Q&A with City Bar President Roger Juan Maldonado

Roger Juan Maldonado

President’s Column, May 2018

On May 15, 2018, following the Annual Meeting of the New York City Bar Association, Roger Juan Maldonado became the Association’s 68th President. He is a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell, LLP, where he represents musicians, publishers and record labels in litigation involving copyright and contractual matters, and corporate and commercial institutions in litigation on claims arising from software development/license disputes, lease agreements and contract disputes. He also represents students in federal class actions involving special education services. At the City Bar, he has served as a Vice President and member of the Executive Committee, and as Chair of the Task Force on Puerto Rico, the Council on Judicial Administration, the Task Force on International Legal Services, the Task Force on Housing Court, and the Housing Court Committee.

How did you become involved with the City Bar and what has membership meant to you over the years in your various roles here?
I was at South Brooklyn Legal Services in the late eighties as the Director of the Housing Unit, and the Project Director thought it would be a good idea for me to join the City Bar and to become a member of the Housing Court Committee. So I joined the committee and found it very interesting, and two years later I was asked to chair the committee. The committee had pro landlord and pro tenant attorneys and housing court judges, and we came up with a proposal that everyone agreed made sense. I found that process fascinating. You have all these people with diverse interests coming up with something that they thought should happen. After that experience, I was asked to serve on other committees, including the Executive Committee, as well as to chair the Council on Judicial Administration and the Task Force on Puerto Rico. I currently serve as the City Bar’s designated representative on the New York Community Trust Board, which also has been a very informative experience. My involvement with different committees focusing on different issues helped broaden my understanding of what is going on in the legal community, here and outside New York, and what needs to be done to better serve our clients and our communities. It’s one of the things I’ve enjoyed about being a City Bar member – it focuses on the needs and interests of the communities within which our members live and work, and those communities – here and abroad – with which we interact.

What’s your reaction to being the first City Bar President of Hispanic heritage, and is it a point of pride for you or for others?
Personally, I have to say that I feel incredibly privileged to be able to serve as President of the City Bar, without regard to the fact that I’m the first Hispanic City Bar President. I do know from other attorneys and family members who are Hispanic that they take great pride in the fact that the City Bar has recognized me to be the President, and the fact that they know that it is important to me through the work that the City Bar does to ensure that, among the people who we will be serving, are the residents of Puerto Rico who are going through a very hard time right now, and the many Hispanic immigrants who, for many years, the City Bar has sought to serve and which, through my term as president, whose circumstances we will continue to focus on. It’s not that I – because I am the first Hispanic president – will do more on these issues; it just gives me an ability to work on these issues that are of great importance to me. I just see it as a wonderful opportunity for which I am thankful.

What sets the City Bar apart from other bar associations? How can membership help a lawyer’s career?
What’s unique is our committee structure, including the task forces and all the various entities that are doing wonderful work here at the City Bar, that are driven by the volunteers who form those committees, who spend a lot of time researching, writing and organizing work product and programs that are presented not just to other lawyers, but to many other people within the larger community. Being an active committee member and chairing a committee can help you get leadership opportunities in your firm or organization. The City Bar has helped advance my career in another way: through all the meetings I’ve convened and presided over, I’m really good at meetings! In certain of my cases and client matters, right now it’s all negotiation – we’re not in court – and everything depends on how the meeting goes. It’s an important skill to have. What’s also unique is our wonderful building, which is a great venue for uses beyond meetings. I’ve had several friends who’ve said, “You’ve got to make it fun, especially for younger lawyers, who are so pressed for time.” That’s why I’m glad to see we have activities such as Game Night, Bar@theBar, and the various functions that are designed to bring people together to enjoy the company of others here.

Are there particular areas you see yourself inclined to focus on from the “bully pulpit”?
Every single current and former City Bar president whom I’ve spoken with has made clear that, without regard to whatever agenda I may think I want to push, there will be a requirement to respond to the issues of the day as they arise. Secondly, the more I learn about the work being done by the City Bar, the broader the areas of my own personal interest become. I’ve been very happy to learn that so much of what is important to me is actually already being focused on by the City Bar. With that preface, I want to see the City Bar continue to engage outwardly with other legal organizations to ensure that the rule of law in society operates as it should, and to engage non-legal institutions on exactly how the rule of law works; and if it’s not adhered to, to make plain that there are consequences that are borne, not just by those who are immediately left out of whatever the benefit or the right is, but by the larger society. We must continue to work with these institutions, both here and abroad, to ensure that the rule of law operates to serve the interests of all members of our diverse communities, and not just the interests of those who have the independent means to access the courts or petition government. It’s important that we continue to work with all stakeholders who have a role in ensuring access to justice and those who need it, those who can help provide it, and those who can help procure the right to counsel. We must not lose sight of the fact that – and this goes back to our roots – one of the key means by which meaningful access to justice is secured is by having an independent judiciary. It does you no good to get in front of a court if the court has already tilted the scales based on whatever influences may be exerted on the court. This is a message that the City Bar has for years communicated abroad, but it’s also one that’s important for us to communicate here, both in New York and the rest of the United States. And when the City Bar engages actively in those issues we expect to arise, such as immigration, access to justice, and maintaining or securing essential rights or needs, the goal will be to identify who within society is already working on these issues, and identify who else can. Then we will encourage the committees and task forces not just to think about what can be done, but to articulate it to the outside world, whether it’s through a report or amicus brief, or through a conference, and then to work with the rest of our communities to see that whatever it is we think needs to be done, or needs to change, actually happens.

Roger Juan Maldonado is President of the New York City Bar Association