When Scott M. Karson sought to become State Bar president beginning June 1, 2020, he never imagined that a deadly virus would turn society upside down and that racism would flare up in such a horrific way.
This prompted Karson to alter his agenda for the year but this ability to adjust, Karson said, is “a necessary component of leadership.”
“I have come to realize that leadership requires that we confront the world as it is, not what we wish it was,” said Karson.
Karson has moved quickly to enable the association to address these societal problems during his first month as president. First, in response to the death of George Floyd while in police custody, he launched the Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Misconduct to develop strategies to combat the repeated incidents of police brutality and inequality in the criminal justice system.
President-elect T. Andrew Brown of Rochester (Brown Hutchinson) and Taa Grays of New York City (MetLife) will co-chair the task force. The task force will engage a diverse team of stakeholders to come to an understanding of why racial bias persists in policing practices, and will provide recommendations to policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary to end policing practices that disproportionately impact persons of color.
The task force will also create and work with advisory groups from around the state, including diverse bar associations.
“By asking and struggling with difficult questions and listening to those who bear witness to and suffer from the consequences of racism, we will learn, and we will act,” said Karson.
Karson, a partner at Lamb & Barnosky in Melville, has also formed three new task forces focused on the impact of COVID-19. The first will take a hard look at the statutory and regulatory framework under which nursing homes and long-term care facilities operate and make recommendations for change where needed.
“Nursing homes and long-term care facilities have become “ground zero” for COVID-19,” said Karson. “In this crisis, these facilities have faced all manner of challenges due to the size and health of their resident populations, their staffing needs, the availability of badly-needed equipment and the availability and utility of testing for both residents and staff.”
Another coronavirus-related task force will review issues of tort and contractual liability, including force majeure clauses, and immunity from such liability.
A third task force will examine the possibility of virtual trials and virtual discovery proceedings. Karson foresees a reluctance on the part of lawyers, litigants, court personnel and jurors to venture out to the courthouse. He said jurors, in particular, might be disinclined to sit in a crowded area while waiting to be called for jury duty, and in a courtroom jury box with six or 12 other strangers, or a crowded jury deliberation room if selected to serve.
“The task force will see if there are ways that we can have virtual trials that relieve jurors from the obligation of having to physically appear in the courthouse,” said Karson.
Karson, a commercial and municipal litigator with a concentration in appellate work, said he expected lawyers and witnesses may have similar concerns over depositions, which are typically held in conference rooms at a lawyer’s office.
Karson said he would also continue several of immediate past president Hank Greenberg’s COVID-19 initiatives, including the Emergency Task Force on Solo and Small Firm Practitioners, led by Domenick Napoletano of Brooklyn and June Castellano of Rochester. The task force remains a vital resource as over one-half of NYSBA members work in solo and small-firm practices and have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.
Also continuing is the Working Group on Reopening Law Firms, led by Marian Rice of Garden City. The group, which Karson said has already provided “a wealth information” to lawyers thus far, will keep working with law firms of all sizes to reopen safely, as law practice restrictions are relaxed.
Lastly, the COVID-19 Pro Bono Network, in partnership with the Unified Court System, will continue its work. To date, the group has established pro bono programs in critical areas such as unemployment insurance benefits, housing and Surrogate’s Court matters. Karson said the list will grow as the need develops.
One initiative that Karson was determined to pursue during his presidency regardless of the circumstances is attorney well-being. The pandemic made it even more important for him.
“In the best of times, being a lawyer is stressful. Rates of mental illness, substance abuse, fatigue and other health issues are higher for those in the law than in any other profession,” said Karson. “Add to that COVID-19, the distractions of working from home and maybe a good dose of cabin fever.”
The Task Force on Attorney Well-Being, co-chaired by Hon. Karen Peters, former presiding justice of the Appellate Division, Third Department, and Saratoga Springs attorney Libby Coreno, will take a holistic and proactive approach, studying mental and physical well-being strategies and formulating recommendations for their implementation throughout New York’s legal community.
Karson said that as the association navigates today’s challenges and those that will arise, he commits fully that “as a leader I will be thoughtful, diligent and dynamic, mindful of the past, concerned about the present and focused on the future.”