NYSBA’s First Virtual President: How What We Learned in the Pandemic Will Shape the Association’s Future

By Scott Karson

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When I assumed the presidency of the New York State Bar Association last June, we were roughly three months into the coronavirus pandemic that has fundamentally changed the way our association, our profession – and the world at large – operates.

At that time, I had no way of knowing how long this disruption would last. In fact, by June the pandemic had already lasted longer than I had imagined it would. I have a vivid memory of that day in March 2020 when my law office closed pursuant to the governor’s executive order and I naively told my colleagues at the firm that we’d be back in the office within a week! I never considered the possibility that, one year later, I would hold the distinction of being the association’s first all-virtual president in its 144-year history.

What I did know was that everything I thought my leadership of the association would entail in the months leading up to my presidency would be drastically different. But while uncertainty has plagued us all throughout the pandemic, one thing remained certain: NYSBA was resilient and well-prepared. Now, as we contemplate the association’s future, what we learned during the pandemic will help lead us to the next chapter, which will combine this new reality with the best of our traditional bar association ideals. The decisions we will have to make going forward are of the utmost importance as we strive to make sure that the good work we do benefits the majority of our members.

First, allow me to take a brief look back at the past year before elaborating on the future.

My term started in unprecedented fashion when I was afforded the unique and unforgettable privilege of being installed as president via Zoom by New York’s distinguished Chief Judge Janet DiFiore. That honor was repeated several weeks later when I was virtually installed once again, this time by Senior Associate Judge Jenny Rivera during the June 2020 meeting of our House of Delegates.

Zoom meetings, as we all know, became the norm. While you have heard me lament that nothing replaces the collegiality and camaraderie of an in-person NYSBA event, the association has experienced record-setting attendance for its virtual House of Delegates meetings and for the two-week all virtual Annual Meeting in late January 2021. Also, NYSBA’s continuing legal education programs have continued to attract members to engaging and informative webinars, many of them helping lawyers stay updated on COVID-19 and its impact on their practice.

It has also been wonderful to see such a positive reaction to the association’s message in the public sphere. I have attempted to maintain the association’s focus on its bedrock principle, adherence to the rule of law, particularly in my statements to the media, which have covered a broad range of subjects, including criticism of unlawful conduct on the part of governments, assailing recurring incidents of gun violence and criticizing unwarranted attacks on the members of our profession for simply doing their jobs.

Undoubtedly, my most memorable media moment came when I was interviewed for an NBC News New York televised report pertaining to the horrific Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The association strongly condemned the violence and launched an inquiry pursuant to the association’s bylaws to determine whether former President Donald Trump’s counsel, Rudolph Giuliani, should be removed from the membership rolls of the association for his involvement in the riot. Our statement received over one million views just on NYSBA’s website alone.

A week after the riot, NYSBA’s involvement in the most pressing national issues continued unabated. Members of the NYSBA Task Force on the Presidential Election were explaining impeachment to hundreds of lawyers only 90 minutes after the House voted for impeachment. All election season, the chair, veteran election lawyer Jerry Goldfeder, and task force members helped journalists understand election controversies as soon as they arose.

NYSBA’s message on the pandemic also generated widespread media attention, especially after NYSBA’s Health Law Section recommended that New York consider mandating a COVID-19 vaccine once a scientific consensus emerged that it was safe, effective and necessary.
NYSBA’s recommendations struck a balance between government’s responsibility to protect the majority of New Yorkers and safeguarding personal freedoms prescribed by the Constitution. A story on the recommendation in the New York Law Journal was the publication’s best read story for months, demonstrating how influential NYSBA has become.

Another major accomplishment of my tenure was passage of the law NYSBA advanced to simplify the power of attorney form in New York. When the law was signed in December, it represented the collective work of many years of NYSBA leadership, and I am proud that it became law during my watch.

NYSBA also made history in November when the LGBTQ Law Section was launched. The group was converted from a committee to a section, which gives all NYSBA members the opportunity to participate. Established in 2008, the Committee on LGBTQ People and the Law served as a critical voice for members of the LGBTQ community and its allies. It was the work of that committee that led me on behalf of NYSBA to file an amicus brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, arguing that a religious organization with a government contract cannot prevent same-sex couples from becoming foster parents.

