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The City Bar at 144 – by Carey R. Dunne

Two years ago, when I began my tenure as president of New York City Bar Association, I said that trying to describe the Association reminds me of the parable of the blind men and the elephant, in which you know only that part of the organization with which you come into contact. For lawyers it may be committee service, or pro bono work with the City Bar Justice Center or the Vance Center, or social events and networking. For the public, it may be access to legal services or a public-interest speaker or panel. We truly have something for everyone.

But I said then, and I believe even more now, that the City Bar is more than the sum of its parts—that what really defines the organization, now and when it was founded 144 years ago, is its unique voice and its role as the conscience of the profession. As long as we keep focused on using our bully pulpit to address the most important legal policy issues of the day, we’ll be fulfilling our mission and keeping the City Bar alive and relevant. I would submit that, through the work of our members and staff these past two years, we have done just that.

There are a few things I would mention, starting with our Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession. As most of you know, I announced the formation of this blue-ribbon group when I took office: 35 leaders of the New York bar, including law school deans, managing partners, general counsel, two district attorneys, New York City’s Corporation Counsel, and legal services and other leaders. The idea was to study the malaise that’s afflicted the legal profession since the financial crisis, especially our new lawyers, and what our law schools, bar associations and other legal institutions should be doing about it. A year later we issued a comprehensive report, and we’re now in the process of putting together pilot projects based on the report’s recommendations. It was a big job, but a great group, and as usual the City Bar rose to the challenge.

Another effort I’m proud of is our role in educating New York City’s mayoral candidates about the most important legal issues facing the city. In September 2012, more than a year in advance of our mayoral election, we sent word to all our committees that we wanted to put together a comprehensive review, on every conceivable subject, of our most pressing policy priorities. The goal was not just to educate the eventual new mayor, but to make all the candidates aware of our issues so they could be addressed in their public debates. We did this over the fall and winter of 2012, and in the spring of 2013 we released an 80-page report, reflecting input from over two dozen committees, on everything from stop and frisk, to homeless policies, to animal rights and beyond. We made it public and sent it to all the candidates at the time, and followed it up by hosting a candidates’ forum here in May, to a full house. After the election, we made sure our recommendations were in the hands of Mayor-elect di Blasio’s transition team, and since then we’ve been breaking the report into pieces and directing them to the new appointees in charge of the subject matter areas with which we are concerned.

We’ve also stayed in the forefront on the issue of access to justice and the courts. When Chief Judge Lippman announced the new 50 hour pro bono rule for law students, and his rule on mandatory reporting of pro bono contributions, and recently his third year law school pro bono scholars initiative, we applauded these measures as creative steps to inspire students and attorneys to meet their professional obligation to serve the community.

We’ve also consistently testified before hearings of the Chief Judge’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York, and we were a big proponent of the proposed constitutional amendment to relax the mandatory retirement rules for our Supreme Court and Court of Appeals judges—a controversial topic that we didn’t shy away from, even though at the end of the day it was voted down by the electorate. It was still the right thing to do.

Over the past two years, our committees issued over 400 reports and presented 540 programs, in addition to the 300 CLE programs presented at the City Bar. Of those 400 reports (all of which, per our policy, were reviewed by the president), 141 addressed city and state legislation. And during that time, 26 bills supported by the City Bar were enacted into law. Two of the bills were drafted by our committees.

In addition to this focus on state legislation, our Government Ethics Committee issued a report this spring examining New York’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which oversees the regulation of ethics and lobbying. The report concluded that JCOPE must do much more not only to enforce ethics laws but to create a different ethical climate in Albany. (These are issues that would sound very familiar to the City Bar’s founders, whose idea in 1870, of course, was to come together to stand up to the ethics abuses of Tammany Hall.)

On the federal legislative level, our Immigration Law Committee has been active in the Congressional efforts to achieve immigration reform. The Committee is focused on establishing the right to counsel for individuals facing deportation, and has also drafted language and commented on many proposed amendments in both the Senate and the House. As we all know, we have quite a ways to go in this effort.

Finally, we’ve filed 18 amicus briefs in the past two years, on the local, national and international level. We successfully pursued a series of cases in the New York Court of Appeals regarding criminal law and procedure. We filed six briefs with the Supreme Court on topics including patent law, surveillance, extra-territorial jurisdiction, affirmative action and housing discrimination. Through the Vance Center, we filed briefs with the Inter-American Court or Inter-American Commission on Human Rights concerning free speech in Venezuela and libel and defamation claims in Ecuador, and with the Colombian Constitutional Court regarding LGBT rights in Colombia.

Suffice it to say that our voice remains strong, our message is still relevant, and we remain true to our mission to take a stand for the rule of law and to address the most important legal issues of the day. As we look to the future, and to new leadership, I’m pleased at the inspired choice of Debra Raskin to succeed me as president of the Association. She is a true leader of the profession, with a deep understanding of the organization from her long tenure here, including as vice president and chair of our Executive Committee. I couldn’t be happier to turn the helm over to her.

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

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