Justice Barbara Kapnick Reflects on her Life and Career
Justice Barbara R. Kapnick, Appellate Division, First Department, has been a long-time member of the New York State Bar Association and chaired the association’s Judicial Section during the early days of the pandemic. She talked recently to the Bar Journal about her life and career.
Q: What advice would you give to new lawyers?
A: I would say to new lawyers ‘You shouldn’t be looking to spend your whole life working virtually. I know it’s very convenient, but lawyers should try to get into the office a few times a week because you don’t get to meet people on Zoom even if you do get to look at them. When we’re in the office or see each other at a bar association, we interact; we sit down for lunch; we sit down for a drink. I think that’s something that younger people are going to find out when it’s too late that they missed the boat on. It’s important to find mentors as you start out your career.
Q: What did you learn from the pandemic about the importance of bar associations?
A: I have always been a big proponent of bar associations since my very early days when my mentor, the judge for whom I worked, said ‘Come to this bar association dinner with me.’ I said, ‘Well, I don’t know anybody.’ She said, ‘It’s OK, I know everybody.’ So, I went with her, and I recognized a couple people from court and started to talk to them, and some people invited me to sit with them and by the next time I went to the bar association, I knew a lot more people and a lot more people the next time, and it was like a domino effect.
As a judge in the New York State court system, the New York State Bar Association is relevant to the work that I do. It’s important to join the New York State Bar Association because they have lawyers from all over the state and they cover every area of practice. If you’re going to be in this profession, you want to know what’s going on. So, to isolate yourself doesn’t make sense.
Q: What were your proudest accomplishments when you were chair of the New York State Bar Association’s Judicial Section during the pandemic?
A: It was an absolute honor to be the chair of the Judicial Section although obviously the biggest disappointment was that everything had to be done virtually. But because everything was virtual, people were anxious to know what was going on and so we had very good turnouts at the meetings. We tried to all share experiences, and it became more important than ever to be able to do that, so I think we became a good sounding board for everybody. We were also asked to weigh in on certain legislation and rules that we might not ordinarily have been.
Q: Why did you decide to become a judge?
A: I worked at a law firm and one of the women at the firm became a judge. When I was finishing up law school, I talked to her and she said, ‘I have a really great woman judge who’s going to need a law clerk and I think you’d be great.’ She introduced me and we hit it off and she hired me, and I figured I would stay for a couple years. After two years, I was loving it and I thought I was efficient in the courtroom, I was writing well, I had a good sense of how to move things along and so I stayed. Sadly, the judge had a recurrence of cancer and ultimately passed away. But I decided to continue. I went to work for another judge, Michael Dontzin, who was terrific and became a wonderful mentor and a friend. Many years later, when I decided I would apply to be a judge, it wasn’t because I had a really strong political background that I was selected but because I had been so active in bar associations. The screening panels have people from different bar associations. So, a lot of people knew me or had seen me in court and thought I would do a good job and I was recommended.
Q: What has your career as a judge been like?
A: On my first day, the phone rang, and the chief clerk of the Civil Court said, ‘We would never ask a new judge to do this, but you know how to run a courtroom. The judge in the big motion part called in sick and we don’t have anybody else’. I said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ So, I put on my robe and the court officer said, ‘All rise. Special Term, Part One, is now in session, the Honorable’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Who the heck are you?’ I didn’t have a name plate. I didn’t have my stamp. They threw me in the first minute and I’ve been working hard ever since. Now, 30 years later, I still really love what I do.