At the New York City Bar Association, we talk frequently about the concrete benefits of membership such as free or discounted CLE programs, professional development and skill-building opportunities, and free online research tools in the library or by remote access. In today’s world, people want a “return on investment” for their time and money and I can’t say that I blame them. These benefits are important and we’re committed to providing the best of them for our members.

But what we shouldn’t miss here is the forest for the trees, that is, the overall, general benefit of belonging to an association, and of belonging to an association like the City Bar.

Webster’s defines an association as an “organization of persons having a common interest.” Our common interest at the City Bar relates most broadly to the functioning of the legal system and the legal profession itself. More narrowly, certain subsets of our membership are interested in certain substantive topics (criminal law, trademark, bankruptcy, etc.) or giving back using our legal skills (pro bono).

By associating, we further our common interest by improving our profession, most notably through our committee work. It’s important to note that it’s a “common interest” and not a “common perspective.” In fact, it’s the diversity of our membership that makes us stronger.  And that’s not just diversity in the usual sense of race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on, but diversity of practice type or client base, diversity of socio-economic background, diversity of political views, and more. Because we strive to remain balanced in our committee membership, reports, and panels, our views are all the more respected because they reflect compromise and a shared, thoughtful opinion on the topic at hand.

At the City Bar, we are constantly brainstorming ways to bring members together when today’s technology would have us working alone at a desk. Setting aside time for networking at CLE courses and programs is one way. Creating a new space like the library lounge is another. Social events like Bar @ the Bar and Lawyers Connect allow our members to get to know each other in a less formal setting. Sharing news about your new position or promotion in our “Member Moves and Milestones” (by emailing us here) raises your profile in the profession and allows us to pause and congratulate one another on our accomplishments. Later this year, look for some web-based innovations that will offer exciting new ways to associate with other members.

We are fortunate to be a leading association in the legal field, and we owe that to the generations of members before us who came together here in this historic building. When an association reaches a critical mass, it becomes a kind of virtuous circle. Because of our reputation, you want to become a member. Because you become a member, our association grows stronger.

And that brings us full circle to member benefits, because the stronger we become as an organization, the more benefits we can provide to our members at a greater value. So yes, the specific benefits the City Bar provides its members are varied and valuable, but the simple act of joining and participating in this Association is what makes us stronger as a whole, enhances our profession, increases our collective ability to impact society, and benefits us all.

Bret Parker is Executive Director of the New York City Bar Association

 

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In the wake of the arrest of New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver on charges of bribery and corruption, and his subsequent resignation as Speaker, the calls for reforming state government are being heard from all quarters.

Earlier this week, the Governor put forth a five-point reform plan and said he would not pass a budget without it. The new Assembly Speaker, Carl Heastie, pledged to create a more open, transparent and inclusive Assembly. The Joint Commission on Public Ethics (JCOPE), which handles state ethics enforcement together with the Legislative Ethics Commission (LEC), just released a statutorily mandated report proposing several regulatory and legislative changes in order to strengthen its own investigatory and enforcement powers vis-à-vis the Executive, the Legislature and lobbyists. Finally, after repeated urging by the City Bar and others, the Governor promised the imminent appointment of the legally mandated outside panel to review the effectiveness and independence of JCOPE and the LEC, and to recommend ways to strengthen the administration and enforcement of New York’s ethics laws. This review panel was supposed to have been appointed by June 1 of last year.

Taken together, the proposed reforms cover such issues as legislative pay, campaign contribution limits, amendments to the lobbying laws, and enhanced financial disclosures for legislators; in addition, there are structural and other improvements to JCOPE and LEC that the review panel will need to address.

How will all the various strands of reform come together, if at all? We’ve certainly had these moments in the past, where a crisis leads to calls for wholesale reform, which are quickly followed by closed-door negotiations and passage of modest changes in the law. Real reform is often lacking as people simply wait for “the current environment” to change. Some will say this state of affairs is the best we can hope for given that the public is asking those in power to change the rules in a way that benefits the public, but not necessarily those in power. We don’t agree and will set our sights higher in the belief that this time the stars are aligned for true reform.

