City Bar Year in Review – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, June 2015

Having recently reached the midpoint of my two-year tenure as president of the New York City Bar Association, I invite you to look back with me on the remarkable work that has gone on here over the past twelve months. Glancing back fills me with admiration and amazement at the heavy lifting that is done around here by our wonderful committees with help from our staff.

The City Bar issued 191 reports in the past year and conducted approximately 325 non-CLE programs and 120 CLE programs. The work ranged from comments on proposed rules for the Commercial Division, to a brochure advising transgender patients of their healthcare rights, to a 70-page report concerning the rights of young people with disabilities in guardianship proceedings that will be published in a CUNY Law Journal, to up-to-the-minute programs on improving relations between police and the communities they serve.

Here’s a closer look at just a few of the areas where our efforts have been focused over the past year:

Access to Justice

We continue to advocate for increases in funding for civil legal services at all levels of government. In New York City, we have been part of the effort to provide a right to counsel for people facing loss of their homes in Housing Court. We believe providing counsel in these proceedings where tenants cannot afford a lawyer will be cost-effective for the City by reducing expenditures for maintaining the social safety net, including the cost of homeless shelters.

On the State level, we have been a consistent supporter of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s efforts to add up to $100 million in civil legal services funding. We have also supported his pro bono efforts, including the requirement to report pro bono activities, the Pro Bono Scholars program, and facilitating pro bono for in-house counsel. The number of people handling matters in NY courts without a lawyer has dropped from 2.3 to 1.8 million people annually, but that’s still an enormous need not being met.

On the federal level, we again joined with our colleagues at the New York State Bar and with bar associations around the country to urge increased funding for the Legal Services Corporation.

Closer to home, in our Monday Night Law program, over 100 volunteers provide half-hour consultations to dozens of clients each week. The City Bar Justice Center recently started two new projects. In the Legal Assistance for the Self Represented program, staff and volunteers provide limited legal services to self-represented litigants. In the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project (FEDPRO), the Justice Center works with the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York to staff an office in the courthouse with an experienced attorney to provide limited, unbundled legal assistance.


The City Bar Justice Center also is ready to gear up quickly if President Obama’s Executive Order that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to remain legally in the country survives a court challenge.

Our Immigration and Nationality Law Committee has been at the forefront of support for federal legislation that would afford a right to counsel in deportation proceedings for children and the mentally ill. National Economic Research Associates provided us with a study on the costs and benefits of providing legal representation generally in deportation proceedings; the study concluded that the costs of such representation are balanced by the savings generated to government. Again, providing counsel to people in need is not only just but economically wise.

We also have been seeking a fair shake for consumers in debt. Our Civil Court and Consumer Affairs Committees have been working for many years to protect consumers, almost all of whom are unrepresented, from predatory lending and debt collection practices. In the past year we were delighted to see that the New York court system has promulgated rules of the type we have advocated that would inject more fairness into that process. However, there is more work to be done in this area as well.


The City Bar is ramping up its legislative activity, particularly in the State Legislature and City Council. In the past year we issued 93 reports on legislation. Two pieces of legislation we originally drafted in complex areas of law were passed. We achieved a sorely-needed modernization of Articles 1, 7 and 9 of the Uniform Commercial Code, and a clarification and harmonization of New York laws with federal law related to guide, hearing, and service dogs.

We joined in the advocacy effort to add 25 Family Court Judges, the most significant increase in decades. Also with regard to children and families, a half-dozen committees collaborated on a report to raise the age of criminal responsibility in New York from 16 to 18 and there is some hope that the Legislature may act on this. Only New York and North Carolina have not raised the age.

On the ethics reform front, it was the City Bar, in a 2010 report, that made clear that requiring lawyer-legislators to disclose their clients, with limited exceptions, is not unethical. This advocacy led to limited disclosure of clients in the 2011 State ethics reform legislation. After the indictment of Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, we supported the effort to increase client disclosure for lawyer legislators that culminated in passage of additional reforms in this year’s State budget.


