Letter From The President Of The New York County Lawyers Association

2010-07-05 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

NYCLA has a long and distinguished history. We cherish and celebrate the fact that at a time when prevailing social mores were much different, we were the first bar association to admit any lawyer who passed the bar regardless of race, gender or origin. People like the founder of my firm - Charles Evans Hughes - thought then and we think today that law is a noble profession and that commitment to its values is more than qualification enough.

As our profession enters a period of profound change, daunting challenges lie ahead. NYCLA recently embarked upon a strategic-planning process, and we are mobilizing our Board, other volunteer leaders and our enthusiastic staff to examining everything about the organization from top to bottom: our mission and goals and our impact in the community, as well as the effectiveness of our pro bono, diversity and education initiatives, and the effectiveness of our communication with our members, the broader community and even among ourselves.

Looking ahead to NYCLA policy initiatives means almost certainly that we are going to be more active than ever. We have always been a feisty bar association. Sometimes we are criticized for it. But if a stand needs to be taken on a key issue, feisty is good, and NYCLA will continue to be feisty. We took action on the question of inadequate rates for assigned counsel. We filed briefs in the Hurrell-Harring case challenging the systemic inadequacy of indigent defense in New York State. Most recently, on June 2, NYCLA joined the four other county bars in a lawsuit to challenge New York City's attempted unilateral change of an indigent defense system operated for more than 40 years through a joint plan among the City and the County Bars. The action filed, an Article 78 proceeding, seeks an order preventing the City from disturbing the status quo - the indigent defense plan that currently combines criminal defense attorneys from The Legal Aid Society of New York and alternate institutional legal service providers and private attorneys from the Assigned Counsel Panels. The Mayor's unilateral action would mute the bars' voice. Institutionally and on behalf of the poor, the NYCLA Board and officers did not think we could allow that to happen. NYCLA is committed to doing everything in its power to improve funding for indigent defense and give meaning to the constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of counsel.

Moreover, our task forces will continue examining such issues as judicial selection and access to justice for litigants in courts that affect the lives of New Yorkers, i.e., the Family Court,which NYCLA as a county bar association is especially well suited to study. We also support the independence of the judiciary involving such matters as judicial selection and the rules of judicial conduct and are exploring a rapid-response mechanism for addressing unfair attacks on the judiciary by the media.

Another priority is public education. It is essential that young people - and adults - learn about their rights and the role of the judicial system. NYCLA publishes the New York City Youth Law Manual used throughout New York City and we conduct seminars for high school students and teachers. We sponsor a high school essay contest and had speakers at 15 high schools during Law Week. NYCLA needs to do still more, in the schools and beyond, through public fora and other means of communication.

That brings me to my final policy initiative: Professionalism. Looking ahead, I see a vital permanent role for our Ethics Institute and its Professionalism Task Force. NYCLA will be a major voice and resource for practicing lawyers on ethics issues through our upcoming Oxford University publication on the newly revised New York ethics rules, our extensive CLEs, our increasingly cutting-edge ethics committee opinions and our ethics hotline. But beyond the questions of dos and don'ts under the Rules of Professional Conduct is the need for our members and our entire profession to act like true professionals, people who approach legal problems, adversaries and others not only with competence but with courtesy, care and concern. There is more to being a lawyer than the billable hours and the bottom line. Our profession has focused so much on the bottom line that that is where we are: right at the bottom of every opinion poll or survey measuring the public's respect for occupations. NYCLA's system of open committee membership and many of our fora and events have always served to promote the values of professionalism in informal ways. This year, we launched an experimental mentoring program with a CLE component that I hope to expand.

During my presidency, I envision creating opportunities for NYCLA and the profession to remake and renew ourselves. I know I will have many challenges as your 57th president. But I know I have a secret weapon - a bar association full of people with talent, dedication and good will.


James B. Kobak, Jr.

This letter is an excerpt from Mr. Kobak's acceptance speech, delivered on May 27, 2010, when he became NYCLA's 57th president.