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Twenty-Four Months – by Carey R. Dunne

In preparing for the great and humbling honor of leading the New York City Bar Association for the next 24 months, I have been asked variations of one question repeatedly: What are my priorities going to be? What two or three topics do I want to identify as things to focus on during my tenure? The prevailing view is that unless you limit yourself to a handful of issues, you will have nothing against which to measure your success two years down the road.

What makes this question hard is that this Association is so many things to so many people. It’s almost like the parable of the blind men and the elephant, in which you only know that part of the organism with which you have contact. For some people, it’s the committees. We have 3,500 members serving on over 150 committees, issuing 200 reports annually on topics ranging from attorney ethics to climate change.

Others see us primarily as providers of continuing legal education. We conducted over 150 CLE programs last year, for over 20,000 attorneys, 8,000 in person and 12,000 online. We also do enormous amounts of pro bono and access to justice work through the City Bar Justice Center, and internationally through the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice. We run a thriving legal referral service that pairs clients with needed attorneys. We have programs and social events for young lawyers, for senior lawyers, and everybody in between. We even have a City Bar chorus. With the City Bar being so many things to so many people, how can a new president possibly isolate any one priority that will make a difference?

The answer, I think, is that the City Bar is more than just the sum of its parts. And the one thing that has really defined this organization since its founding in 1870 has been its unique and compelling voice. The strength of the Association’s bully pulpit is based on the willingness of its members to come together and advocate for the rule of law and for the types of positive changes in society that can only be brought about through the legal system. That’s why I joined this organization 25 years ago, and I suspect that’s true of many of our members.

Exercising this voice has always been the mission of the City Bar. It was true in 1870 when 200 of the city’s most prominent lawyers signed a document forming the association and pledging to stand up once and for all to corrupt judges who were beholden to the all-powerful Tammany Hall political machine in New York City. It was true in the 1960s, when the Association came out in support of the Civil Rights Act and hosted speeches by people like Martin Luther King and Chief Justice Earl Warren. It was true in 2007 when the Association held a rally on its front steps in support of Pakistani judges who were arrested when their constitution was suspended and martial law imposed. And it was true last year when Sam Seymour, my immediate predecessor, hosted a press conference in which twenty bar associations came out in support of the same-sex marriage bill in New York.

It is this history, and this ability of the Association to stand up and speak out for what’s right, that makes the organization unique and continues to keep it relevant. And if we don’t stay true to our history, if we don’t stay relevant and continue to appeal to new generations of lawyers as a force for good in this world, there is a risk that we will dwindle into a quaint organization, with a nice landmark building, but which seems increasingly obsolete.

How do we make sure that the City Bar’s voice continues to be heard on the most important issues? Our message gets out through the work of our committees and the force of their reports; through our legislative outreach team and their work with local, state, and federal lawmakers; through the panels we organize; the speakers we invite; the types of pro bono projects we take on; through the sheer force of this huge organization.

So this is my priority: to make sure that we continue to be as bold and relevant as our founders were in 1870. To make sure that we continue to be seen as a legal organization with a voice and a conscience, not just in the city, but around the country and increasingly around the world.

With this in mind, and without trying to predict what issues the news will bring us over the next two years, here are several examples of important topics that I think the City Bar should be addressing from its center stage.

We must continue to work on the still-pressing goals of merit selection, court reform, and support for our independent judiciary. To this end, I will make sure that we are a prominent voice in the new statewide task force that is emerging to push for court consolidation.

We should also continue to speak out in favor of greater access to justice for the poor. We do this best through the great work of the City Bar Justice Center. Last year the Justice Center delivered $18 million worth of free legal services to low-income individuals and recruited, trained, and mentored over 2,700 volunteer attorneys from law firms and companies throughout the City. In the coming years, we will not only expand our involvement in this work but will be a leading voice in the call for more dedication to pro bono, not just by the private bar but by the growing ranks of in-house legal departments around this city.

We should also continue to call for greater access to justice outside of the U.S. Some people ask whether a local bar association like ours should be bothering itself with problems beyond our five boroughs. But the way I see it, when so much of what we do these days as New Yorkers brings us into contact with other legal systems around the world, we cannot allow ourselves to take advantage of this new economic interdependence without also doing what we can to make sure that those legal systems provide their citizens with the basic rights that we enjoy.

I see our Vance Center for International Justice as playing a role very much like the role played by our founders in 1870. Back then, we in the United States had a constitution, courts with judges, and a nascent legal system. But the problem was that, in practice, the system didn’t work because it was fraught with corruption in the courts. The message that the Vance Center is bringing to lawyers in developing counties is: Here’s how you can do it; here’s how you can take your new constitution and your evolving legal structures and use your influence as lawyers to bring about a truly democratic legal system in your country, too.

Promoting the rule of law at home and abroad also includes doing what we can to ensure that our legal system is providing an appropriate regulatory framework for functioning markets and well functioning vehicles for the administration of business, which have long been the focus of our committees in such areas as securities regulation, banking, bankruptcy, and antitrust. On topics like these, it is essential that the City Bar continue to be seen as a forum for discussion and as a leading voice in favor of innovation and rationality in the laws that govern our economic system.

The City Bar should also stay in the forefront in advocating changes in the laws relating to “innocence”-related issues: the expansion of statutes addressing DNA evidence and its availability to prosecutors and criminal defendants; and changes to procedural rules for lineups, photographic identifications, videotaping of confessions, and the like. These are legal changes that can benefit both the defense and the prosecution, by avoiding wrongful convictions and ensuring that truly guilty parties are convicted.

Finally, we should also focus on emerging concerns about changes in our profession itself, especially the plight of our young lawyers: whether they are being given relevant training in law school and in their early careers, so that they are more employable earlier on, so they can realize their aspirations more quickly, and so clients ultimately may be better served by lawyers who are both well prepared and happy in their work. To this end, I am pleased to announce the creation of a new City Bar task force that will be led by one of our new Vice Presidents, Mark Morril. This group will include leaders from law schools, the private bar, clients, and students, who will make sure that we are a contributor to the emerging dialogue about these important professional issues.

These are just some of the areas where I believe the City Bar should continue to use its bully pulpit, to be viewed as a force for change in our community even as we remain, as ever, ready to speak out on any important legal issues that the fates may send us over the next 24 months.

Carey R. Dunne is President of the New York City Bar Association.

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