have the real yearning to run for office.

I am a lawyer: I like being a lawyer. I will always have an interest in civic responsibility; I’ve just become the vice chair of the board of trustees at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, so I will have a year at that and a year as chairman of the board. We have a new chancellor, so it is an exciting time and there is a lot to do there, so I will be devoting a good bit of time to that.

Beyond that, who knows? I will always have an interest in higher education in the state and the civic life of the state, but I’ve spent a lot of my life in public service already and it’s sort of like I have given at the office. Now I am ready to do what I enjoy and what I enjoy doing most of all which is practicing law.

Q. What were the highlights of your year as president?

A. We did such a good job of selling the state judicial reform package, that by the time it got to the (ABA) House of Delegates, it was a no-brainer. We now have in place a blueprint for state judicial reform for the next quarter or half century, so that was a big accomplishment that we accomplished with a minimal amount of consternation.

Corporate governance and lawyers’ ethics issues, on the other hand, took a major effort. I was intimately involved with that ABA task force straight through the presentation of the policies on the (House of Delegates) floor ... and played a major part in trying to provide leadership on that. I stayed real close to it and I am real proud of the fact that we accomplished real reform – one, that we amended the rules of professional responsibility, and two, we enacted it without much fanfare at all substantive principles of corporate governance, which is the first time the ABA has really stepped into the area of organic corporate law reform, so that was groundbreaking.

As for federal judicial matters, I think we accomplished a great deal in that for the first time in probably 15 years federal judicial pay reform has political legs, and I think by the end of this Congress something will be done about that. We’ve maintained the ABA’s place and improved it in the federal judicial selection procedure and everybody recognizes we are a player.

Each president has their own chair of that committee (Standing Committee on the Federal Judiciary), and my chair and my committee did a great job. They probably did more evaluations that any previous committee and I think the ABA is now positioned properly with respect to federal judicial selection.

Blair and I went to the White House in May, in one of the great experiences that we had, a Rose Garden ceremony with the president where he called our (ABA) name and called my name, and was very approving of the ABA’s role in the process. Even though we’re not partnered with the White House anymore, people have now begun to understand we’re still involved in the process and that we’re just in a different place in it.

We’re probably far more public than we have been in the past and therefore, I think, maybe more effective.

In regard to access to lawyers, we managed to deal with what I saw was a need for giving the states and the federal government some leadership on the unauthorized practice of law issue. Also, we in effect changed the direction of the complex of committees that deals with access to lawyers to reorient them.

First of all, for the first time in 20 years, we saw increases in appropriations to the Legal Services Corporation. That was a great congressional victory. In addition, we are now reorienting the thought process so that it is a continuum of access. It is not just the poor folks. It is the poor folks, yes, and let’s support legal services and let’s support the pro bono effort and yes, they’re both gaining a lot of speed, but now we’re moving into moderate means delivery. We reoriented the whole access effort within the ABA to recognize that now. Larry McDevitt had a lot to do with that.

We did a lot in terms of standing up for lawyers. I think we nudged the perception within the membership of the ABA toward one where the membership is beginning to see that, No. 1, the association is relevant to them, and No. 2, it stands up for the profession when it can. The (Gramm-Leach-Bliley) FTC suit, the (medical malpractice) activities, the asbestos litigation position and the Section 307 Task Force (re: Sarbanes-Oxley) standing up to the SEC are all good examples. We were successful on all of those fronts and I think people appreciated that.

Another thing was the civil justice agenda. The chairman of the board of the Duke student publishing company (Ann Pelham) is the publisher of Legal Times, and she congratulated me and told me that she hopes Dennis Archer does as good a job of protecting our civil liberties as I did. And I said thank you, because I did not expect to have to do that.

The death penalty discussions that came along during the year were unexpected, but it was a clear-cut choice there of what you had to say and how you had to deliver the message. Fortunately, I had the bully pulpit at a time where we could deliver that message and make it be heard; what our position is, which is what I think is a very imminently reasonable position – the moratorium – and it got to be an easy thing for me to talk about. That was the big surprise – that was the issue that I didn’t see coming that really got out there and got me in the middle of it.

I did a program at the annual meeting with (former Illinois Gov.) George Ryan, and he and I had a great time. He laid down a challenge and on behalf of the ABA I stood up and took it.

Then you had the ongoing discussions about the Patriot Act, civil liberties and the Guantanamo Bay detainees and enemy combatants. I think we did a great job on that in developing a policy on that and speaking publicly on that. I think the public understands our position – that enemy combatants deserve a judicial hearing with a right to counsel. The (Bush) administration sure does, whether they like it or not. But that’s our job.

