Leadership and Service in the Age of COVID-19: A Message From NYSBA’s New President

By Scott M. Karson

Lawyers Are the Guardians of Justice

When I sought the nomination as president-elect of the New York State Bar Association in 2018, and even when I assumed that office in 2019, I could not have imagined that when I became NYSBA’s 123rd president on June 1, 2020, I would do so under the cloud of a pandemic. Indeed, none of us could have imagined the situation in which we all find ourselves today as the result of the coronavirus public health crisis. It has upended our world and every aspect of our lives, and the legal community has not been spared.

But there is one thing that has not changed and will not change: NYSBA will continue to be your professional home and to provide you with valuable information, services and networking opportunities. We will continue our work to shape the laws of New York State. And we will continue to advocate for our profession, the rule of law and equal access to justice.

Addressing the impacts of COVID-19

Right now, however, our top priority is addressing the many difficult issues affecting our members and the New York legal community by reason of COVID-19.

More than half of NYSBA’s members work as solo practitioners or at small firms. Under the leadership of my predecessor, Hank Greenberg, we established the Emergency Task Force for Solo and Small Firm Practitioners in March to assist these attorneys with immediate and long-term needs. The group is chaired by solo practitioners Domenick Napoletano of Brooklyn – NYSBA’s treasurer – and June Castellano of Rochester.

In the short time the task force has been in existence, Domenick, June and task force members have worked diligently and done a phenomenal job. Among its accomplishments, the task force has obtained badly needed clarification from Empire State Development on the scope of restrictions imposed on attorneys during New York’s shutdown. Also, the task force successfully advocated for interim payments to assigned counsel and attorneys for children when cases are not yet concluded, thereby lessening the financial burden on those attorneys.

The task force is providing NYSBA members with practical information on grant programs and communications technology. The group is also tracking issues that concern all small businesses, such as the when and how “New York on Pause” rules will be modified or lifted, the availability of federal grants and loans to lawyers and their clients and proposals for commercial rent or property tax deferrals.

NYSBA has also created a Working Group on Reopening Law Firms, chaired by Marian Rice of Garden City, which is collaborating with representatives of law firms of every size around the state to make recommendations on how to bring lawyers and staff back to their offices safely and efficiently as Gov. Andrew Cuomo eases the stay-at-home restrictions.

Our societal response to COVID-19 has revealed critical issues which demand the attention of our association, including the statutory and regulatory framework under which our state’s nursing homes operate and the question of when liability shall be imposed for injuries alleged to be coronavirus-related. We will study and report on both of these important issues.

COVID-19 has led to major disruptions in the lives and plans of students graduating law school this year, including postponement of the July bar examination and a huge reduction in the number of seats available for the rescheduled dates in September. NYSBA has been working with the court system to ensure that all law school graduates will have a path by which they can start their careers, even if they are delayed in taking the bar exam.

NYSBA continues to offer hundreds of top-quality CLE programs, both live webinars and on-demand programs, all available to you from your computer desktop or other device. The programs cover timely topics relating to COVID-19 and its impact on the legal system, including practical guides for how to handle matters through New York’s virtual courts.

A Range of Impacts on Different Areas of the Law

One of the most ironic twists of the COVID-19 public health crisis is how its impact on lawyers differs dramatically depending on area of law practice. For example, lawyers who concentrate in labor, employment, trusts and estates or insurance issues report that they are swamped with inquiries from clients trying to navigate through the crisis. Litigators who are currently struggling to make progress on cases because courts are limited to “essential” matters only are relatively idle now, but may soon be flooded with work as the crisis eases and clients need to sort out business and personal obligations.

Amid questions about impacts on the economy in the coming weeks and months, real estate attorneys may be facing renegotiated or scuttled deals, while those who deal with divorce and family law may be searching for ways to serve clients who are struggling to make child support payments or adjust visitation schedules.

Taking Better Care of Ourselves

There is one thing that most of us have in common right now: To help limit the spread of COVID-19, the state has required us to stay largely confined to our homes in recent months. Many of us have found ourselves practicing law from our dining room tables, while fending off distractions from family – including dogs, cats and other non-human family members – as well as the television and the refrigerator. Clearly, we all need to be thinking about our own well-being.

Lawyers have never been especially good at taking care of ourselves. Studies have shown rates of mental illness, fatigue, physical health problems, and substance abuse for attorneys that far exceed the national averages for other professions. These problems take a heavy toll on our bodies and our personal lives. It is also vitally important for all of us to recognize that the well-being of attorneys is critical to the effective practice of law, protection of the public trust, and the vibrancy of our profession.

NYSBA has long offered support and services for members struggling with these issues and we will continue to do so. However, my vision for the coming year is for a holistic and even more robust approach to attorney well-being.

