Founding Father - George Seward

IBA Honorary Life President George Seward celebrated his 100th Birthday on 4 August 2010. To mark the occasion, IBN got his views on the struggles, successes and strategic vision for the Association.

There can be no doubting the importance of the IBA in the one-hundred-year life of George Seward. Those who’ve spoken to him over the years will recall that he regularly signs off conversations about the Association with the immortal words: ‘thanks for helping my IBA.’ Considered by many to be the founder of the IBA in its current form, it was Seward who ensured the financial viability of an Association that – despite its early grand ambitions and subsequent achievements – could so easily have come to nought.

Changing the world

Recalling the inception of the IBA, Seward alludes immediately to those early aspirations. In 1945, when there were 43 national bar associations or law societies around the world, there was a tentative draft Constitution for an International Bar Association. This was sent to each of the national bar associations known to exist, stating that the aim of the Association was nothing less ambitious than ‘backing the establishment of law and the administration of justice by law throughout the world; to promote the principles and aims of the United Nations.’ The first meeting of the Committee for the organisation of the International Bar Association was held in 1947. ‘The IBA was formed when it was hoped that the US, Russia and the British could bring an end to the circumstances that led to the Second World War,’ Seward says. ‘It was hoped that the lawyers could help with this. So, a world organisation was formed and all the members were national bars.’

The epitome of the straight-talking New York business lawyer, he is characteristically blunt in his assessment of those early years. ‘No individuals could be members,’ he explains. ‘About four years later the organisation was shown to be a flop. Around this time, the President of the US Bar asked if I could get involved. But, I couldn’t as an individual. So, I sat on the board of the American Bar as a representative. I got unhappy with how little spunk there was among the bars to get things done. They met and talked, but didn’t get anything done.’

In the early years, Seward felt he had the solution. ‘I suggested a world grouping of business lawyers,’ he recalls. ‘But the bars didn’t like individuals getting involved. They didn’t want to be on a partnership basis. But the bars had no money.’

Nevertheless, Seward pushed ahead, convinced he knew how to make such a global organisation work. ‘The IBA has to be financed by people who are crafty at making money and can pay their dues,’ he says.

Money, money, money

This no-nonsense approach has helped get things done, but it has also left a lasting impression on all those who’ve come into contact with him. Former Executive Director of the IBA, Madeleine May, sums up the inimitable contribution and significance of the man. ‘George could be – and often was – short-tempered, and he was rightly intolerant of waste and inefficiency. He could also be very charming when he wished,’ she says. ‘The one thing every IBA member today should realise is that if he hadn’t proposed in 1968 that the IBA should form a Section on Business Law and worked very hard and spent his money setting it up, the IBA might well not exist today.’ John Salter, who was Chairman of the Section on Business Law (SBL) between 1986 and 1988 puts it even more strongly. ‘It has been a great pleasure to work with the Founder Chairman of the Section on Business Law,’ he says. ‘I joined Committee O (oil and gas) in 1974. I soon learnt that the Founder was an active Section Officer, a force to be reckoned with, a visionary who perceived a force for good far beyond the confined interests of member Bar Associations.’

‘...we always strove to implement his suggestions, because they were the right thing to do.’

David W Rivkin
Chair of the LPD, 2007–2008

Current Head of the IBA’s Legal Practices Division (LPD), Hendrik Haag echoes May’s sentiments on Seward’s significance. ‘George is the founder of the LPD, as it was his vision that expanded our membership from an alliance of bar associations to include the powerful network of individual lawyers we have today, through the establishment in 1970 of the LPD’s predecessor entity, the IBA Section on Business Law.’

Others, such as former IBA President Francis Neate simply speak in glowing terms: ‘George’s devotion to the IBA has been inspiring and his contribution to its success cannot be equalled,’ he says.

Neate was seen by many as the main proponent of relatively radical changes to the IBA structure recommended by the Review Committee and finally brought into effect at the end of 2004. These included the abolition of the SBL – as May and Haag illustrate, something that is George’s creation and arguably the principal cause of the IBA’s success – and its transformation into the LPD. So how was such sweeping change received by the architect of the Association?

Seward is understood not to have expressed a view publicly on the issue. It is often assumed, therefore, that he took a dim view of his beloved SBL being swept aside. Indeed, his first statement on the issue seems to confirm this. ‘I don’t want to go into it,’ he says. But he can’t resist. ‘We never did find a proper name – Legal Practices Division doesn’t really say anything,’ says Seward. ‘What I liked about the SBL was that it was easily understood. Everyone wants to be a business lawyer. It’s true from the crib: the survival instinct of reaching for the bottle is the equivalent of the drive for making money.’

Seward does, though, explain what he means by jealousy motivating the changes that saw the LPD replace the SBL he founded all those years ago. ‘There were people who would have been in what was called the Section on General Practice [established at the 15th IBA Biennial Conference in Vancouver] and didn’t want to be in that group,’ he says. ‘The PPID (Public and Professional Interest Division) tells more people that they can belong… There are too few people who are willing to give up their time to do anything other than make money.’

