Assuring The Continuing Strength Of The Rule Of Law

Sunday, April 3, 2011 - 00:00

Many thanks to The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel, and to the individuals who drive this excellent publication, for allowing me to put before you a few thoughts that have especially perplexed me since December 31, 2008, the day my precious quarter-century tenure on the Court of Appeals, including fifteen years as Chief Judge of the State of New York, came to an end.

This being the season of Law Day, which was initiated 53 years ago as our counterpoint to the Soviet Union's May Day display of military force - that former nation's unifying principle - it occurs to me that my thoughts fit comfortably within Law Day's themes. Our nation's unifying principle, of course, is the rule of law, the essential underpinning of our democratic society, assuring freedom, equality and justice for all. Plainly the continuing vitality of the rule of law rests in the hands of the great American Bar. And that is the subject of my concern today.

Having studied your March 2011 issue, I applaud your focus on diversity within the profession, and congratulate the individuals, companies and organizations involved in implementing the many excellent suggestions for achieving that objective. Equal opportunity is not only among our founding principles, it happens also to be a terrific idea. Diversity of viewpoints and experiences invariably strengthens our decisions and our society.

I am particularly proud of the corporate initiatives you describe. Corporate America - through its powerful influence on the private Bar in its choice of outside counsel, as well as its leadership role generally - can and is making a genuine difference. I'd like to add just one more perspective on the issue, and then return to your focus on the people coming into, and rising within, our profession.

I'd like to focus for just a moment on the growing cadre of lawyers at the other end of the spectrum, people in their late '50s, '60s, '70s and beyond, people who have enjoyed challenging, rewarding careers but are not yet ready to retire to the golf course, intent still on doing something meaningful, making a difference. It's what I think of as the "after-life"- after some great position, or work, what? For some, the answer is simply well-earned relaxation, but clearly not for many of us.

Given the "blessings" of earlier retirement and longer life, that is a rapidly growing segment of our profession. Still we struggle for a good word to describe them. "Seniors," or "emeriti," or "second season of service" doesn't quite do it for me - but the issue is far larger than nomenclature. And in the end it's an issue I put to your readers: How best can we systematically tap into the enormous, and growing, reservoir of the most experienced segment of our Bar, retired from their corporate or law firm positions but looking for ways to contribute their time and talents to the betterment of society?

Pro bono service, of course, is one ready answer, and the needs are greater than ever. But my question goes beyond the area of pro bono opportunities, and philanthropy, important as they are. What vehicles might we establish to engage retiring lawyers in resolving vital social problems, including assuring genuine diversity? Can't people who have spent their professional lives and careers as problem solvers help to find imaginative new ways to assure that our fundamental democratic ideals become reality? As we search for alternative energy sources, this to me is a huge reserve of alternative human energy we need to put to good use. Genuinely I look forward to your ideas.

To return the focus to promoting diversity among the people entering and rising in our great profession, I feel proud and fortunate that my own "after-life" has taken me to the great firm of Skadden, Arps, where I found two superb initiatives (among many) that I hope will be widely replicated.

First is the Skadden Fellowship program begun in 1988 - now funded by the firm through 2018 - which each year awards 25 fellowships to graduating law students and outgoing judicial clerks to enable them to affiliate with an organization that provides civil legal services to the poor, disabled and those deprived of civil or human rights. Each fellowship comes with a salary, fringe benefits and debt service for one year with the expectation of renewal for a second year. Now numbering into the 600s, the Skadden Fellows are a breathtaking bunch. Many of them have ultimately made their lives in public service.

Imagine the difference we all could make through fellowships such as this - drawing from a highly diverse group of candidates, rendering service to a highly needy population.

My arrival at the firm coincided with the initiation of yet another exciting program: the Skadden Scholars, again an annual class of approximately 25 specially selected individuals from a wide pool of applicants. This time, however, the candidates are drawn from college - City College to be precise - a diverse group of sophomore-year stars looking forward to some day attending law school. The very purpose of the program, which extends through their junior and senior college years, is to enable them to prepare to enter and excel in law school, ultimately to achieve a more diverse law school population and assure greater diversity in the legal profession. Great idea, don't you agree?

Again, although I know that Skadden is not alone, just imagine how transformative it would be if more companies and firms sponsored programs like these.

In the end I think of two key words to radically change the current picture. The first is opportunity, and the second is mentoring. Plainly we need to focus on both to assure the continuing strength of the rule of law that nourishes this great nation.