To that end, I have established a Task Force on Attorney Well-being, which is co-chaired by Libby Coreno of Saratoga Springs and the Hon. Karen Peters of Woodstock. The task force will encompass nine working groups: Emotional Well-being; Physical Well-being; Substance Abuse and Addiction; Law Culture and Employment; Law Education; Bar Associations; Judiciary and the Courts; Public Trust and Ethics; and Continuing Legal Education. I have charged the group with making recommendations for how we can implement well-being strategies throughout New York’s legal community.

Our Extraordinary Tech Transformation

Thanks in large part to the remarkable vision and hard work of immediate past President Greenberg, NYSBA has undergone an extraordinary technological transformation over the past year. Many of you are already familiar with our new user-friendly website, which is fully integrated with new e-commerce and membership information systems. Along with comprehensive updates to NYSBA’s videoconferencing capabilities, the new site helps make it easier than it has ever been for our members to connect with each other, whether they are around the corner or across the globe.

Over the past couple of months, many of us – including myself – have gone through our own personal tech transformations as well, from learning how to use Skype for Business to make video court appearances to participating in countless Zoom meetings with colleagues, clients and fellow bar leaders.

I have never considered myself especially tech savvy and I still don’t, but I am proud to note that – thanks to training and generous assistance from NYSBA staff – I am the first chair in the history of the association’s House of Delegates to preside over a completely virtual meeting of the House. We debated, voted and accomplished a great deal of business without experiencing any significant technical glitches in the more-than-four-hour gathering, and with 207 participants it was the best-attended HOD meeting ever.

A Commitment to Access to Justice for All

One of the hallmarks of my legal career has been a deep commitment to ensuring access to justice for all. I have often spoken of lawyers as “guardians of justice” because we alone have the skills and licenses that enable us to seek justice for others. Coupled with that is my abiding belief in the importance of voluntary pro bono work. I was a founder of the Suffolk Pro Bono Foundation and I am currently vice chair of the board of directors of Nassau Suffolk Law Services, a provider of free civil legal assistance to Long Island’s indigent population.

I have been pleased to work with NYSBA leadership and the court system to launch a pro bono partnership to help those in need address the many legal issues that have arisen the wake of COVID-19. In the coming year, NYSBA will continue and expand our important work training and deploying pro bono attorneys to provide assistance to New Yorkers who need help securing unemployment benefits through the appeal process, resolving matters relating to housing and eviction, and dealing with other legal issues that arise as result of the pandemic.

We are living in an extraordinary and difficult time, one that should inspire all of us to extend ourselves to do whatever we can to help others. That is why I encourage all of my NYSBA colleagues – including those in leadership positions – to take on some kind of pro bono work in the coming year. To set an example, I pledge to take on a pro bono matter during the year of my presidency.

Perhaps you will sign up for the pro bono partnership described above. You can work with a local legal services provider or other non-profit service organization. Or maybe you can simply share needed legal insights and expertise with a struggling friend or neighbor. Lawyers are consensus builders and problem solvers, and those skills are needed now more than ever.

What It Means To Be a Leader

As Americans, we are blessed with certain inalienable rights. But it has become clear that not all Americans understand that those rights also come with responsibilities. As lawyers, we can and must play an important role in advancing that understanding, and I am pleased that NYSBA will be collaborating with the court system in the coming year on a wide-ranging civics education effort.

Working closely with New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and Associate Judge Michael J. Garcia, we will present a civics convocation in spring 2021 to bring students and educators together with lawyers and judges to explore ways in which to enhance the level of civics education in our state. This will be an ongoing multi-year effort that we expect will also include student trips to courthouses as well as visits to classrooms by judges and lawyers. Our goal is to foster greater awareness of how our laws and our legal system are essential building blocks of our society, and how every New Yorker and every American has a role to play in supporting civil society.

Advancing civics education, working to address the many challenges of COVID-19 for attorneys, volunteering our time and expertise – all of these are elements of leadership. Problem solving and planning for the unknown and the unexpected are part of leadership, too.

It is clear to me that my year as president of NYSBA is not going to be what I planned or envisioned, but that really doesn’t matter now. What does matter is this: I commit to you that I will be a thoughtful, dynamic and diligent advocate and leader as we navigate through the coronavirus public health crisis, advance the interests of NYSBA and our members, and support the rule of law and access to justice.

It is the greatest honor of my professional career to serve you as NYSBA president, and I thank you all for giving me this opportunity. I don’t know what the coming year will bring – none of us do – but I do know that I’m looking forward to working with you all on Zoom, Skype, FaceTime and maybe even in person.

Read the news release about Scott Karson becoming NYSBA’s 123rd president here.

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