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44th Street Notes

The Best Job a Lawyer Can Have

Jun 1998

As my two years as your President come to a close, and I turn over the reins to my able successor Michael A. Cooper, it seems appropriate to look back on this unforgettable voyage to which you have treated me, one that included stops that ranged from Hong Kong to Washington, Albany and City Hall, to, of all places, a conference room near Kennedy Airport. A reflection back on just a few of the stops on this journey demonstrates how this Association can and does make a difference.

Assisting the Less Fortunate

One of the shortest but most significant trips I took during my presidency was to the Ramada Inn at Kennedy Airport. Responding to a call from Mayor Giuliani immediately after the crash of TWA Flight 800, volunteers from this Association and the State Bar Association spent an afternoon at Kennedy Airport counseling the families of the victims of that tragedy on the scores of legal issues facing them, ranging from their options when besieged by lawyers and insurance companies, to how to gain entrance to a deceased relative・s apartment in the absence of a death certificate. This was an example of the New York bar at its very best--helping people in need, in return for nothing more than the satisfaction of knowing we were doing the right thing. This is our central mission, and we must never lose sight of it.

Along similar lines, our overall blueprint for helping those in need was set out in The Civil Justice Crisis Plan (prepared by the Steering Committee on Legal Services (Allan L. Gropper, Chair)) and called on the Association to encourage lawyers to volunteer for pro bono activity, to increase (and make more volunteer-efficient) the projects sponsored by the Association・s Robert B. McKay Community Outreach Law Program, to lobby for adequate funding for legal services lawyers, and to devise additional means to make it easier for persons to represent themselves.

Effecting Changes in the Profession

Advocating adoption of our :Pay to Play; proposal, a public policy initiative that illustrates the enormous impact this Association can have, literally took me across the country. Two years ago it would have been unthinkable to suggest that the legal profession might voluntarily announce that it was wrong for lawyers to make political contributions in return for being considered for retention for professional services (:pay to play;). Even more unlikely would be the promulgation of a rule prohibiting such conduct. But, as the result of a report from the Government Ethics Committee (Joel Berger, Chair; William Josephson, Sub-Committee Chair), whose recommendations we championed in Washington, Orlando, San Antonio, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Albany, both the ABA and the New York State Bar Association have now passed resolutions declaring the practice of pay to play to be wrong, and calling for its prohibition. In addition, the New York State Administrative Board of the Courts will consider in November the Association・s proposed prophylactic court rule that would have the effect of preventing lawyers who contribute more than $250 to government officials from accepting municipal finance work from those officials.

Our opportunity--and obligation--to lead the profession is also illustrated by our recently announced Statement of Goals for the Retention and Promotion of Women in the Profession (prepared by the Committee on Women in the Profession, Barbara Berger Opotowsky and now Kathryn J. Rodgers, Chair), with assistance from the Task Force on Women (Katherine Prager Darrow, Chair) and the Committee to Enhance Diversity in the Profession (Ned B. Stiles, Chair). This statement, signed initially by 38 of the largest legal employers in New York City, pledges each signatory to remove any barriers to full participation of women, as well as to increase the employer・s rate of retention and promotion of women, and sets forth certain steps that each signatory pledges to pursue to achieve these goals.

Our Impact on the Courts

When I became President attacks on judges were occurring daily and the cry of :junk justice; filled the air. While the rhetoric has subsided, at least temporarily, the independence of our judges, the integrity of the judicial selection process and the strength of our courts -- the issues upon which this Association was founded--are areas that must continue to demand our focus.

This is why my travels have included the criss-crossing of the City to speak promptly when improper attacks on a judge have taken place, and to explain why the criticisms were ill-founded and dangerous.

The importance of preserving the integrity of the process for selecting judges lay behind our criticisms of the governor・s decisions (1) to appoint his own counsel to the Commission on Judicial Nomination (a practice the governor later discontinued), (2) to continue for two years a :temporary; screening committee for appellate division judges (a problem commendably cured by the governor shortly after our criticism was voiced), (3) to modify--in the middle of an ongoing process--his executive order dealing with selecting judges of the appellate divisions, and (4) not to reappoint, because of disagreement with a judge・s rulings, a justice to the appellate division. We have also tried to meet the threat to the federal judiciary posed by the failure to fill federal court vacancies by consistently working to have those vacancies filled.

Of the many steps we took to strengthen and improve the efficiency of the courts one of the most important was the preparation (by the Council on Judicial Administration, Robert L. Haig, Chair; Jay Safer, Sub-Committee Chair) of a major report concerning the Chief Judge・s Court Restructuring Plan. The Association continues to press for enactment of this far-reaching proposal that would realize a goal-- court simplification--we have long sought.

Our Other Efforts

The one week I spent in Hong Kong, exploring with Hong Kong officials the challenge to the rule of law presented by the then soon to occur hand over by the British to the Chinese, reflects the impact we have on the international stage. Another substantial example is our report proposing an international criminal court (prepared by the Committee on International Law, Elizabeth F. Defeis, Chair; David P. Stoelting, Sub-Committee chair), which was endorsed by the ABA and is now part of an on-going debate at the United Nations.

On the national, state and local levels we have continued our tradition of writing in-depth reports and amicus briefs in an effort to reform the law. Examples of these efforts include the outstanding report on the New York State Constitutional Convention (prepared by the Task Force on the Constitutional Convention, Michael D. Stallman, Chair), which played a major role in the debate last fall over whether such a convention should be held; the drafting of amendments to the New York Business Corporation Law by the Committee on Corporation Law (Jill E. Fisch, Chair), which the Legislature enacted last year; and the filing of two briefs (prepared by the Committee on Federal Legislation, Louis A. Craco, Jr., Chair) on the line item veto in the United States Supreme Court.

The Past and the Future

The lessons of our past (highlighted during my tenure both by a memorial tribute to the late Association President Herbert Brownell and the 100th anniversary celebration of the Association・s House), should continue to guide our future. With the devoted and committed efforts of you--our members--we accomplished a great deal in the last two years.

I could not have carried out what I consistently refer to as--and honestly believe is--the very best job any lawyer can ever have without the support of many different people: my loving and supporting family, my partners at Proskauer Rose, and the Association・s superb staff, led during the first year of my presidency by Fern Schair, and now by Barbara Berger Opotowsky. Space precludes extended thank you's, but I must acknowledge with special thanks Alan Rothstein, our extraordinary General Counsel, who somehow sees to it that all the committee reports get completed and meet our standards of high quality, and of course so much more.

And now, as my journey draws to a close, the voyage over, I thank you once again for the opportunity to have experienced such an exciting and enjoyable expedition.

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