A Promising Future For The New Jersey State Bar Association

Friday, July 1, 2011 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Susan Feeney, President of the NJSBA and Partner, McCarter & English, LLP.

Editor: Congratulations on being elected president of the NJSBA. Would you tell us about your professional background?

Feeney: I am a state and local property tax lawyer. I handle both litigation and controversy work involving sales and use taxes, corporate business taxes and other New Jersey taxes. In my property tax practice I handle valuation appeals, and I also represent and litigate on behalf of tax-exempt organizations. I do redevelopment work in the form of tax abatements, tax exemptions and incentives for developers and redevelopers, as well as condemnation work.

Editor: Please describe for our readers the three major tenets of your agenda as president.

Feeney: I plan to tackle three initiatives, the first of which concerns pro bono. I have created a pro bono task force, which will be chaired by Emily Goldberg, director of Pro Bono at McCarter, and Karen Sacks, executive director of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. We're now appointing people who will work not only with members of the task force but also with the State Bar Association's Pro Bono Committee. The Task Force is charged with taking a close look at the pro bono scene in New Jersey and determining who the pro bono providers are and whom they serve, and then discerning who is not being served, either because the appropriate provider is overwhelmed or because it doesn't exist. The task force will also look into funding issues. We hope that by gathering data, we will be able to make substantive recommendations regarding the coordination of pro bono services at next year's Pro Bono Conference in June.

I hope that a side effect of this effort will be that more private bar attorneys take on pro bono cases. I took a first step in that direction before I became president by working with the State Bar and the judiciary to produce a five-minute public service announcement that urges lawyers to do pro bono work and gives information about where lawyers can volunteer their services; it also informs those in need of legal assistance where they may go for help. We debuted the video at this year's NJSBA Pro Bono Conference, and it will be shown in county courthouses, at the New Jersey Law Center and in several other appropriate public places.

Initiative number two is the Day of Service to mark the 10th anniversary of September 11, for which we are partnering with the judiciary, the attorney general's office and, significantly, the county bar associations and diversity and specialty bar associations. In every courthouse in New Jersey, we will have a room where people affected by 9/11 and its aftermath - victims' families, first responders, veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan - can come for pro bono advice. All of the county bar associations have committed to providing attorneys to staff those rooms on September 12 (September 11 being a Sunday). Chief Justice Rabner and Attorney General Dow have both been very receptive to the idea. On September 9, our Young Lawyers Division plans to conduct Wills for Heroes and Wills for Veterans, assisting with wills for first responders and veterans, respectively. In addition, we're coordinating attorneys to go into grade and high schools to speak about civics and the rule of law, most likely between September 8 and 12. The county bars and diversity and specialty bars have been extremely helpful with this project.

We at the State Bar would like to work more closely with the diversity and specialty bars. In a recent meeting with some of those bars' leaders, I learned of some wonderful public service programs they are conducting, and I thought the 9/11 program would be a great way for us all to work together.

This nicely segues into my third initiative, which regards diversity. In my meetings with leaders of the diversity bars, I learned that they have felt disenfranchised by the State Bar Association, with which they would like to work more closely. They also expressed concern that their members were not being offered leadership positions within the State Bar. According to the State Bar bylaws, I can make many appointments to what we call standing committees, so I responded with a pledge that if the diversity leaders gave me names of qualified people, I would do my best to make at least one-third of my appointments to my standing committees people of diverse backgrounds. I'm very happy to say that I was able to give that many positions to some very wonderful people from the diversity and specialty bar leadership. This will bring a wider range of ideas to the table and likely get more diversity bar members active within the State Bar.

I've also pledged that diversity will be a continuing dialogue. We generated some great ideas for diversity programs at our "diversity summit" last year, and we plan to implement them. We will have a second diversity summit later this year. People on both sides of the table believe we really can improve things; already members of the diversity and specialty bars are more involved in sponsoring and speaking on our panels.

Editor: How will you engage lawyers to devote more time to pro bono service?

Feeney: I've been active in pro bono in Essex County for about 30 years, and I have observed that lawyers generally are willing to take pro bono cases as long as they feel comfortable in the practice area involved. If it is a new area for the lawyer, I have found that if provided mentors and/or training, he or she will take on the pro bono case. This often leads to those attorneys coming back for more pro bono work because they've had a personally rewarding - as well as valuable learning - experience. I appreciate the fact that we have had a struggling economy for a few years now and that this has affected many lawyers, particularly our solos and our smaller firms in New Jersey, but at the same time we lawyers understand that if we're struggling, then people who need pro bono services are struggling even more.

I recently spoke at the swearing-in of the new lawyers in Trenton, and I basically passed on to them what had been said to me years ago by the late Alan Lowenstein: that a law degree is a privilege and that we must use that law degree not only to help our paying clients but to help those who can't afford to pay us, in whatever way we can.

Editor: Has pro bono dropped off at law firms due to the economy?

