How the City Bar Spent the Summer – Bret Parker

By Bret Parker, Executive Director

Things usually slow down for the City Bar during the summer. Not so this year! On the contrary, it was the busiest summer many of us who work here can remember.

While we closed the House of the Association on March 19 for everyone’s safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re pleased to say that, thanks to the tremendous work of our committees and staff, we have hardly missed a beat.

As most City Bar staff work remotely, our members have been interacting and networking virtually, and continuing to take advantage of many of our member benefits. Our Virtual Law Firm numbers are growing, and many members are utilizing the resources available with our Small Law Firm Center and remote library access.

We have moved all of our programming and CLEs online to a virtual platform. Since March, we have offered over 70 CLEs with another 50 scheduled from now until the end of the year. Attendance is actually up significantly compared to our pre-pandemic live programming.

Over 40 CLE programs have been held in response to changes caused by the pandemic. Committees like the Labor and Employment Law Committee and Compliance Committee have organized a series of CLE programs on the effect of the pandemic on business.

Many of the programs have focused on the small firms and solo practitioners who have been deeply affected by the pandemic. With many attorneys seeing their businesses affected while also experiencing tremendous isolation, the Small Law Firm Center and Small Law Firm Committee have offered weekly chats for small and solo practitioners to come together, share experiences with peers, exchange ideas and support one another.

Despite beginning her term at a computer monitor with a virtual backdrop of the Great Hall behind her, City Bar President Sheila S. Boston has brought her extraordinary skills and energy to all of our efforts. Watch her video outlining her six priorities for her term, and read her call to civic duty and getting out the vote.

The City Bar’s Lawyer Assistance Program has also provided critical support to the legal profession. As just one example, LAP has reached out to new lawyers struggling with uncertainty and increased stress, offering programs and group support. The Mindfulness and Well-Being Committee has also been active in supporting the profession during these turbulent times, offering weekly programming to support well-being and launching a Mindfulness and Well-Being Took Kit.

The New Lawyer Institute, which is sponsored by all the area law schools and some from beyond, quickly transformed its curriculum to respond to the unimaginable situation new graduates found themselves in with the bar exam uncertain and many job offers being deferred or withdrawn. And the Council on the Profession brought together six area law school deans to address how law schools are adapting in the short term and how the new hybrid formats will affect learning, extra-curricular activities and exams.

The City Bar Justice Center has been a leader in helping small businesses in New York City during the pandemic. In fact, the Justice Center is the go-to destination for 311 referrals of small businesses seeking help on matters like accessing the federal government’s stimulus package and other programs. One thousand small businesses have been helped so far by over 900 pro bono volunteers. The Justice Center also launched a program to provide free legal assistance to New York City front-line health care workers in preparing life-planning documents, and ramped up its Legal Hotline to handle the flood of inquiries related to the pandemic. And the New York Times recently mentioned the Justice Center’s report on lack of Wi-Fi access for students in homeless shelters. #WiFi4Homeless

Our committees have been extremely active in responding to the pandemic and its many implications on the profession, the court system and the people they serve. To date, 40 reports and statements have been issued related to the pandemic, covering topics such as administering the 2020 bar exam, reopening criminal court, immigration, tax-related issues, time limits for the service of legal actions, and recommending a moratorium on debt collection. Several of our committees have produced pandemic-related podcasts as well. For all of the City Bar’s ongoing work in response to the pandemic, including upcoming programs, please visit this webpage.

At the same time, our committees have also kept their focus on other pressing issues. With the renewed focus on policing and racial justice, the City Bar has continued its work to support a fair, equitable and anti-racist criminal justice system. A broad spectrum of committees, led by the Civil Rights and Criminal Courts Committee, supported efforts in the State Legislature to repeal Civil Rights Law 50-a, which will increase transparency around police misconduct in an effort to hold law enforcement more accountable to the communities they serve. In July, the City Bar’s President moderated a discussion on The Policing of Black and Brown Bodies, with former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other law enforcement experts. And in September, the Committees on Civil Rights; Corrections and Community Reentry; Criminal Courts; Criminal Justice Operations; and Pro Bono and Legal Services authored a report arguing that substantial and systemic change is the only acceptable response to address abusive and sometimes deadly force by police officers, and offering recommendations to city and state leaders on reforms. The City Bar intends to play a continuing role in convening and facilitating these conversations, as well as to offer policy recommendations when appropriate. Our Criminal Justice, Police Reform and Civil Rights webpage features more information about all of our efforts in this area.

The Task Force on the Rule of Law, often in conjunction with the Task Force on the Independence of Lawyers and Judges and other committees, has reacted to a number of actions taken by the Trump Administration in recent months that have violated our nation’s rule of law framework. Topics include protecting the independence of the Federal Inspector General Offices; the conduct of the Attorney General in removing the U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York; the decision to use federal forces to handle protests in Lafayette Square and Portland, and changes at the U.S. Postal Service that could have adverse impacts on voting by mail, among others. The Task Force is currently putting on a five-part forum on threats to the rule of law.

Speaking of upholding the rule of law and equity in our justice system, in September we honored Assistant U.S. Attorneys in the Eastern and Southern Districts of New York with the Henry L. Stimson Medal for demonstrating integrity, fairness, courage and commitment to the public interest. Watch the ceremony, including the keynote address by former U.S. Attorney for the S.D.N.Y. Robert B. Fiske, Jr., here. And Lawyers for Reporters, a collaboration between the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice and the Press Freedom Defense Fund, was formed to provide pro bono legal support for public-interest journalism in the U.S. to foster civic awareness, government accountability and democratic engagement.

At a time when it’s easy to feel isolated and anxious, the City Bar can provide a sense of community and connection. Joining a committee and participating in the meaningful work of issuing reports and producing programs can provide a satisfying sense of purpose, as can giving back by doing pro bono through the City Bar Justice Center or the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, or volunteering to help diversify the legal profession through our Office for Diversity and Inclusion (whose 2020 Diversity & Inclusion Champion Awards Celebration is next Thursday).

I would be remiss before closing if I didn’t mention the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, because of how much she meant to the City Bar, to the legal profession and to the nation over the past half century. Early this year, to mark the Association’s 150th anniversary, Justice Ginsburg gave us this video message. In February, our Entertainment Committee honored Justice Ginsburg at its Twelfth Night show. And during the recent “Women in the Law” program, which consisted of the content and panels from the planned Second Circuit Judicial Conference where Justice Ginsburg would speak each year, a number of the judges, attorneys and others spoke about Justice Ginsburg and what is sure to be her lasting legacy. Video is here.

As we head into the fall season, we have reopened the building on a limited, appointment-only basis. (More information on that is here.) That said, we expect to continue operating on a remote basis until the tide is turned on the pandemic.

Thanks, more than ever, to our members for their commitment, participation and continued support.