Strategic visionary

Though passionate about the IBA and its structures, Seward’s more pressing concern has always been getting people engaged in order to achieve the ideals of the Association. Given the level of expectations he has for national bars, does he place the same expectations on the LPD to, for example, protect us against bad business practices? ‘Of course, I’m placing the same obligations on the LPD members to protect us against bad business practices,’ he says. ‘I think it’s terrible the level of executive and director’s pay. I think it’s gone too far. The financial crisis is a big thing. The IBA’s Task Force asks a lot the right questions about what ought to be done.’

So, can and should the IBA play a role, for example, in influencing responses to the current financial crisis? ‘The IBA is a good organisation for people who want to talk to each other and learn from each other. Compared to the world of business it’s a tiny organisation, but it must discuss openly what can be done.’ But he adds, ‘The LPD and its members are mostly about making money. I think that’s very good – that’s what the world is all about… Everyone wants to work to earn money for their family.’

But what are the challenges and goals to which international business lawyers – and the IBA – need to rise, and what is the IBA’s ‘unfinished business’ in this regard? ‘In my country the principal one is public relations,’ says Seward addressing the major issue as he sees it for business lawyers. ‘I think it is not a serious problem in many other countries, but in the US it is slowly being recognised that lawyers are costing the country too much in terms of the inflation. Almost every product has built into its selling price something for possible litigation. I expect we will, in the coming years, hear more and more about that problem.’

And for the IBA. ‘In the US the greatest competitor the IBA has is the ABA – they’re a good competitor and hopefully a friend,’ he says. ‘They’re both striving to be the leading global legal association. The ABA will never be able to do this. It’s American and I’m very much afraid that the world has seen the best of America. It’s getting competition from able people around the world such as those from China. We have a lot of bright Chinese people at Seward & Kissel. The Chinese are next to the US in terms of being a global superpower and India is close behind.’

‘I soon learnt that the Founder was an active Section Officer, a force to be reckoned with, a visionary who perceived a force for good far beyond the confined interests of member Bar Associations.’

John Salter
Chairman of the SBL 1986–1988

Looking to the future, Seward is sceptical about lawyers finding long-term solutions to the biggest issues of the day. ‘The real difficulty we’re in is that there are always a lot of different elements and it’s always difficult for people to pursue the making of money without cutting across other people’s interests,’ he says. ‘The crisis will be patched up, but there will be other problems and it will be discovered that the patch was put in the wrong place. Lawyers are very good at solving short-term problems. They don’t think longer term, but no one is going to stand up and tell people to stop doing what they’ve been doing previously.

Seward is, though, full of praise for the work of the IBA’s current Executive Director: ‘Mark Ellis, through his ingenuity, is raising money from governments and monitoring trials, for example, the Khodorkovsky trial in Russia. So, what obligations does Seward feel business lawyers have regarding human rights? ‘Business lawyers have a sentimental regard for human rights,’ he suggests. ‘They are more successful if both buyer and seller make a profit, but we’ve varied from that by allowing too much of the money to go to those who understand money and too little to those who don’t.’

Seward, then, remains an intellectually dynamic figure who is said to regularly grace the offices of the eponymous New York law firm, Seward & Kisell, with his presence. ‘I like my firm and enjoy my time there and the unusual problems which come,’ he says. This is the firm that he joined at an age when others would justifiably have been considering retirement. Seward explains this in characteristically pragmatic and matter-of-fact terms: ‘I left a law firm to join another (the predecessor of Seward & Kissel) because I saw an opportunity. I am still a friend of the first firm.’ Seward rejects any suggestion that he is unusually physically robust in similarly dismissive terms: ‘I have gout which makes travel uncomfortable,’ he says.

Nevertheless, the IBA’s current Executive Director, Mark Ellis, gives a little insight into what has allowed Seward to remain such a vibrant figure, even into his 100th year. ‘The first time I met George in New York, we went for lunch at his club. The restaurant was several floors up. I went for the elevator and he said: “where are you going?”. We tramped up at least four flights of stairs. I can tell you, there was no panting or puffing on his part.’ This is the kind of energy that has allowed Seward to attend many IBA functions over the years in the cause of driving forward the association he has come to think of as his own. David W Rivkin, who chaired the LPD between 2007 and 2008, recalls that Seward, despite already being in his nineties, attended meetings, called and sent e-mails. ‘His contributions were always exactly right,’ says Rivkin. ‘He cared deeply about the value we were providing to individual members and we always strove to implement his suggestions, because they were the right thing to do.’ So, given his indefatigable attendance of IBA events, which has been the most interesting he’s attended? ‘It was in New Delhi at the general meeting of the Council of the IBA,’ he says proudly, ‘when I was elected the Honorary Life President of the IBA.’

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