Alan Rothstein Will Not Like This Column – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, May 2015

Alan Rothstein will not like this column, because it’s all about him. Actually, he’ll probably hate it because it’s about him at all.

In case you haven’t heard, Alan Rothstein, our General Counsel, is retiring after thirty years at the New York City Bar Association. And what do you think Alan said when we pried a quote out of him for our announcement of his retirement? He said he would miss “the terrific staff” and “the many, many volunteers who completely dispel the notion that lawyers do not give back to their community.”

How very Alan, trying to make it about others. Alan Rothstein would have the world’s lowest score on the Full-of-Himself Index, if there were such an index. It’s hard even to find a photo of Alan because he’s always jumping out of the shot, which is quite the feat since we can’t remember when he hasn’t been at the center of the action around here.

While he’s been a great General Counsel, Alan has been so much more than that. He’s also been an extraordinary general counsel, lower case if you will, and that’s why he’s had such a profound effect on everyone with whom he’s worked. Ask people about Alan and you’ll hear: “He treats everyone the same.” “He always makes time for me no matter how busy he is.” “Alan helped me get it done.” “When he dabbles in my area, he does it better than I do.” “His fingerprints are all over this building.”

Space constraints prohibit a full accounting of Alan’s accomplishments, but any list would have to begin with those blurry days and weeks after 9/11, with the trainings of volunteer lawyers and the clinics for victims’ families. Who would you want rather than Alan to communicate and coordinate with the Mayor’s office and city agencies during a crisis? Talk to people at the City Bar Justice Center who were in the thick of it and they’ll describe Alan at the time, quintessentially, as being both ubiquitous and insistently behind the scenes.

The City Bar has long benefited from Alan’s core passions for civil liberties and good government. In the years following 9/11, quick to recognize the unique historical moment upon us in the tension between national security policy and civil rights, Alan guided the City Bar’s response in creating the Task Force on National Security and the Rule of Law. “He brings together law, policy, and action,” is how a colleague describes what Alan does.

Bravo, but if you’re wondering what makes Alan tick, look not to the high-profile but to the low-profile work. Because if Alan treats everyone the same, he also treats all of the work the same – with excellence, patience, persistence, and any other admirable quality you can think of. After praising everyone else’s work, here’s the other thing Alan said about his retirement: “I have been incredibly lucky to work in an organization of such high integrity that is so focused on serving the legal profession and, to me more significantly, the public interest.”

This, I believe, is the key to Alan’s work ethic. When Alan guides a committee report from conception to completion; or when he nurtures a new department like the Office of Diversity and Inclusion; or when he troubleshoots an issue at the Vance Center, he’s not pushing paper and dealing with people. He’s upholding the rule of law and increasing access to justice. He’s carrying out the mission of the New York City Bar Association and the highest principles of our profession. This mission-imbued approach to office work, this ethic that all the work, even the most prosaic, is important and, if done right, adds up to make a difference, appears to be what makes Alan tick.

Everyone is in a bit of denial about Alan’s leaving. We’ll miss his wise counsel, his puckish humor, and his reassuring presence by the Meeting Hall door. But we’ll be fine, because he showed us what to do and how to do it. Plus we’ll reassign his responsibilities to four colleagues, hire two more lawyers, and mobilize the whole crew that it will take to fill his shoes.

And, if you’re fretting that Alan will be the type of person who doesn’t know what to do with himself in retirement, don’t worry, Alan will be fine, too. He will take a good long break, immerse himself in his next chapter, and then find new ways to do what he’s always done—express his values, exercise his ethical muscles, and make the world a better place—including by serving on a City Bar committee.

And with that, in conclusion, a tip to readers and fair warning to Alan: Following the summer of 2015, when he no longer works here, the next time you see Alan Rothstein at the City Bar, and you will see him, his longstanding no-hug policy will no longer be enforceable.