The Association continues to project itself internationally on a broad scope, through the 16 committees that focus primarily on international affairs plus the many others that address those issues as part of their mandate.

We communicated with leaders of nations that were depriving lawyers and human rights activists of their due process rights. Among the countries we focused on were China (including Hong Kong, where our letter in support of dissidents was featured in the English-language South China Morning Post), Russia, Nigeria, Uganda, Swaziland and the Democratic Republic of Congo. We have hosted 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. We also held public programs on international topics including climate change, migration in Europe, child soldiers, and pandemic diseases.

Among the great work of our Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice was the publication of a best-practices guide to protecting coral reefs in Latin America, and initiatives to secure marriage equality in Chile, Colombia, and Mexico, as well as an amicus brief with an international perspective to the U.S. Supreme Court on the marriage equality case now pending. 

New Lawyers in a Changing Profession

Led by our Council on the Profession, we have been working to take action based on the findings in the landmark report of our Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession, issued in 2013 under the tireless leadership of my predecessor, Carey Dunne. The first project we launched was our New Lawyers Institute, which provided training, career guidance, and mentoring to 84 graduates from nine area law schools, seven of which were sponsors of the Institute. Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor addressed these new lawyers last month.

The Council on the Profession was in the midst of examining ways to improve the New York bar exam when Chief Judge Lippman proposed that New York adopt the Uniform Bar Exam (UBE). The Council supported this initiative and Council Chair Mark Morril testified and advocated for it before the committee established to study the issue. In his May 5th Law Day address, the Chief Judge announced that New York would institute the UBE as of July 2016. He also announced a procedure for evaluating the exam’s impact on different demographic groups, in a manner we had suggested.

Furthermore, the Council is urging the ABA’s Council on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar to change the rule that prevents the granting of credit to students whose externships are paid.  The current rule effectively prevents law students from getting credit for working in private sector externships, even if such programs meet rigorous academic requirements.


On June 8th, the City Bar held its first annual Diversity & Inclusion Forum, featuring two dozen leaders in the legal profession, including five judges, general counsels from six companies, as well as professors and diversity experts. That program was followed three days later by our sold-out Diversity and Inclusion Celebration Dinner. We have strengthened our relationships with the affinity bars in the City by meeting quarterly with their leaders and providing a discounted City Bar membership rate for their members.

In addition to diversity in the demographic sense, we have also been working to increase practice diversity among our membership, notably by recruiting more in-house members. We held a reception for in-house counsel this fall, tweaked our dues structure to reduce dues for in-house lawyers, and recently met with general counsels in what will be an ongoing effort to attract in-house members and to meet their needs.

Focus on Practice and Lawyer Needs

Much of our committee work continues to focus on improving the practice of law. This past year, these efforts included comments on a wide range of federal and state court rules; a report on categorical privilege logs; a model form of non-disclosure agreement designed for merger transactions; and a model form of contract of sale for a condominium unit. And to flag one additional item, in 2010 our Council on Judicial Administration proposed a state court rule dealing with redacting confidential personal information from court filings. After several years of advocacy and work by the Council and several of our committees, such a rule was finally adopted this year, tracking in good part our initial recommendations.

In our ongoing efforts to support those practicing in our profession, I am pleased to report that our Lawyer Assistance Program, which helps hundreds of lawyers and their families each year with substance abuse and mental health issues, received a grant from the Office of Court Administration to continue its important work.

Ethics and Judiciary

Finally, our Professional Ethics Committee continues to offer its expertise on our ethics hotline, which assists about two dozen New York lawyers a week who call for ethical advice regarding their own prospective conduct. The committee also issued several formal opinions, including on cutting-edge topics like virtual law offices and Internet scams that got wide play in the legal media. And our Judiciary Committee reviewed the qualifications of 80 candidates for appointive or elective judicial office in New York City.

With apologies for all the great work I have neglected to mention here due to space limitations, I would like to thank our members and staff for a great year at the City Bar.