Area attorney aims to boost ABA's Foundation


By Linda Laderman
Legal News

Detroit attorney David Collins was elected to a two-year term as president of the American Bar Association Foundation (ABF) in September with hopes of raising the profile of the nonprofit organization.

As president, he is in the position to distinguish the ABF from the American Bar Association (ABA). The two organizations, while affiliated have very different missions. Collins points to the ABF’s concentration on empirical research by a multidisciplinary group of in-house scholars. 

“We are closely committed to disseminating research from our faculty of scholars,” Collins says.  “Their work impacts law and hails from related fields, including political science, economics and sociology.”

Collins is quick to acknowledge the need to increase the ABF’s visibility among those in the legal and other related professions. In fact, high on Collin’s agenda is mining untapped resources to help raise the profile of the ABF through outreach and communications.

“I knew little about the foundation until Dennis Archer, an old friend, nominated me in 1995 to become a fellow,” Collins says. “Yet, the ABF is the nation’s leading research institute for the empirical study of law. We should be better known than we are.”

Collins credits former Detroit mayor Archer for drawing him into active participation, not only in the ABF, but also in the broader ABA. The two have been close for more than 25 years. In fact, Archer attended the recent defense of Collins’s Ph.D. dissertation. Collins earned his doctorate from Wayne State University in August. His dissertation focused on absentee voting by soldiers during the Civil War.

“There was no federal law governing these voting rights questions,” Collins explains. “State constitutions generally contemplated that a person had to be present to cast his vote. That presented the need to invent something new for soldiers in the field. The absentee voting laws in those years sparked interesting legal and political battles.”

Social issues are an important dimension of Collins’s career. Prior to earning his law degree, he served in the Peace Corps in rural El Salvador.

“The Peace Corps changed my life,” Collins says. “I spent two years in the remotest corner of rural El Salvador, living in an adobe hut and designing and organizing construction of drinking water systems for small hamlets in the region. It taught me valuable lessons that have stayed with me: that you don’t need a lot of ‘stuff’ to lead a fulfilled life; to get up early in the morning and work hard all day; that I’m not as smart as I once believed and that people of all stripes and stations in life have important things to say. And I think that the experience of learning a foreign language (in my case Spanish) helped prepare me for the law school experience of learning the new and bewildering language of law. The Peace Corps was the best chapter in my life. And a bonus was that I met my first and only wife Cynthia there.  She was a Peace Corps volunteer, too.”

After Collins earned his law degree in from Washington University in St. Louis, he clerked for the late Judge Lawrence Gubow on the U.S. District Court in Detroit. After his clerkship, Collins joined the legal staff at General Motors. There, he tackled a number of different assignments, including corporate secretary, general counsel and VP for the Saturn Group. He retired from GM in 2007. Later, he was Of Counsel for Dykema Gossett, a national law firm founded in Detroit. He retired in 2010 to devote full time to his academic work.

On top of his work with the ABF, Collins was a member of the ABA’s Commission of Opportunities for Minorities in the Profession, served on the ABA Council on Racial and Ethnic Justice, and was a member of the administration committee for the ABA’s employee pension plan. In addition, he has authored a number of publications on corporate ethics, compliance and transparency.

Since simultaneously defending his Ph.D. thesis and beginning his term as president of the ABF, Collins has set an ambitious timetable for himself. He is speaking to local groups about his thesis topic and establishing a national search for a new director for the ABF. The current director retires in 2015.

“I enjoy learning” Collins says. “The opportunities for learning are endless among the people of the ABF. It’s a treat and an honor to be able to advance their work as president.”