In-House in the House of the Association – Debra L. Raskin

Debra L. Raskin

President’s Column, April 2015

One of my goals during my presidency of the New York City Bar Association is to ensure and strengthen its “big tent” diversity, which means diversity not just in demographic terms but with respect to our members’ practices. If our committees and program panels are effective, one big reason is that they are made up of a true cross-section of the legal community. We recently adjusted our dues structure to encourage more lawyers doing different types of legal work to join our association.

I think the in-house perspective has never been more critical to the success of a bar association. The 2013 report by our Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession found that one of the important changes the legal profession is undergoing is a shift of resources in-house. A 2012 survey showed that over 80% of companies planned to maintain or increase their legal staff who in many cases “will do work that associates used to do.” And as more companies are realizing that they can hire talented attorneys to work exclusively and cost-effectively for them as employees, more attorneys are deciding to trade rainmaking expectations for an exciting and varied role at a single client where there is a guarantee of new matters every day.

We recognize that in-house lawyers have not been as large a cohort of our membership as we would like. We need to change the perception of the value that in-house counsel receive for being part of this Association. That’s why in-house counsel is one of the categories we lowered dues for, and why, last year, I asked City Bar Vice President Nancy Louden (Senior Vice President and Deputy General Counsel at Estee Lauder) to lead an effort to increase our focus on in-house counsel. It’s also auspicious that Bret Parker, our Executive Director, was previously Vice President and Associate General Counsel at Elizabeth Arden. Ms. Arden’s loss was our gain, not only for Bret’s management skills but for his comprehensive understanding of and connections in the world of in-house legal practice.

Today we’re providing a greater number of programs targeted to inside counsel, and we’re seeing more in-house lawyers get involved in committee work and pro bono. IBM, which was honored earlier this month with the annual City Bar Justice Award for its commitment to pro bono and access to justice, is a great example. While in-house counsel generally used to partner with their law firm counterparts on pro bono, we’re seeing more and more in-house lawyers at companies like IBM take on pro bono cases themselves.

The City Bar has launched an annual in-house counsel reception, which last year included a free ethics CLE featuring New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman as one of the speakers. Throughout the year we have roundtables and other programs geared specifically toward General Counsels and other in-house staff.

It is also important to have in-house lawyers actively participate in our committees.  Committee work is the heart of the Association, and that’s where our legal and public policy positions are established. It is essential that in-house counsel be at the table, and that their perspectives are reflected in shaping those policies, which are then articulated on a local, national, and international level. 

On the CLE front, people wonder why in-house counsel would want to come to the City Bar for CLE when the firms are tripping over themselves to provide it for free. The firms do provide great educational opportunities, but here at the City Bar our programs are intended for a broad audience and are presented with expert speakers with diverse viewpoints. Participate in a networking break during one of the City Bar’s CLE programs and you might find yourself chatting with attorneys from multiple firms, judges, prosecutors, and other government officials, as well as your counterparts at companies all around the city.  And, we are providing an increasing number of CLE courses for free to members.

If you’re an in-house attorney, now is the perfect time to get involved, as we’re adding members to committees, planning programs, and developing activities for the fall.  And if you’re not an in-house counsel, now is the perfect time to get involved and meet all of these interesting in-house counsel attending City Bar events. Wherever you practice, we look forward to working with you and trust that you will find a lot that is both useful and fun at the City Bar.