Q&A: Debra L. Raskin, President, New York City Bar Association

On May 20th, 2014, following the annual meeting of the New York City Bar Association, Debra L. Raskin became the Association’s 66th President. Since 1988, Raskin has been a partner at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, P.C., which specializes in representing employees in labor and employment law matters. Prior to that, she was a New York State Assistant Attorney General in the Civil Rights Bureau. After receiving her law degree from Yale, she worked at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago for four years and clerked for Hon. Lee P. Gagliardi of the United States District Court, SDNY. At the City Bar, Raskin has been Chair of the Executive Committee and of the Labor and Employment Law Committee. When and why did you join the New York City Bar Association, and what were those first years like for you? The short answer is I joined the City Bar to work on issues that I cared about. It was the early 90s, and I was surprised one day to get a call from someone recruiting me for the Civil Rights Committee. It was a fantastic committee, led by Sidney Rosdeitcher. There was a huge range of issues, including as I recall some involving Handschu—the case concerning what police can do in connection with demonstrations. I was awed by the breadth of experience of the people on the committee and the amount of work they put into the written products. And then I became head of the Labor and Employment Committee, which is my bread and butter area. That position offered me a unique opportunity to take the long view in my field. You’ve also been Chair of the Executive Committee, so you know the City Bar well, but do you have any fresh impressions coming in as President? I’ve really enjoyed meeting with the committee chairs, because the range of what this place does is extraordinary, including in some areas of the law I barely knew existed. The charm of the committees is they bring together people with often very different points of view, different agendas. The mandate to leave your clients at the door and think on a different level just gets your brain working. To give one example, members of the Patents Committee are thinking about logical requirements in the law so that inventors can be more productive but that would not discourage companies from investing R&D money. The committee works to resolve the tensions between those goals. On the Civil Rights Committee, you had less of that kind of disagreement because there was more of a uniformity of views. In contrast, on the Labor and Employment Committee, it’s a balancing act of doing something positive with various constituencies who I won’t say are natural enemies but who tend to be on the opposite sides of issues. From that conflict and divergence of interests, the committee works to produce something that’s socially useful. And I think that’s a challenge that a lot of committees have. The goal, I think, is a fair process where the wheels of justice don’t grind quite so slowly, a goal that benefits all of us. What do you foresee as your priorities as President over the next two years, and how do you think your background and experience might inspire your tenure? I’ll certainly be focused on those issues we put under the heading of Access to Justice. Chief Judge Lippman has forced us to confront the question of pro bono, to think about it and how we as a profession should be handling it, and exactly what our obligations are as a profession, as lawyers, to the larger community. But beyond the question of hours and reporting and the like (which are important but are really more about us as lawyers than about the clients who require our services), what do we do about the fact that many areas where there’s a pro bono need are areas requiring specialization? As a former legal services lawyer, I have a view that those are areas of substantive knowledge as much as antitrust or defamation or anything else. So how do you take a corporate lawyer and parachute him or her into a welfare hearing or an unemployment hearing? The City Bar Justice Center has a great model for accomplishing that, as does Monday Night Law in a different way. Then there are the legal needs of moderate income people, as well highlighted by my predecessor, Carey Dunne, in the Task Force on New Lawyers he launched. There are some intriguing ideas for pilot programs that came out of the Task Force that we hope to bring to fruition. In sum, the City Bar can be an excellent lab for exploring different ways to increase access to justice. For our members, and our profession, I’m interested in the “Big Tent” aspect of the Association. We do lots of high-profile initiatives supported by our big-firm members, but there’s also been an increased focus here recently on developing programs designed specifically for in-house counsel, which I think is great. One of the things I’ve learned, in particular from being on the Executive Committee, is how much the City Bar does for small firm lawyers and solos, and also for plaintiff side counsel, who may have very different interests from large firms that typically represent corporations. Through CLE and the Small Law Firm Center and the relevant committees, the City Bar provides an amazing array of services. And coming from a small firm and, many millions of years ago, from civil legal services work when I was in Chicago, I do want the City Bar to develop programs to help attorneys no matter what kind of practice they’re in, to help them be more professional and operate better on limited resources. Leadership is an area I’m very interested in. We want to enhance the opportunities for our members to take on leadership positions within the Association. This will help people not just to advance within the City Bar but also can provide training and networking experience that lawyers need for their “day jobs.” I think one of the things lawyers often miss by not being in a large firm is a clear path to leadership, so I’d like to give some thought to how the City Bar can provide the skills and the structure for solos and small-firm lawyers who want to advance as leaders in the profession. Finally, the New York City Bar Association has been a steady presence through an extraordinary amount of societal change since its founding in 1870. Any thoughts on the City Bar’s relevance moving forward in a fast-changing world? As long as society has lawyers, there’s going to be a need for lawyers to be educated, a need for lawyers to contribute to the community. When people ask me what we do here, I tell them, well, among other things, we train thousands of lawyers to deal with 911, or with the legal needs resulting from Hurricane Sandy. If not us, who would do it? The need for public service, for training lawyers so that they’re better equipped, for educating the general public or educating governmental entities, is not going away. And, you know, justice is an elusive goal, so we need to work hard at keeping it front and center. Making the world a better place is really what we’re about.