In addition to the growing chorus of public officials, we are hearing the public, the press and civic organizations call for a meaningful resolution to the decades of reform fits and starts in our political system. The City Bar is calling for the same. Led by our Government Ethics Committee, and following years of reports, public programming and legislative advocacy, we have decided to top our 2015 state legislative agenda with the following:Support efforts to bring about meaningful ethics, rules and campaign finance reform to end Albany’s ‘pay to play’ culture and bring greater transparency to the legislative process.”

The City Bar calls on the Governor and the Legislature to undertake a multi-part reform strategy this session:  first, strengthen existing ethics laws and truly empower the agency that enforces them; second, provide greater transparency in the way the legislative process works; and, third, create a public campaign finance system for all New York elections.

Ethics Reform and JCOPE.  The City Bar has long championed the need for a single independent agency that would be principally responsible for overseeing and enforcing ethics laws for the Executive, the Legislature and lobbyists alike. In 2011, JCOPE was established.  JCOPE is not perfect, and has some significant structural flaws that impact its independence, but its creation was an important first step towards cleaning up Albany. Still, there is much more to be done, as demonstrated by JCOPE’s most recent report.  Indeed, our 2014 report “Hope for JCOPE” included a detailed list of recommendations that could be undertaken immediately – without legislation – in order to strengthen JCOPE. We also made legislative recommendations aimed at increasing JCOPE’s independence, including eliminating the political party component of the special vote requirement for enforcement decisions and adding appointments by the Chief Judge, the Attorney General and the Comptroller.

Making changes to strengthen JCOPE would signal to the public the Governor’s and the Legislature’s true commitment to ethics reform. If JCOPE is given the teeth it needs to truly and independently enforce the ethics law, that would be a vitally important step. JCOPE should be supported by all branches of government, with a structure that guarantees the needed independence and vigor and with adequate resources to guarantee actual enforcement.

In addition, the Governor must make good on his promise to appoint, jointly with the legislative leaders, the statutorily-mandated commission to review JCOPE and the LEC, which we believe should result in reform proposals beyond what has already been proposed. The appointment of the review commission thus would serve to recognize that structural improvements in the State’s enforcement agency and other changes beyond those currently being recommended are essential to building a strong ethical culture in New York State Government.

Lawyer-Legislator Disclosures.  With the arrest of Speaker Silver, questions about the source of outside income and the disclosure of client information by attorney-legislators will continue to be scrutinized by the press and the public. The City Bar reaffirms its belief that, as a general rule, there is no basis for excluding lawyers from the same level of public scrutiny to which other legislators are held.  Current disclosure laws can and should be made even stronger to ensure the public’s confidence in the governing process. Indeed, robust financial-disclosure requirements have applied to legislators, including those who are attorneys, for decades in other states. Such requirements should be guided by the following general principles:

  • The type of information we believe should be disclosed would not in most cases be entitled to protection under either a claim of privilege or confidence, and in any event a system can be designed to address particular situations where the public’s interest in disclosure is outweighed by a client’s interest in secrecy.
  • Exceptions could be made in the unusual circumstance where disclosure of the fact of representation itself is privileged, or where disclosure is likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client.
  • An independent commission should be established to determine whether an exception is warranted in particular cases or whether certain information should be kept confidential in a case of extreme hardship that would not violate the public interest.
  • Following current law, any expanded disclosure requirements should apply prospectively, i.e., only to new clients and new matters for existing clients as of the law’s effective date, and direct that attorney-legislators inform clients in writing of their disclosure obligations under Section 73-A.

