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Barbara Berger Opotowsky to Step Down as Executive Director of the City Bar

Barbara Berger Opotowsky, Executive Director of the New York City Bar Association, will step down in May 2013, after a 15-year tenure.

“It has been a privilege to serve an association with such a rich tradition and dedication to the highest principles of the profession. I have been honored to work with true leaders of the Bar who have shown an unwavering commitment to a just society, and an amazingly talented staff,” said Opotowsky. “While the decision to leave the City Bar, an organization I look at as a family, has not been an easy one, I am excited and energized by the thought of starting a new chapter in life.”

Carey R. Dunne, President of the City Bar, said, “Barbara Opotowsky has been a cornerstone of the City Bar for a decade and a half, during one of the most tumultuous and challenging periods since our founding in 1870. At every step, she has guided the organization to greater success, with her characteristic intellect, energy, judgment and wit. While we will all miss her leadership, the good news is that, due to her efforts, the Association is in a stronger position than it has ever been before.”

As Executive Director of the 24,000 member organization, Opotowsky continued the City Bar’s long tradition of speaking out forcefully on critical public issues, most notably on the erosion of civil liberties following the September 11th attacks, ranging from an early analysis of the shortcomings of military tribunals to recent calls to lift restrictions on attorneys representing clients in Guantanamo. Among the many other issues tackled by the City Bar’s 150 committees during Opotowsky’s tenure were government ethics reform, including curbing “pay-to-play” practices and requiring client disclosure by legislators; same-sex marriage; the Sarbanes-Oxley Act; and human rights violations around the world.

Under Opotowsky, policy has been complemented by service, notably by the City Bar’s sister organization, the City Bar Justice Center. The nationally-recognized Justice Center has grown to leverage the expertise of its staff to provide over $20,000,000 in pro bono legal services annually. In what has been called the City Bar’s shining moment, within 48 hours of 9/11 the Justice Center began training and mobilizing over 3,000 lawyers to provide legal services to the families of the victims. In addition to ongoing pro bono programs ranging from asylum cases to services for homeless families, the Justice Center has been nimble in addressing emerging issues. The Justice Center has worked on the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund; temporary status for Haitians following the earthquake in Haiti; young noncitizens seeking to obtain Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals; and most recently, addressing the legal needs emerging from Hurricane Sandy. Over the past 15 years, the Justice Center’s staff has more than doubled and its funding has increased six-fold.

In addition, the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, founded during Opotowsky’s tenure, has spread the City Bar’s pro bono culture around the world, particularly in Latin America. More than 500 law firms from 17 countries, representing more than 10,000 lawyers, have signed the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas. The Vance Center spearheaded the drafting and promulgation of the Declaration, and now its legal team is designing projects for law firms to support human rights organizations with their pro bono commitment. Other Vance Center initiatives include the South African Legal Fellows Program and the Latin American Women in the Profession program, modeled again on the City Bar’s pioneering diversity efforts.

As the legal profession changed dramatically over the past 15 years, so did the City Bar to keep pace. Recognizing the need for greater support for young lawyers, the City Bar has implemented a wide range of programs and services to assist in professional development. In response to the growth in solo and small practitioners, a Small Law Firm Center was established to provide services and resources to that segment of the Bar. A Lawyer Assistance Program with a psychiatric social worker on staff was added to assist those with alcohol, drug dependency and mental health issues. And in response to the 2008-09 financial crisis, the City Bar helped to place lawyers whose employment start dates were deferred in public service positions, and provided training and resources to this group.

Other services that have been enhanced over the past 15 years include a robust Continuing Legal Education Program and a thriving Legal Referral Service.

The challenge of creating a truly inclusive legal profession remains, and the City Bar has recommitted to enhancing diversity in the profession. In 2003, over 100 law firms and corporate law departments pledged to support defined diversity goals and to participate in an annual benchmarking study to monitor progress. Recognizing the need to reach underrepresented groups earlier, a comprehensive diversity pipeline initiative was created to provide programming, mentoring and summer jobs for high school students.

The many initiatives of the past 15 years have been made possible by a strong financial foundation. During Opotowsky’s tenure, the City Bar’s budget doubled, and the Association has run a surplus every year except the year of 9/11.

During her tenure, Opotowsky served with nine presidents: Michael A. Cardozo, Michael A. Cooper, Evan A. Davis, E. Leo Milonas, Bettina B. Plevan, Barry M. Kamins, Patricia M. Hynes, Samuel W. Seymour, and Carey R. Dunne.

A search committee under President Carey Dunne’s leadership has been formed. Interested candidates should contact Georgiana Hsu-Luk, City Bar Human Resources Director, at ghsu-luk@nycbar.org.

 

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