ABA President Carolyn Lamm at the Maricopa County Bar Association, May 14, 2010

This week, the American Bar Association hosts its big annual shindig up in San Francisco. In thinking about that, I’ve decided to post a related story.

In May, ABA President Carolyn Lamm visited Arizona. The primary focus of her visit was the ABA Equal Justice Conference. But while in town, she took the time to have a breakfast with Arizona legal leaders, hosted by the Maricopa County Bar Association. She and the MCBA’s Executive Director, Alan Kimbrough, are old and good friends, so when he asked, she couldn’t say no.

(We covered the visit and the ABA conference here and here.)

Following the breakfast, President Lamm sat down with me for half an hour. We talked about her practice, the ABA, and the ABA’s position on Arizona’s SB1070, the immigration law that has garnered national attention.

(In fact, that very week, the law caused a dilemma for the ABA—whether to cancel the Arizona conference. They ultimately did not, but their partner, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, withdrew, taking with it a good number of attendees and panelists.)

Today, here is our conversation about her practice, which she maintained despite her ABA duties. Tomorrow, read what she told me about SB1070.

Me: What is your practice?

ABA President Carolyn Lamm

Carolyn Lamm: I represent primarily foreign sovereigns and their state-owned entities. Many of them are under bilateral investment treaties—they’re big international arbitrations, basically, to resolve disputes at something called ICSID—the International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes at the World Bank. It is in Washington, and the default jurisdiction is Washington.


Me: That must provide a lot of variety.

Lamm: There are many countries and entities that I represent. In addition, if one of my clients is sued in U.S. courts, I usually represent them. I argued a big case this year in the Fifth Circuit called In Re Refined Petroleum Products; I’m representing the Saudis, the Saudi defendants and the Ministry of Petroleum in an amicus brief.

Me: What issues do you address?

Lamm: In cases like this in which collusion and price fixing are alleged, I do the international issues. I act Act of State political questions. In that, we won, they appealed, and it’s in front of the Fifth Circuit. I hope to win again. The last person to argue for the OPEC states in the Ninth Circuit was Justice Scalia, before he went on the Court.

Me: Is that what you always imagined you’d do?

Lamm: I started at the Justice Department. I love foreign, and languages and cultures and all that stuff. I went to the Justice Department and first I did frauds and then was Assistant Director of commercial litigation. But at Justice, remember, you’re doing the same issues. You’re representing the state, it’s all sovereign immunity. It’s all the same kind of sovereign defenses. When I switched to private practice in 1980, I joined White & Case. It was the time of the fall of Iran, and I was going into court on behalf of many of the U.S. investors in Iran. But you’re arguing the same issues—whether it falls within the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.

So I grew up with those issues as a lawyer, and I just started doing more and more of them. It’s a peculiar little arcane practice, very active and very stimulating.

Me: You are a partner at White & Case in Washington, DC, while working as ABA President. That must take a lion’s share of your time. How has your year been? (Click here for her c.v.)

Lamm: I have wonderful partners, and they are tremendously supportive.

I just tried a case in April in which I represent 190,000 Italian bondholders against Argentina in the first treaty case ever brought as a result of their nonpayment of their debt obligations. I brought it as a treaty case because enforcement of the treaty is in every signatory state. So you can enforce an award under the treaty in 146 different countries. And I can get them! Believe me, they may have secreted their assets from the United States, but they are somewhere in the world.

Me: How do you balance the presidency?

Lamm: If you are a lawyer with a really credible practice, where clients rely on you, it’s your professional obligation. You can’t completely walk out.

I’ve cut back significantly. I used to work about 150 percent of average; I’m probably down to about 75. And I’m doing probably another 80 percent for the ABA. So everybody’s getting their 2,500 hours this year. I’ll sleep next year.

Me: Have you had any Arizona cases?

Lamm: Yes, it was federal district court. I was representing the government of Indonesia, the ministry of finance, who had been sued by this guy who had bought all kinds of bank notes issued by the national security council, essentially, of Indonesia. It was a huge fraud. And we won. It went back and forth to the Ninth Circuit, and I did prevail.

Tomorrow: More from our interview with ABA President Carolyn Lamm, including her comments about SB1070.