Legislative Transparency. It is in the public’s interest to have a legislature that is transparent, deliberative and accountable to the citizens of the state. We encourage both houses to hold public discussions of their operating rules and ways those rules can be improved, in a manner that takes into account the public’s interest in having a legislature that is transparent, deliberative and accountable to the citizens of the state. We urge the adoption of new rules that will:

  • Limit legislators to serving on a maximum of three committees in any given time period.
  • Require committee members to be physically present to have their votes counted.
  • Require that all bills be accompanied by the appropriate fiscal and issue analysis before receiving a vote and that all bills voted out of committee be accompanied by committee reports showing the work of the committee on the bill.
  • Mandate a ‘mark-up’ process for all bills before they are voted out of committee.
  • Explicitly provide each committee with control over its own budget.
  • Institutionalize conference committees, so that when bills addressing the same subject have been passed by both chambers, a conference committee will be convened at the request of the prime sponsor from each chamber or the Speaker and Majority Leader

The City Bar also supports legislation requiring that the proceedings and voting records of committee and session activities conducted by both houses be posted on their websites. It is high time for New Yorkers to be able to follow a bill’s activity online and in a comprehensive way.

Campaign Finance.  The City Bar supports public campaign financing in New York elections. We believe that, as guiding principles, campaign finance reform can best be achieved through:

  • The voluntary public financing of political campaigns at levels designed to attract candidates into the public financing program.
  • Stricter limits on political contributions.
  • Enhanced disclosure of campaign contributions and expenditures.
  • More effective enforcement of campaign financing laws.
  • Curbs on transfers by legislative party committees.
  • Effective regulation of “independent” expenditures on campaigns that are coordinated with a candidate.
  • Stricter controls over the use of funds raised for campaigns.

It will take no less than enactment of this entire platform to restore the public’s confidence in government and its willingness to participate in the political process, and, once and for all, to put an end to the appearance of impropriety that permeates Albany and tarnishes all of its actors, even the good ones.

 

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The New York City Bar Association has released its 2015 New York State Legislative Agenda. This agenda represents only a portion of the dozens of positions generated by our committees over the course of each legislative session. It focuses on issues that are relevant to the current legislative debate or of particular importance to the City Bar, as well as legislative proposals drafted by our committees.

The following are the agenda items for 2015:

  • Support efforts to bring about meaningful ethics, rules and campaign finance reform to end Albany’s “pay to play” culture and bring greater transparency to the legislative process.
  • Support adequate funding for civil legal services.
  • Raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18 years old for all crimes.
  • Modernize New York’s public procurement construction laws to provide public owners with a wider variety of procurement and delivery modes, as necessary and appropriate, to reduce costs, speed delivery and improve quality and safety.
  • Provide state funding to support legal representation of unaccompanied migrant youth.
  • Support access to justice initiatives, including proposals to consolidate the state’s major trial courts and requiring judicial appointments by a commission of lawyers and non-lawyers.
  • Support the Gender Expression Nondiscrimination Act so that gender identity and gender expression are included as protected classes under the New York Human Rights Law.
  • Support the Women’s Equality Act.
  • Extend Temporary Disability Insurance benefits to cover family care leave from the workplace.
  • Support efforts to require the New York State Board of Examiners of Sex Offenders to consult a validated risk instrument when it makes a recommendation to the court regarding the appropriate risk level of a sex offender.
  • Advance City Bar-drafted bill to amend the Arts and Cultural Affairs Law to better protect art authenticators against frivolous lawsuits.
  • Advance City Bar-drafted bill to clarify and expand the category of claimants under the Unjust Conviction and Imprisonment Act so that individuals are not unreasonably or arbitrarily barred from bringing claims.
  • Advance City Bar-drafted legislation to amend the Estates, Powers and Trusts Law related to the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act and to amend the Real Property Tax Law to coordinate the treatment of three types of tax transparent entities eligible for real property tax abatements.

The City Bar’s 2015 New York State Legislative Agenda can be viewed here: http://bit.ly/1Duo9kb

 

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In testimony today before the Advisory Committee on the Uniform Bar Exam, the New York City Bar Association stated its support of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s recommendation to adopt the Uniform Bar Examination (UBE), effective July 2016.