We were four for four on Supreme Court amicus briefs; we won big. We filed an amicus brief on the University of Michigan law school case but not the university case. We had an amicus brief on the Texas sodomy case, which I called a right to privacy case. We filed an amicus brief in the IOLTA challenge. We had an amicus brief on the death penalty case in Maryland on effective assistance of counsel. In February the House of Delegates adopted standards on effective assistance of death penalty counsel and they were cited by (Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day) O’Connor in the opinion. So we really had quite a good round at the Supreme Court level as well, and we’re real proud of that.

Q. Were there any disappointments?

A. Yes, the technology cost overrun, although I think we handled that quite well. On Dec. 2, we discovered an unauthorized $9.2 million overrun on an IT conversion project. That was a difficult thing to deal with for a lot of reasons, and I found myself in this age of corporate governance being the president of a large corporation having to run a special investigation with an independent counsel and a special board committee after terminating the chief financial officer. It was just like something out of a corporate management case book.

Fortunately, I had the background for it. I am a former corporate general counsel for a publicly held company. And I had some very, very dedicated board members who are very capable volunteers who took that on. It was a very difficult staff situation and highly disappointing. The cost to me was that when it happened, it took away all of my operating margin. It made it a lot more difficult to do all the good stuff because I had to deal with it.

But I had great cooperation from our independent counsel and from the treasurer of the association, Allen Joseph, and the committee that he had in doing a report. They issued an 80-page report and then I followed it on behalf of the Board of Governors with a memo about what we had done in response to the investigation. The main disappointment was that dealing with it took away some of the enjoyment and frankly, it took an awful lot of energy.

Q. What did you enjoy the most about your year?

A. The most meaningful, fun thing I did was I held a joint press conference at the Supreme Court with the chief justice on the issue of federal judicial pay with the national press corps – all the people who cover the Court. That was fun, and going to the Rose Garden, which I mentioned earlier. And I enjoyed speaking wherever I went. I’ve never been a bad public speaker, but I have gotten an awful lot better. I have learned how to read an audience and I now actually enjoy speaking to an audience.

One of the great things was coming home to both NCBAs – the North Carolina Bar Association and the North Carolina Bankers Association. I am a former employee of the N.C. Bankers Association; I was their staff counsel from 1977-79. They asked me to be one of their featured speakers at their annual meeting last June, and I appeared back to back with the president of the other ABA, the American Bankers Association. Stuff like that was really terrific.

Foreign travel was wonderful. When I was 21 years old I lived in Finland for four months. I was an exchange student who worked as an intern at an ad agency. It was a very formative part of my life. I loved Finland, loved the people, but I never got back.

Well, the president of the Finnish bar, at the opening of the courts in London in September, invited me to Finland. So in November we went to Finland.

It was a triumphant return. Here I was being interviewed, had an editorial board visit with the newspaper, met the attorney general, the Supreme Court and the U.S. ambassador.

Every time an ABA president visits a different country, we call on the U.S. ambassador. The ambassador to Finland is an old friend, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter (the wife of Greensboro attorney Bynum Hunter). Bynum even gave us his own little personal tour of the town. The Finnish bar went out and found my boss from 36 years ago, who at the time I worked for him was the chief of research in the ad agency.

He was a statistician, a very hard-charging young ad man. I had great summer with him and his family kind of adopted me; he was 31 then and I was 21. But I had never seen him or heard from him since. When the bar said is there somebody we can find for you while you’re here that you’d like to see, I said yes. If you could find this fellow for me that would be great, and they did. I had dinner with him. He retired last year as Gallup’s top executive in Europe. He had a great career.

We went to the opening of the legal year in Paris, and that is a magnificent event. Blair wound up with her own personal interpreter – Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer – who we wound up with at dinner one night. He speaks fluent French. Getting to know the Supreme Court justices and getting to know (White House Counsel) Al Gonzales – we would show up at different places at the same time – was a lot of fun.

It was meaningful. We accomplished a lot and frankly it feels like a retirement. I have been at this 25 years. I woke up the first morning we were home after the annual meeting and I thought, I never have to think about what comes next in bar work again. I can just take it as it comes.

Q. How did your wife fare throughout the experience?

A. Blair was just fabulous. The spouse of the ABA president is responsible for a lot of the social activities that occur at the annual meeting and midyear meeting, and in between, the social programs for the board of governors and spouses of the board. She had a full plate this year in terms of planning, and, as well, we went to a dozen countries in nine months.

