Protecting the legal rights of America's most vulnerable citizens - children and the elderly - is a top priority of the newly elected president of the nation's attorneys.

During his visit to Salt Lake City Wednesday, L. Stanley Chauvin of the American Bar Association commended Utahns for their concern for their elderly and their children."These two groups are the least able to help themselves," he said. "Lawyers should dedicate themselves to resolving the legal problems of those in most urgent need of protection by the law.

"It's hard to be a child or to be elderly in today's world."

As association president, Chauvin will be the voice of the legal profession in the United States, representing the views of more than 343,000 attorneys at congressional meetings.

Chauvin is watching closely the DeShaney case slated to be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court next term. The justices will decide if state welfare officials can be sued for failing to take action to protect a child who became brain-damaged as a result of beatings by his father.

The lawyer handling the Wisconsin case argues that state officials were grossly negligent because they did not protect the boy from his father. Lower courts have been divided over whether public officials may be held liable for failure to take action when they know someone to be in physical danger.

Thousands of children live in the streets of America. Many children born with drug addictions or infected with the AIDS virus are being abandoned in local hospitals. "Attorneys in individual states must move to protect the rights of these children," said Chauvin.

Another issue at the top of Chauvin's agenda is the promotion of mediation and arbitration as an alternative to expensive, time-consuming litigation.

Utah is gaining national attention for its Law and Justice Center, 645 S. Second East, which is unique in the country, Chauvin said.

Because the $3.2 million center was built primarily through the donations of attorneys and judges, it represents a "genuine commitment to quality justice," he said.

While other states have centers where arbitration is encouraged, Utah has placed all Alternative Dispute Resolution programs under one roof - "making it the premiere ADR center in the country." The programs are being evaluated, providing the first in-depth analysis of Alternative Dispute Resolution.

Simply put, the program involves finding ways to resolve problems outside the courtroom - talking problems out with the guidance of a mediator or arbitrator.

The popular public conception of the program is disputing neighbors fighting over a barking dog. But Chauvin believes the program applies to the complex, multimillion-dollar case involving huge corporations as well as a haggle over a warranty on a used car.

"Truckloads of documents could be shifted through outside the courtroom with the assistance of an arbitrator," he said.

In California, some trial judges have left the bench to become arbitrators. This "Rent-a-Judge" trend saves courtroom judges hours of valuable court time, said Chauvin.

Asked if there are too many attorneys in the United States, Chauvin drew an analogy to the medical profession.

Just as there are not enough doctors in rural areas, there are not enough attorneys in some areas of the country and in some areas of law.

"There are still many unmet legal needs among people living in various states."

Predicting the future of the law profession, Chauvin said there will be more mergers of large law firms and private attorneys will return to practicing law in vicinities closer to the suburbs - in shopping mall offices, next door to the local pharmacy, near the corner market.

"To survive, private attorneys will have to move from downtown areas to accommodate consumers."