“We believe that adoption of the UBE is an important reform that will significantly enhance opportunities for new lawyers to find employment wherever it is available,” states the testimony as submitted on behalf of the City Bar by Mark C. Morril, Chair of the Association’s Council on the Profession. “We believe that the UBE is correctly focused on testing the competence of the candidate on fundamental legal principles and lawyering skills that are important to entry-level practice. We also believe that adoption of the UBE by New York State will motivate other states to follow suit, thereby further advancing the goal of a more nationwide standard for admission to the bar and increased employment mobility for lawyers.”

The City Bar agrees with the Board of Law Examiners that the New York exam should continue to have a New York component.

Recognizing that moving to the UBE is a major step for New York State, the City Bar stresses the need to be alert for unforeseen consequences and to monitor its implementation in the state by compiling rigorous performance data and reviewing it annually. The City Bar recommends a formal review after three years. One area of concern for the City Bar is regarding the impact of standardized testing on historically disadvantage groups. “While no data suggest that the UBE will have a disparate impact on such groups, New York State must maintain its commitment to ensure that the bar licensing process advances the goal of setting reasonable competency standards without impeding ongoing efforts to increase diversity in the profession,” states the testimony.

As to timing of implementation, “[w]e believe that a July 2016 adoption date provides a reasonable time frame for law schools to make any adjustments to their curriculum they deem advisable and for potential test takers to set their expectations,” the testimony states. “We firmly believe that there should be no further delay beyond 2016 in the implementation of this important reform.”

The City Bar has a long history of involvement and concern with the New York State Bar Exam. Most recently, in 2012, a task force set up by then-City Bar President Carey Dunne and chaired by Morril found that state-specific bar exams significantly limited lawyer mobility at a time when the practice of law is increasingly national and global.

“We believe that adoption of the UBE, with its portable scores, will significantly advance the important interest of lawyer mobility in the nationwide marketplace,” states today’s testimony. “The City Bar believes that the benefits of the UBE will increase as more states follow New York and students can seek out employment opportunities nationwide with confidence that success on the New York State Bar Exam will provide most of what is needed to become licensed in another state.  Conversely, adoption of the UBE also will enable New York employers to more readily draw on a talent pool of new lawyers who have taken the exam elsewhere and can become licensed in New York by successfully completing a readily accessible New York module.”

The testimony may be read here: http://bit.ly/1ynS3XF

 

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Fifty years ago this April, almost a year after the Civil Rights Act went into effect and a few months before the Voting Rights Act became law, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke to an overflow crowd in the Meeting Hall of the New York City Bar Association.

The City Bar was a logical venue for what would be Dr. King’s first speech before a bar association, as it was becoming known for its civil rights advocacy. Two years earlier, in 1963, City Bar President and former Attorney General Herbert Brownell had created the Committee on Civil Rights Under Law, which produced reports on the constitutionality of proposed federal civil rights legislation. That same year, Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke at the City Bar about the legal implications of desegregation efforts while, out on the sidewalk, demonstrators held up signs reading “Impeach Earl Warren.”

“It is common knowledge that I have had a little something to do with lawyers since the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott,” Dr. King told the audience at the City Bar. “I have appeared many times in the criminal courts, I have served time. I guess I could be described as a “notorious litigant” and “frequenter of jails.”

Dr. King went on to describe his “deep and abiding admiration for the legal profession and the tremendous role it has played in the service of the cause with which I have been identified.” He added, “You should be aware, as indeed I am, that the road to freedom is now a highway because lawyers throughout the land, yesterday and today, have helped clear the obstructions, have helped eliminate roadblocks, by their selfless, courageous espousal of difficult and unpopular causes.

As he addressed the legal profession, Dr. King felt compelled to answer the charge, common at the time, that those who advocate civil disobedience are as lawless as the “uncivil disobedience” or lawlessness of the segregationist. He said, “In disobeying such unjust laws, we do so peacefully, openly and nonviolently. Most important, we willingly accept the penalty, whatever it is. But in this way the public comes to reexamine the law in question. In Selma, over 3,ooo Negroes from all walks of life went to jail, suffered brutality and discomfort, so that the nation could reexamine the voting registration laws and find them woefully inadequate. We call it doing witness–you would call it testifying–with our bodies.”

