President’s Message: Alleviating Barriers To Expand Access to Legal Representation

By Richard Lewis

July 7, 2023

President’s Message: Alleviating Barriers To Expand Access to Legal Representation


By Richard Lewis

The opportunity to serve as the 126th president of the New York State Bar Association is the highest honor of my professional career. It is the culmination of all my work for this association, from my service as Executive Committee liaison to the Task Force on Rural Justice to chairing the Uniform Court Rules Committee and leading the Task Force on Notarization as well as my work at my local bar association and my presidency of the Broome County Bar Association.

I view the next 12 months as an opportunity for our association to tackle issues that are important to us individually as attorneys and for the profession itself. Most of them do not have easy solutions, which is why we need to address them head on.

I don’t have all the answers to removing these hurdles, which is why I need you to use your voice.

I assure you that my door – at least virtually – will always be open, and I urge you to contact me. I want to hear from you whether you are practicing in Manhattan or Malone. The strength and success of our association rests on your participation. Your time, expertise and input are invaluable, especially when it comes to the impediments that stand in the way of your ability to help your clients.

The aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic has further embedded technology into our everyday professional and personal lives. This technology has had a profound impact on how we conduct our business, but unfortunately it has not alleviated all the daily barriers we face serving our clients and trying to expand access to legal representation.

That is why “Standing Up for the Practice of Law” is the theme of my presidency.

Its overarching goal is to enable the New York State Bar Association to provide our members with the resources and support they require to perform their jobs in the most productive manner possible. Those resources include the tools and training that are necessary for our members to operate in an expanding digital environment so we may have a stronger impact on our clients and communities, while continuing to grow and expand our influence.

However, again, I need your feedback to help facilitate that.

I encourage you to alert us to the inefficiencies and redundancies that prohibit you from serving your clients and being as effective as you can in their representation.

I understand that it isn’t always easy to speak out.

However, the future of our profession and our ability to confront issues are dependent upon the willingness and ability of attorneys to step forward when we believe the rule of law is under attack. We need to listen to each other and respect differences of opinion so that we may increase our influence through a constructive and civil dialogue.

We face enormous issues as a profession and as a society, from hate crimes to homelessness and everything in between. Our ability to move ahead in addressing these challenges is largely dependent on our ability to listen to each other, even if we disagree, or perhaps especially if we disagree.

To begin that discourse, I am launching three task forces: Homelessness and the Law, Medical Aid in Dying and Anti-Semitic and Anti-Asian Hate in response to a significant increase in hate crimes targeting Jews and Asians throughout the nation and the world.

Regarding homelessness, we see it every day of our lives, on the news or walking through our hometowns. Most of us, at one time or another, have averted our eyes, but we need to do the opposite and see the problem more clearly. By working to ease homelessness, we also address outcomes related to it such as domestic violence, mental illness, alcoholism, drug addiction and the challenges our veterans face.

We have a lot to be proud of at the New York State Bar Association.

One of the biggest assets we have is our diversity. Our diverse thoughts, our diverse backgrounds, our diverse political views. That’s what makes us effective. And that’s why we have the ability to represent everyone – from the solo practitioner to government attorneys to Big Law. We need to embrace that diversity and appreciate the issues that confront our colleagues who may be dealing with an overwhelming caseload if they take assigned counsel cases or may simply need better internet access.

We also have access to the most influential individuals and institutions throughout the state and the nation.

We possess the means to bring issues to the table whether it be to the executive, legislative or judicial branch. We can speak to our legislators and governor as the most powerful attorney lobbying group in the state, and we can speak to the chief judge or to the Office of Court Administration because of the respect we have cultivated throughout our proud history.

Looking back, one of the things I quickly learned during my law school days in Chicago, and in my early days as a general practitioner, is that being a lawyer is hard work, and there is no reason to make it any harder. It’s like one of my hobbies: playing hockey. Skating around in circles might look like progress, but it makes no sense when the goal is right in front of you.

The same can be said for practicing law; we need to stop skating in proverbial circles.

We can start by streamlining redundancies. Only about 33% of our time is spent on billable hours, according to the 2022 Clio Legal Trends Report, which is an improvement from the previous year, although far from optimal.

We need a more efficient court system that operates in a way that is best for the bar, the bench and all litigants. We cannot do that without better broadband access, easier to use e-filing systems, training for court employees and, most of all, honest and frequent communication.

To that end, I have established the Committee on Law Practice and Court Rules to address inefficiencies and procedural impediments that impact lawyers. The committee’s mission will be to identify and evaluate barriers, to monitor proposed amendments to court rules and, ultimately, to make recommendations to our Executive Committee.

Still, there cannot be access to justice if individuals lack representation.

This is a mounting crisis that must be addressed at both the state and federal levels. As a proud upstater who returned home to the Southern Tier to practice after earning my law degree in a big city outside the state, this is personal for me. As members of the New York State Bar Association, we have an obligation to help rectify this shortage by encouraging our political leaders, both state and federal, to incentivize young lawyers to practice in less populated areas and underserved areas.

Civics education is also an issue that is critical to the long-term success of our organization, our state and our nation. We need to educate our children and the public about the power and importance of democracy. We as a bar association, and in collaboration with other bar associations, should highlight the importance of informing the next generation of voters that the best way to maintain the rule of law is to better understand it. Our democracy depends on it.

We have a duty to mentor the next generation and help them reach their incredible potential. That is why we are planning on holding a civics symposium next May which will include judges from all levels, attorneys, teachers and students.

Leading up to that, I will spend my presidential tenure aiming to remove the impediments that interfere with your ability to perform your job in the best manner possible. I assure you that the work I have done with the New York State Bar Association is what has inspired me and continues to motivate me to do even more.

I will close with this thought. I would not be here today if not for the dedication and leadership of the 125 presidents of this organization who have come before me. They are all role models who have set high standards. I am humbled to be included in this group of venerable leaders and am honored that you have entrusted me to be in their company.

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