Investing in the Future of Our Profession
I feel exceptionally privileged and prepared to lead this association as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic facing an unexpected reality. Our entire system of justice was affected, which required us to pivot quickly to a whole new way of practicing law. Teams, Zoom and other virtual platforms became our new courtrooms and law offices. Constitutional rights were “paused” as we the lawyers, judges and service providers scrambled to find our way and protect our clients.
I spent the first few months of the shutdown working on applications for compassionate or early release from jail and prison for my clients. Each day, I witnessed firsthand the struggle lawyers faced in adjusting to new rules and orders while also giving our clients the attention they required. Through my work at the Legal Aid Society of Westchester County, I witnessed the disparate impact that the pandemic and “pause” had on those charged with crimes or living in lower socioeconomic communities. Even more disheartening was that Black and Brown people were getting sick, dying and losing their homes and employment at a much higher rate than others in the community. So many were paralyzed by fear and were panicking.
Our society’s mental health crisis came to the forefront with a new vengeance. The added stresses and emotional turmoil that the pandemic brought to everyone’s lives were particularly difficult for people living with mental illness and preexisting trauma. For many others, the pandemic forced mental illness and trauma to the surface. Attorneys were no exception to this struggle. Support services were either limited, virtual or unavailable. So many could not access treatment or even evaluations to understand what was happening to them. Although the pandemic has subsided, this crisis persists. We must make services to support attorney well-being and understanding of how to better serve our clients living with mental health challenges and trauma a priority for our profession and legal community.
It was during this unimaginable and stressful time that I was able to find camaraderie, support, comfort and understanding among my colleagues and friends at the New York State Bar Association and other professional and bar groups. We banded together to do all we could to ensure that we stood true to our purpose to support each other as lawyers and judges, to protect the rule of law and to be sure that our ever-changing legal system provided access to justice for all.
As lawyers and the courts pivoted to virtual practice, virtual law offices and virtual client communications, the New York State Bar Association was ready and able to support this new technocentric world. Our meetings went virtual, hybrid and then virtual again, but we remained strong and committed. NYSBA was a vital professional support system for me, countless members, attorneys and judges during this challenging time. We had constant programing and meetings to learn about our new digital and virtual world and to support attorney wellness. The NYSBA took this opportunity to further develop our wellness program by adopting a groundbreaking report on well-being and then expanding our services to offer four free counseling sessions.
I have been a New York State Bar Association member for more than two decades. I have had the fortune of being mentored by some of our organization’s greats and I’ve worked with our sections and sat on committees that took on issues critical to our profession. I have engaged with colleagues who imparted exceptional wisdom and allowed me to see the organization’s impact on access to justice and the rule of law throughout our state, nation and world. As it did during the COVID-19 pandemic, NYSBA has served as a guiding light in my career and a platform for us to speak out and make change. It has allowed me to continue to mentor the lawyers of our future and contribute to the future of our profession. It is a relationship that is part of my identity as a lawyer and woman in the law.
One of my goals as president of the New York State Bar Association is to share my experience and the value of membership with as many lawyers as not only I can personally reach but that the association can reach. The more diverse our membership grows and the more attorneys and judges that we reach, the more perspectives, talent and expertise we have to develop better informed polices and opinions on issues that face our profession and our clients. We have all witnessed through the darkness of the pandemic how support from fellow lawyers can sustain us, give us hope and allow us to see that the challenges we face are not insurmountable.
This organization has been an invaluable resource, a source of friendship, collegiality and guidance for my entire career, and I wish to facilitate that same experience for our entire membership.
As such, I want our members to know who I am and how I plan to guide the association into the future.
I plan to lead us with an eye to the future of our profession while knowing that the New York State Bar Association must address the needs of lawyers from all backgrounds and at all stages of their careers. What we have in common, though, is more important than what divides us. I believe that our membership is dedicated to the pursuit of justice, the rule of law and a profound commitment to serve the public good.
To ensure NYSBA stays on the cutting edge of our profession, I have appointed a Task Force on the Modernization of Criminal Practice, which will look to evaluate sentencing, treatment and diversion programs, fairness, access to justice, technology and efficiency in the administration of criminal justice.
The mental health crisis must be addressed, and we must revisit our abilities and resources to provide adequate representation for those living with trauma and mental illness. It has once again been brought to the forefront of so many critical societal discussions, and I have created the Task Force on Mental Health and Trauma Impacted Representation to evaluate how our legal system can better support people and provide attorneys representing clients living with mental illness and trauma the necessary tools and resources to best represent them. Attorney well-being is also directly impacted by the stress and difficulty of this work.
Also, with an eye to the cutting edge, I have launched a Task Force on Emerging Digital Currency to educate, develop best practices for lawyering in this field and worldwide, and evaluate existing regulations and the need for further regulation both on a state and national level. You can read more about the work of this task force later in this issue in the column by Hilary Jochmans, NYSBA’s policy director.
I have also created a task force on an issue that is very dear to me and has been the focus for some of my most respected colleagues. This is the Task Force on the U.S. Territories. It will examine the relationship between the United States and its territories as it relates to the Insular Cases, current U.S. Supreme Court decisions, citizenship, voting rights, political representation and social services. It will look at how these factors have created a second-class citizenship for residents of the U.S. territories and suggest what needs to be done to be sure all U.S. citizens are equal under the law.
While these task forces do their work, I want to hear from members about how NYSBA can better serve and how, in my role as president, I can guide the legal profession toward a better future. Those of you who already know me know I will not back down from a challenge. I never hesitate to stand up for my people. To those of you who do not know me, it is time we changed that. We will have plenty of opportunities this year as our organization continues to move out from under the pall of the pandemic and advances its important work as the vital authority for legal expertise in New York State, the nation and the globe.