Even as Dr. King lauded the legal profession and the Association for its past work, he urged it to do more, saying, “Standing before you in the House of this Association, whose very cornerstone is an abiding respect for law, I am impelled to wonder who is better qualified to demand an end to this debilitating lawlessness, to better understand the mortal danger to the entire fabric of our democracy when human rights are flaunted.”

Today, one can only imagine the inspiring atmosphere in the Meeting Hall as Dr. King intoned, “The time is now! I do believe that when the thundering voice of your advocacy is insistently heard it will be heeded. It will speed the end of our denial, the end of our discrimination, the end of our second-class citizenship, the end of all inferior education. Yes, it will hasten the end of the whole rotten, ugly system of racial injustice which for 350 years has degraded the doer as well as the victim. If the legal profession would share the passion and action of our time, it has the strength to achieve these magnificent goals.”

Read the entire speech here: http://bit.ly/17jADwY

 

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In a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York State legislative leaders, the New York City Bar Association and Common Cause renewed their call for them to appoint a commission to review the work of JCOPE and the Legislative Ethics Commission, as required by Section 21 of Part A of Chapter 399 of the Laws of 2011.

Section 21 states, “No later than June 1, 2014, the governor and the legislative leaders shall jointly appoint a review commission to review and evaluate the  activities and performance of the joint commission on public ethics and the legislative ethics commission in implementing the provisions of this act. On or before March 1, 2015, the review commission shall report to the governor and the legislature on its review and evaluation which report shall include any administrative and legislative recommendations on strengthening the administration and enforcement of the ethics law in New York state. The  review  commission  shall  be comprised of eight members and the governor  and  the  legislative  leaders  shall  jointly designate a chair from among the members.”

The City Bar previously wrote to the letter’s recipients on the matter in July 2014, but has not received a response as of this date.

“The fresh start of the new legislative session affords the ideal time to appoint the members of the Review Commission, and we urge that such action take place promptly,” states the recent letter, dated January 13, 2015, and sent to Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb and Senate Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

The letter may be read here: http://bit.ly/1uanijv

The July 2014 letter, along with the groups’ “Hope for JCOPE” report, may be read here: http://bit.ly/14XY6qP

 

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As a French major who considered pursuing a career in the Foreign Service before deciding on law school, I was excited to attend the Rentrée, which I would translate as the “Opening of the Paris Bar,” in early December. And, as I complete this column, I am heartbroken and my thoughts are with the people of Paris at this incredibly difficult time.

The Rentrée is an annual event put on by the centuries-old Paris Bar Association that combines continuing legal education with a celebration including bar leaders from around the world. A highlight of the celebration was a rhetoric competition among a dozen recent law graduates who had been chosen for their oral presentation skills, and a nice twist involved the prize: a year of supported pro bono work representing indigent criminal defendants.

I met with solicitors and barristers from the UK. Of concern to them was the recent transfer of lawyer regulation and discipline from the organized bar to government regulators in England. Paris lawyers discipline themselves in a large courtroom in the Palais de Justice, where some 20 of them hear allegations against their fellows. No First Department disciplinary committee for them.

As I walked through the Palais de Justice, I reflected on the growing interconnectedness of the global legal community, and on the part we as City Bar members play in it with all of the international work we do.

In the last several months alone, the City Bar and the City Bar Justice Center have been visited by delegations or individuals from Bangladesh, China, Japan, Malaysia, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Spain seeking insights on how we deal with justice issues for application to their work back home. In November, I welcomed the president of the German Federal Bar Association, along with German government officials, to the German Bar’s exhibit (co-sponsored by the ABA) that we hosted on the persecution of Jewish lawyers and judges during the Nazi era.

With sixteen committees devoted to international affairs, our members must be among the world’s most traveled lawyers. Committee members with global expertise collaborate on reports and programs, often with multiple committees collaborating, each committee bringing its particular knowledge to ensure the end result reflects a rich set of perspectives.