When I began my term as president, I encouraged all my colleagues – from seasoned lawyers and leaders of the bar to newly admitted lawyers – to take on pro bono work in the coming year, particularly during this time when there are so many people truly in need of help. You stepped up and answered the call.

In fact, during Chief Judge DiFiore’s “State of Our Judiciary” address, she said New Yorkers “owe a debt of gratitude” for the generous pro bono service provided by thousands of lawyers and law firms. She then highlighted the work of NYSBA’s COVID-19 Pro Bono Recovery Task Force. The task force – implemented by Immediate Past President Hank Greenberg last year when the pandemic began and continued during my term – has recruited over 1,000 pro bono lawyers to assist New Yorkers with various pandemic-related legal problems, including in the Surrogate’s courts to provide free legal assistance in probate matters to individuals and families who lost loved ones to COVID-19.

While I am so proud of our achievements, it is also important to recognize what more needs to be done. The Task Force on Attorney Well-Being – whose work became even more important after the pandemic hit, given the impact it has had on our mental and physical health – will be releasing a comprehensive report later this year. Just as important, an in-depth survey conducted by the task force will provide the most comprehensive data on lawyer well-being ever gathered in New York. The report of this task force will be a game changer for attorney well-being in New York and serve as a model for the rest of the country.

Another task force is investigating why a disproportionate number of residents died from COVID-19 in nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the state. The task force will recommend regulatory and statutory changes to prevent such loss of life from ever happening again, an issue of the utmost significance given the loss of life from COVID-19 in New York’s nursing homes. And a third task force is examining issues of tort and contractual liability, as well as immunity from such liability.

Unrelated to COVID-19 but also vitally important is the work of our Task Force on Racial Injustice and Police Reform. Created in the aftermath of the horrific murder of George Floyd while in police custody, this task force remains hard at work to understand the issues that contribute to police misconduct and to provide recommendations to policymakers, law enforcement and the judiciary to end harmful policing practices that disproportionately impact persons of color.

My presidency has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, virtual though it was. We demonstrated once again how vital the work is that the bar association does supporting our most sacred ideals, the rule of law and democracy itself. But we cannot take for granted that such worthwhile endeavors will continue in perpetuity unless we do what it takes to remain financially viable.

That is why it may be necessary to leave One Elk when the lease expires if the New York Bar Foundation, which owns the building, does not present the association with a proposal that meaningfully addresses the necessary repairs, renovations and costs to the association.

I hope you will take the time to read the article I have written explaining why we must seriously consider moving. Under our current lease, staying at One Elk will cost the association $18 million over the next decade, more than double what it would cost the association to rent only the space it needs in Albany. In addition, the estimated cost of making necessary repairs and renovations to the building will be $4.8 million over the next three years.

During the pandemic, most of the association’s staff worked remotely, and we found that their ability to more easily balance work and family responsibilities made them more productive than ever. We were only using half of the 60,000 square feet of space at the Bar Center before the pandemic and anticipate that we will need much less of it when we return. Allowing remote work makes the association attractive to employees beyond the Capital Region and gives us the ability to tap expertise from all over the country, all while increasing diversity.

With so many of our members congregated in and around New York City, and at other urban centers across our great state, many lawyers have never stepped foot in the Bar Center. That is why we must redirect the money we’re spending to operate One Elk to pursuits that will benefit more of our 70,000 members.

On a personal note, I have been privileged to serve alongside a group of incredibly talented and hard-working officers, including President-Elect T. Andrew Brown, Secretary Sherry Levin Wallach, who will become president-elect in June, Treasurer Domenick Napoletano and Immediate Past President Hank Greenberg. Their continuing leadership will serve our association and its members well. I also want to express my gratitude to the association’s dedicated staff, led by Executive Director Pamela McDevitt, for their unwavering service to NYSBA during these unprecedented times.

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