Feeney: According to the most recent report in the Law Journal , at least at the larger firms, the economy has not affected pro bono. In the past few years I've also seen in-house counsel groups at some of the major companies in New Jersey really step up to the plate. They have partnered with pro bono programs at their outside counsel law firms and at pro bono provider organizations, leading to a boost in the pro bono numbers. There are some wonderful legal clinics operating now thanks to these collaborations. Pro bono partnerships between in-house legal departments and law firms' projects are win-wins: pro bono clients benefit from the service, and outside counsel strengthen relationships with their clients.

Editor: How will the State Bar's Day of Service be staffed?

Feeney: At the moment we are zeroing in on what areas of law we will cover. There are always requests for family law, and, as I mentioned, I anticipate some need for wills and similar documents. We may well offer consumer credit counseling. The county bar leaders will choose the offerings in their county based on need and availability of attorneys in those particular practice areas; it's likely that different counties will need different services as well.

Thanks to the pro bono provider organizations, the county, diversity and specialty bar associations and our wonderful State Bar committees, I do not anticipate that staffing will be a problem.

Editor: Do you have a program to assist veterans with benefits?

Feeney: Yes, we have the Military Legal Assistance Program, which my partner, Bill Greenberg, a retired brigadier general, was instrumental in starting. Lawyers in that program have been representing returning veterans in securing the appropriate health and disability benefits for the last several years. Also answering this need, we formed a Military Law Committee, which is now the State Bar's Military Law Section.

Editor: How do you plan to dig deeper on diversity?

Feeney: We plan to hold a meeting with law firm diversity partners in New Jersey and engage in a dialogue for people of diverse backgrounds to hear what various firms are doing not only in terms of diversity hiring, but also in terms of programs that help them retain their diversity candidates and move them into positions of leadership and equity partnership. Other ideas for digging deeper include better coordination between the State Bar and the diversity and specialty bars; for instance, if we both have similar programs functioning, we might combine them.

The diversity leaders also felt it beneficial to have both State Bar and county bar leaders discuss the leadership pipeline; we talked about the possibility of formal mentoring programs at the state and county bar levels.

Two of the diversity members asked us to be more sensitive in planning our mid-year and annual meetings. When it was brought to our attention by the Muslim Bar that the dates we had planned for the midyear meeting in 2012 were over a very holy Muslim holiday, the State Bar trustees decided to change the date. I received a wonderful email from a member of the Muslim Bar thanking us, but the truth is we want our Muslim colleagues to be at the meeting, and now they can be!

Editor: Do you have a pipeline program that goes into the schools and introduces youngsters to the law?

Feeney: Those are run by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, a 501(c)(3), which is our educational and charitable arm. The foundation does a lot of educational programming in the schools, and we do have many programs on diversity. In fact, the foundation just received a major award for its anti-bullying program. The lawyers who volunteer for the foundation are generally all active State Bar members too.

Editor: Would you share with us some background on your work in pro bono as a young lawyer?

Feeney: I started my career at Lowenstein, where I was inspired by Alan Lowenstein directly to get involved and give back to the community. Also early on, I helped Doug Eakeley, a central figure in pro bono in New Jersey, to form an organization called Legal Services Foundation of Essex County, which gives grants to legal service providers such as Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, Legal Aid and the Education Law Center. I have been active in that organization since we founded it 30 years ago.

About 11 years ago, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice was born out of a Legal Services Foundation task force that I co-chaired. Today, under Executive Director Karen Sacks, VLJ mobilizes the private bar to take cases by providing mentoring, initial case screening and training. McCarter & English provides VLJ with free space in our building here in Newark.

I also sit on the board of my local animal shelter in Princeton and on the Pro Bono Committee at McCarter. Last year we hired former Gibbons fellow Emily Goldberg as our Director of Pro Bono, and she's just fantastic.

Editor: Would you support a New Jersey business court or other specialty court?

Feeney: We do have a New Jersey Tax Court, and I clerked in that court when it was only three years old. The New Jersey Tax Court is a very well-respected court, and it is definitely an important part of the state and local tax practice. As for a business court, I have heard over the years that some people think it's a great idea to have a separate court; others feel business cases should be administered within our regular superior court (but heard by judges who are more skilled in those areas); still others think it's a mistake to restrict cases to certain judges at all, and that all judges should have some exposure to business cases.

Editor: When you finish your term, what would you like to leave as your legacy?

Feeney: First and foremost I hope to move my three initiatives forward, and I would hope that even if my initiatives aren't finished that my successor, Kevin McCann, will continue those initiatives. Obviously the 9/11 initiative will be completed, but I would hope that our pro bono and diversity recommendations will be carried on; these issues are not "solved" in one year. Finally, for my legacy I would like to hear from the attorneys of this state that I served them well - that I was responsive to them and their issues as the issues came up - and that I moved the legal profession forward as a whole.

Please email the interviewee at sfeeney@mccarter.com with questions about this interview.