There’s not room in this column to mention all of the great international-themed work that has taken place at the City Bar over the past few months. But as an illustration of how attuned our programming is to the issues of the day, I commend our Committees on Environmental Law, International Environmental Law, and our Task Force on Legal Issues of Climate Adaptation for their program “Leading by Example: State and Local Governments as Catalysts for Action on Climate Change” (co-sponsored by the New York State Bar Association’s Environmental Law Section and the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University).

The program, timed to coincide with the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Summit in September, featured a keynote address by New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who was joined on the program by the director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resiliency; the Director of the California Office of Planning and Research and a Senior Policy Advisor to Governor Jerry Brown; the former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection; and the Mayor of Boulder, Colorado. That same day, the City Bar and the Sabin Center co-hosted a public conversation at the City Bar on climate change with the presidents or prime ministers of seven Pacific Island nations.

The next month, another timely panel covered the issue of the growing numbers of migrants seeking refuge in Europe after escaping the effects of climate change, armed conflicts, religious persecution, and economic adversity. The panel, which featured government officials and academics from Italy, Brazil, and the Seychelles, was a true cross-disciplinary effort, produced by the European Affairs Committee with the European Union Studies Center at the Graduate Center at CUNY and co-sponsored by the Committees on the United Nations, Foreign and Comparative Law, International Human Rights, International Law, Middle East and North Africa, Immigration and Nationality Law, and the Council on International Affairs.

City Bar committees have written letters on a range of human rights and rule of law issues to leaders in China, Uganda, Egypt and Swaziland, among others, and have urged the United States government to use its power to achieve human rights objectives, such as eliminating the use of child soldiers.

The City Bar’s Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice has been tremendously active as well, often working with our committees on various projects. The Committee on International Environmental Law and the Vance Center drafted a letter to the United Nations urging that its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) incorporate ambitious targets and substantial support for the reduction of toxic pollution, a leading cause of death in the developing world. Five Association committees further joined in a letter  urging UN Member States to make governance a stand-alone goal in the Sustainable Development Goals and throughout the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

The Vance Center has also been busy in Brazil, where the Brazilian National Truth Commission presented its final report to that country’s President on December 10th, International Human Rights Day. The report recounts the human rights violations against the Brazilian people during the military dictatorship from 1964 to 1988 and lists hundreds of public officials, including military officers and former presidents, allegedly responsible for them. The Vance Center’s work with civil society and state institutions in Brazil in support of the Truth Commission over the past year included a City Bar program bringing together members of the Truth Commission, the Brazilian government, and NGOs. In addition, the Vance Center organized delegations that made two visits to Guatemala and followed up with reports addressing serious concerns over the country’s justice system and judicial appointment process.

I look forward to seeing all of the international projects our association and others around the world will take on in 2015 and beyond. Here’s to the global bar and the crucial work that lawyers do to improve the world as it continues to get smaller and more interconnected.

Debra L. Raskin is President of the New York City Bar Association

 

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The New York City Bar Legal Referral Service has launched a new websitecitybarlegalreferral.org — designed to make requesting a screened and qualified lawyer simple and worry-free. In addition to the general public, lawyers are encouraged to send family, friends, and potential clients who they cannot help to the website or to call 212-626-7373.

Here’s some of what’s new:

  • If you are using a phone or tablet, the website will automatically reformat and resize to ensure that it is very easy to read and navigate, and will look great no matter what you’re using to browse.
  • A revised Request a Lawyer Referral Form, which makes it even faster and more convenient to get a referral.
  • Improved search functionality to make it easier to find what you are looking for.
  • Success Stories about individuals who found the right lawyer.

In addition, the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service has a new logo, and the site still has in-depth articles on common legal issues and details about all of its services.

“We are excited to make it easier than ever for people to find the right lawyer for their needs, and we will continue to refine and innovate to match the public’s needs,” said George D. Wolff, Executive Director of the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service.

Feedback on the new site and any other suggestions are always welcomed by the New York City Bar Legal Referral Service through their Contact Form.

 

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