A Global Voice for Justice

A 150th Anniversary Feature

By Alexander Papachristou
Executive Director, Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice

The essence of the New York City Bar Association is engagement, and throughout its history its members have engaged with the issues of the day wherever they arise across the world. This activism in global causes has found expression in 18 committees dedicated to international issues and, since 2002, in the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice.

The Vance Center brings together the concerns and the practices of its eponymous former Association president and former U.S. Secretary of State, Cyrus R. Vance, Sr., and many other leaders and members of the Association: an active commitment to international human rights and the rule of law through pro bono collaboration of lawyers in private practice, civil society, and academia.

Cy Vance, Sr. pioneered human rights as a goal of U.S. foreign policy in the Carter Administration and continued this moral diplomacy as United Nations peacemaker in Cyprus, Macedonia, and South Africa. Within the United States, he played a central role in the founding of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Volunteers of Legal Services, and other initiatives to redress the country’s moral and social shortcomings. He advocated for all lawyers to give Saturday to pro bono work, reflecting his commitment to public service as a cornerstone of the legal profession.

On Vance, Sr.’s death in 2001, his family, friends, and former colleagues, including United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, established the Vance Center at the Association, both in tribute and in determination to pursue his international engagement. Simpson Thacher, his longtime law firm, provided a foundational financial commitment, since joined by 30 other major law firms and their partners serving on the Vance Center Committee.

The founding of the Vance Center coincided with intellectual and policy developments at the Association. President Michael A. Cooper (1998-2000)
convened a conference and authored an influential article in The Record of the Association, calling on lawyers to extend their pro bono practice internationally, much as the U.S. legal profession had expanded across the globe. President Evan Davis (2000-2002) traveled to South Africa to assess how U.S. lawyers could advance that country’s transition from apartheid to Nelson Mandela’s vision of a democratic, multiracial society. Joan Vermeulen, the Vance Center’s founding executive director, brought these streams together and launched broad, sustained programmatic engagement by the New York legal community on issues of international justice. The Vance Center over the years has worked closely with the Association’s Committees on International Human Rights, Inter-American
Affairs, and African Affairs, and with its Office for Diversity and Inclusion.

The Vance Center’s cultivation of pro bono practice first took root in Latin America and now has spread to sub-Saharan Africa and into Europe. In 2001, lawyers in Buenos Aires invited members of the Association’s Inter-American Affairs Committee to confer with them on pro bono practice. Latin American lawyers, from studies and work in the United States, had learned of the growing importance of this practice to U.S. law firms’ recruitment, retention, and training of associates, as well as the public and client recognition that it gave. From this conference came the Vance Center’s Latin American pro bono initiatives. At a 2005 conference in New York City, lawyers from Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Peru, and the United States launched the drafting of the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas, a commitment of law firm and other signatories that each lawyer give at least 20 hours of pro bono service annually; more than 560 signatories today represent approximately 10,000 lawyers. By 2016, 14 organizations across South and Central America formed the Pro Bono Network of the Americas. Another major Vance Center initiative in Latin America, with chapters in 19 countries, modeled itself on the Association’s pioneering Women in the Legal Profession program, aimed at promoting gender equity among lawyers.

The Vance Center’s initial engagement in Africa responded to the scarcity of South African lawyers of color (whom apartheid had excluded) in private law firms and corporations. The South African Legal Fellows Program brought young, promising lawyers of color to work at New York City law firms and corporate legal departments for up to a year, to gain international experience and contacts. Over 50 alumni, now successful in law firms, companies, and government, collaborate in mentoring high school, university students, and new lawyers from similar backgrounds, so that they can participate in the program or comparable activities. In
2016, the Vance Center expanded the geographic scope of the program to include lawyers from Kenya, Nigeria, and Ethiopia in the renamed African
Legal Fellows Program. With support from the U.S. Agency for International Development in 2018, the program included Power Africa Legal Fellows who concentrate in energy project finance, to further the U.S. government’s goal of increasing electrification in sub-Saharan Africa. The Vance Center underwent institutional and programmatic expansion starting in 2012. From a three-person team, the staff has grown to ten, and the Vance Center Committee includes 41 members from 31 law firms, as well as corporations and the public and nonprofit sectors. These law firms and Committee members have provided most of the tripling of funding to today’s annual budget of $1 million, along with grants from the Tinker, Ford, Open Society, and Novo Foundations and the Chubb Rule of Law Fund.

The pro bono representation program has provided a novel methodology and powerful impact: While continuing to promote pro bono practice internationally, the Vance Center has evolved into a pro bono public interest law firm serving international, national, and local human rights, environmental, and investigative journalism organizations, working alongside more than 175 law firms from most countries in the world in an innovative co-counseling model. The human rights program focuses on women’s and LGBT rights, transitional justice, and international justice and has launched initiatives on women’s incarceration and business and human rights. The environment program has supported global responses to the climate crisis, as well as environmental defenders, and worked to preserve rivers and the resources of indigenous communities. In response to the U.S. immigration crisis, the Keep Families Together initiative has provided immigrant children and families separated by detention policies with pro bono legal counsel in their home countries to coordinate with their U.S. lawyers.

The breadth and number of exciting projects and initiatives of the Vance Center exceed the parameters of this summary. As it advances global justice by engaging lawyers across borders to support civil society and an ethically active legal profession, the Vance Center continues to fulfill the vision and example of Cyrus R. Vance, Sr. and his fellow Association presidents.