Barbara Berger Opotowsky – by Carey R. Dunne

“The Association is an extraordinarily complicated institution. Even a two-year term does not enable presidents to master its intricacies,” Michael Cooper said recently. Mike was president of the New York City Bar Association from 1998 to 2000, and I had reached out to him and some other former City Bar presidents for their thoughts on our outgoing Executive Director, Barbara Berger Opotowsky. As someone who we all agree has “mastered the intricacies” in her fifteen years here, Barbara belongs to everyone who has worked with her, or more aptly, we belong to her.

“Barbara has been the soul of this great Association for the past fifteen years,” said Barry Kamins, who was City Bar president from 2006 to 2008. “As the City Bar’s true guardian, she has led with charm, poise and a staggering amount of energy.”

Indeed. Think of the changes that have taken place in society and the legal profession between 1997, when Barbara began her tenure, and today, and the skill set required to keep an organization founded in 1870 relevant and true to its mission.

“Barbara took great care to ensure that the City Bar remained committed to commenting on the critical legal problems of the day and taking steps to effect needed changes in the profession and the judiciary,” said Michael Cardozo, President from 1996 to 1998, referring to one of the City Bar’s core public functions. On issue after issue, Barbara’s leadership has enabled the City Bar to keep its voice in the public dialogue, as after 9/11 when we spoke out on civil liberties, and over the years on issues like government ethics reform and international human rights, and recently in the movement toward marriage equality.

Perhaps Barbara’s greatest legacy will be in the fruitful interplay between the City Bar’s policy work and the practice of lawyers on the ground. It’s easier to call on the legal profession to commit to doing more pro bono work when you’re walking the walk by providing twenty million dollars worth of pro bono legal services annually, as the City Bar Justice Center does with the help of its volunteer partners. Under Barbara’s watch, the Justice Center was “rebranded,” its staff more than doubled and its funding increased six-fold. Anyone can speak out on issues related to 9/11, or call for Temporary Protected Status for Haitians following the earthquake in Haiti, or advocate for immigration reform. But there is more moral force behind the calls, and a more receptive audience, when you’ve mobilized over 3,000 lawyers to provide legal services to the victims within days of the 9/11 attacks, and run clinics for New York’s Haitian residents and for immigrant kids seeking a path to citizenship. These kinds of efforts are what keep the City Bar vital, responsive and of the moment, and Barbara’s fingerprints are all over them.

As one of the founders of the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, Barbara has been key in transporting the best ideas of the City Bar and the best practices of the Justice Center—including the very concept of pro bono legal services—around the globe. Closer to home, Barbara’s strong commitment to increasing diversity in the legal profession has been manifest in the Statement of Diversity Principles signed by over 120 law firms and corporations, our annual benchmarking surveys, the creation of a Diversity Champion Award, and in the rapidly growing student pipeline programs she has nurtured. And she deserves an enormous amount of credit for navigating the Association through the Great Recession and the sea change going on in the legal profession. Under Barbara’s leadership, services to our members—including in career development and networking programs, along with our Small Law Firm Center—have expanded greatly.

“And during all of this she kept her extraordinary sense of humor,” said Michael Cardozo, while Michael Cooper talked about Barbara’s “infectious joy with which she has gone about her work.” If you’ve met Barbara, even briefly, you know exactly what they’re talking about.

“Astonishing.” That’s one of Barbara’s favorite words. She uses it as praise, as in “amazing” or “wonderful.” Barbara Berger Opotowsky is astonishing. As Barry Kamins said, “Presidents come and go, but there is only one Barbara.”

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