What the City Bar Means to People – Bret Parker

Bret I. Parker

Fall 2018

“Entering this building in the forties and fifties, when we were still heady from having defeated the world’s tyrants, the fluted pillars seemed to whisper, ‘liberty, equality and justice for all.’”

So said Judge Jack B. Weinstein in 2008 in his Benjamin N. Cardozo Lecture at the New York City Bar Association. It’s one of many comments people have made about the City Bar that I have been moved to collect. The City Bar has meant so many things to so many people over its history, and it’s inspiring to hear what people think about this place in their own words.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, upon receiving the City Bar’s Association Medal in 2013, said, “The City Bar Association is first among the lawyers’ associations in which I have participated. I joined in ancient days…and I remain a member to this day. I served first on the foreign law committee from 1966 until 1969, then on the post-admissions legal education committee from 1970 to 1974, on the Executive Committee from 1974 to ‘78. After that, the Sex and Law Committee, and, just before I got my first good job in Washington, D.C., on the Civil Rights Committee. Affiliation with the City Bar has enriched and enhanced my lawyering and law teaching days, a reward enough I would say. All the same, receipt of the City Bar’s award is spiritlifting. I will keep it in chambers for all who visit to see.”

Those familiar with our Great Hall know that a portrait of Justice Ginsburg has long held the spot directly opposite the podium, and the portrait that was there was recently temporarily replaced with her magnificent official Supreme Court portrait for safekeeping while the Court undergoes renovations. At the City Bar’s annual Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg Distinguished Lecture on Women and the Law last spring, Justice Ginsburg said, “As an official portrait, it will not be transported back from here to the Court until I am no longer part of this world. And as I am trying very hard to stay fit, I anticipate that the City Bar will possess that portrait for a fair number of years.”

I think the late Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist would not have argued with Justice Ginsburg’s assessment of the City Bar’s place among bar associations, because in his remarks here upon receiving Honorary Membership in 1999, he said, “This Association has long occupied a high place in the hierarchy of bar associations in this country, and I consider it a privilege to hold an honorary membership in it.”

When Justice Stephen Breyer spoke at the Conference of World City Bar Leaders, hosted by the City Bar in 2001, it was just weeks after 9/11. Discarding his planned remarks, he instead described his visit to the World Trade Center site two weeks earlier, including how moved he was by the memorials and the tireless efforts of the relief workers, police, and firefighters, and he expressed his confidence that “they and we will re-create order out of devastation and chaos.” Then he said, “Being here at an event sponsored by the Bar Association of the City of New York is also an honor. This Association has always served both the profession and the public. It helped during the Civil Rights struggle. It helped during Vietnam. It helped in the aftermath of TWA’s flight 800 disaster. It is helping today, most recently by providing the services of nearly 2,500 lawyers to help the victims of September 11….The Association is, as Roscoe Pound once said of the legal profession itself, characterized by a ‘spirit of public service.’”

In 2005, before she joined the Supreme Court and while Dean of Harvard Law School, Justice Elena Kagan delivered the City Bar’s Leslie H. Arps Memorial Lecture on “Women and the Legal Profession: A Status Report.” In her remarks, she said, “For years, this Association has done groundbreaking work aimed at expanding access for women and minorities,” and she lauded the City Bar for its leadership “in providing guidance on this issue to law firms and corporate law departments” and for launching its Office for Diversity.

Just recently, upon receiving Honorary Membership in the Association, Loretta Lynch began her acceptance remarks by saying “It is so good to be home.” That reminded me of what Justice Sonia Sotomayor said here a few years ago: “It is always wonderful for me to be home. And New York City is home, as has been, and was for me, for many years, this House.”

We hear this a lot, this theme of the City Bar as a “home” or a “second home.” And as Judge Weinstein said, the ‘House’ of this home, on 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues for the last 122 years of this association’s 148-year existence, has a certain effect on visitors. In his keynote speech at the City Bar’s 2018 White Collar Crime Institute, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said, “The last time I was in this majestic building was about 15 years ago. I was working in the Department’s tax division, and I was here for a seminar on tax law, and I had the opportunity to visit this building, which I think is a fitting monument to the rule of law.”

I think Judge Weinstein would be the first to tell you he might not have walked past these majestic pillars if not for the mentorship of Judge Stanley Fuld, for whom he clerked. “[H]e suggested that I join this Association,” Weinstein recalled, adding, “Here I was taught the rule for the lawyer who wants to live an exciting and fruitful professional life: Seek the opportunities for public service, almost always the most satisfying aspect of a legal career.”

More than 50 years later, former Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson, in his recent address at our Public Affairs Luncheon, appealed for more of this bar association mentorship, saying, “I hope that those of us who are active in the New York City Bar dedicate ourselves to recruiting young people, because I believe this is the best bar association in the whole country – right here, at this place.”

When I consider all of the extraordinary law students, lawyers, and judges who have boosted their careers and launched their public service by serving on City Bar committees and networking within these walls, I look at the young members I see here on a daily basis in a new light. I wonder which of them – and I know there will be some – will be among the leaders of our profession ten, twenty, or thirty years from now.

Bret Parker is Executive Director of the New York City Bar Association.