May President’s Message: Meeting the Challenges of Our Times

By Henry M. Greenberg

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Whether defending socialists during the Red Scare of 1920 or protecting lawyers who represented unpopular clients during the McCarthy Era, the New York State Bar Association has been a fearless champion of the rule of law. We continue to lead the way as the nation confronts legal issues of enduring social importance such as same-sex marriage, marijuana legalization, immigration due process and parole reform.

Today, as the state and nation reel from the threat of the coronavirus pandemic, NYSBA is there for our members, for state policymakers and all New Yorkers like never before, because of our technological capacity that is without equal among the organized bar.

Indeed, over the past year, NYSBA has gone through an extraordinary transformation. Last June, we set an ambitious goal: the construction of a Virtual Bar Center. The world and our members were quickly moving from physical to virtual platforms. We therefore had to embrace state of the art technologies to remain a national and global leader.

When we launched the initiative, it was not because of prophetic powers, but the timing served us well. Just a few weeks before COVID-19 struck, our Virtual Bar Center was completed. We overhauled our operating systems by creating a new website, adding state of the art e-commerce technology, enhancing the quality and reach of our communications capacity and digitizing all publications. Attorneys across the street and around the world are now just a click away from accessing NYSBA’s services and benefits.

Thus, when we were forced to close the Bar Center at 1 Elk Street in Albany at 8:00 p.m. on March 22, we seamlessly moved to a remote platform to serve our membership. At the same time, we transformed our website and social media outlets into a clearinghouse of authoritative information from those leading the fight against COVID-19 – not just judges and attorneys but also medical professionals and political leaders, all of whom recognize that trustworthy information is an antidote for these times.

Likewise, responding to a call to service, we set in motion a digitally based pro bono response designed to assist more than one million unemployed and vulnerable New Yorkers suffering from the pandemic.

If that were not enough, on April 4 NYSBA held its first-ever all virtual House of Delegates meeting where 207 members – the highest number in that body’s history – expressed their views and engaged in robust debate without a hitch. Following this success, bar associations around the country have reached out for our guidance.

A Legacy of Leadership

We did not arrive at this moment by accident. It is the product of a storied 143-year history and legacy of leadership. Our members have included U.S. presidents, New York governors, and justices of the U.S. Supreme Court. With 70,000 members, 26 sections and 65 chapters that span the globe, we are the largest and oldest continuously operating voluntary state bar association in the nation.

Beyond the famous names and sheer numbers, NYSBA is one of the most forward-thinking and member-centered volunteer organizations in the world. From our beginnings, NYSBA has been at the forefront of efforts to defend and define the principles of justice and overcome barriers to equal rights for all. On the same day we were created, NYSBA moved to eliminate obstacles to women practicing law in New York. And since then – whether in government, in commerce, in the military, or at local gatherings of concerned citizens – our members have held positions of leadership, influence and responsibility, ever striving to do the public good.

That work has been fundamental and far-reaching. In 1896, NYSBA proposed the first global means for settling disputes among nations through the rule of law. This inspired vision and the relentless effort of our members resulted in the formation of what is now called the Permanent Court of International Justice in The Hague.

In 1950, NYSBA played a critical role in helping Congress create the Uniform Military Code of Justice, the first major revision of laws governing conduct in the military in over 150 years. Following the explosive riot at the Attica Correctional Facility in 1971, we sponsored the creation of legal services organizations to provide civil representation for inmates in New York’s prisons. In 2001, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, thousands of our members provided pro bono assistance to survivors trying to rebuild their lives. And once again, in 2019, our members fought for immigrants who had been separated from their children at the Mexican border and sent to jails in New York to await deportation hearings.

Leading into the Future

All of this, past and present, is but a glimpse of who we are and what we do. It also portends a future in which we continue to serve as a leader of the profession, by adapting to new challenges, in an ever-changing environment.

Change is the new normal in life and the law. The transformations wrought by the pandemic are too vast and rapid to master, but we must try to understand those that directly impact our practices and clients. NYSBA is now perfectly positioned to do this. We have become a nimble technological powerhouse. And that capacity will be indispensable this coming year, as we rise to meet the challenges of COVID-19.

It has been the highest honor of my professional life to serve as president of this great association. I have been blessed with extraordinary support from the officers, executive committee and House of Delegates. We are all fortunate as well to have a world-class staff that is laser focused on NYSBA’s mission. During the pandemic, they have worked around the clock, especially Executive Director Pam McDevitt; General Counsel Kathleen Baxter; Chief Communications Strategist Susan DeSantis; Director of Human Resources Paula Doyle; Director of Marketing Gerard McAvey; Executive Assistant Kimberly McHargue; System Specialist Jessica Patterson; and Senior Director of Continuing Legal Education and Law Practice Management Katherine Suchocki.

You, the members of the association, have given me the most extraordinary gift for which any lawyer could hope. From the very bottom of my heart, I thank you all.

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