We quit traveling internationally after the war and SARS, but we did a lot of international travel. She was able to go on all the foreign travel and about 80 percent of the domestic travel. She took a year off; she is a residential real estate broker and she pretty much dropped what she was doing for about 18 months. She’s very happy to be back at work. She was a real brave soul because we only got married in April 2001, so she not only took me on but the ABA, and had to get used to 20 years of relationships and who was who and what was what and why people were special, who was a friend and who wasn’t. She was absolutely spectacular. The board spouses have all told her what a great job she did.

Q. What was your best meal, and best bottle of wine?

A. The Paris Bar has its own hotel and restaurant on the Seine, right across the street from the courts. They had a private dinner for 10 foreign bar presidents, spouses and Justice Breyer. That was about as good as it got, the food at Paris Bar. It is hard to describe how good that was.

As for the best bottle of wine, that was at dinner with Tom Ambro and our wives, and it was his bottle. We were in Philadelphia for the midyear meeting when I was president-elect. Judge Ambro (3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals) was, at the time, chair of the Business Law Section of the ABA. He’s a wine collector. He brought an ’87 Chateau Lafite to dinner. That was by far the best bottle of wine.

Q. What role did North Carolina play in your presidency, beginning with the attorneys you appointed to leadership roles within the ABA?

A. Everybody did a great job ... everyone who was appointed to different committees. I don’t want to call too many names because there were about 35 or 40 of them. (NCBA Executive Director) Allan Head has done a great job as chair of the ABA Standing Committee on Bar Services and Activities, and that needed a great job from somebody with his level of experience and his level of sophistication with respect to bar services. The ABA is benefitting greatly from him being there.

(NCBA Past President) Larry McDevitt was terrific on Access to Lawyers and, quite frankly, managing my affairs with the nominating committee, which is really the core group of leaders in the ABA. He did a great job with both. But there were so many people, such as (former State Bar President) Gerry Parnell on the Standing Committee on Ethics and Professional Responsibility and (State Bar President-elect) Dudley Humphrey on my task forces. (State Bar President) Jim Dorsett, (NCBA President) Allyson Duncan and (NCBA Immediate Past President) Norfleet Pruden were always there and participated in a number of activities.

It was so wonderful having the support of the Bar Association and the State Bar because it gave me the opportunity to showcase them for the ABA. We North Carolinians are a lot like Thomas Wolfe described us: It’s a great thing to be a great man in one’s own state, but we don’t go outside very often. Therefore, we’re not very good at tooting our own horn, and I think by showcasing the two bars and our system, the fact that we have the voluntary/mandatory combination, really educates people about that and really got our people into the mainstream, which was my aim.

Our issues were the ABA’s issues in North Carolina. The bill that is in the General assembly on the death penalty moratorium – we had a press conference on that. I was able in my president-elect year to effectively lobby the judicial reform bill which put us way ahead of everybody else in America, and on medical malpractice, which brings me to one of the most fun things that I did as president.

I used to be a lobbyist, and am still close enough to the political process in the state that I know many members of the General Assembly, and a large number of the members of the Senate. I grew up with many of them professionally – Fletcher Hartsell, Danny Clodfelter, Kay Hagan and all that crowd. Well, in June, the leadership of the Senate invited in the president of the American Medical Association to promote the bill that limited damages on medical malpractice suits.

One of the great things about having the bully pulpit of the ABA is that if we’ve got policy on something, as president you don’t have to ask anybody whether you have to go do anything or not: you go do it. I called Dick Taylor at the Trial Lawyers association and asked if anybody had asked for equal time in opposition to the caps. The Senate broke their own rules when they allowed the AMA president to go in there and speak from the well of the Senate while they were in session, and that had been widely noted.

So three weeks later the door opened, I walked in and I stood in front of my friend Beverly Perdue and I looked at all my friends and just talked to them, and it was great fun. After having been a part of that process and after having been a lobbyist, that’s about as good as it gets.

I appreciate the support I got and appreciated the ability to showcase North Carolina. I think a lot of the lessons I learned here in North Carolina, I was able to export, and I would tell people, “You will get tired of hearing this, this is the way we do it in North Carolina, and I think you ought to look at it that way,” but they would look at it eventually.

And I received absolutely fabulous support here at Kilpatrick Stockton; the law firm was supportive as any institution could be and that is one of the great things about it: this law firm is an institution. This law firm is only the product of two mergers; one was a small trial firm in Augusta (Ga.) with the Atlanta group, and then the Atlanta group with the North Carolina group, so it has a common client base, the common culture, a real human touch in spite of its size. It has been a magnificent base to operate from and a great place to come home to.

All in all it was a great experience. It was a lot of fun. I think we made a difference. That’s the key: that’s why we do these things. And we made a difference in a lot of different places and I feel real good about it.

Now it’s time to go on to the next thing.