President’s Message: The Importance of NYSBA as a Global Voice
As one of the world’s most prominent legal organizations, we must wield our influence to defend the rule of law, protect those who are vulnerable to oppression and create a more equitable society, and we must do everything we can to ensure access to justice, equity, inclusion and equality.
We are at a point in history that is replete with uncertainty, with economic upheaval, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has reshaped our world, the deepening political and socio-economic divide, war in Ukraine and the rapid development of the metaverse and the digital economy, which will alter our profession on a grand scale.
In times like these, the rule of law often comes under attack both at home and abroad, and this time is no exception. But the uncertainty we are all feeling also brings opportunity to us as lawyers and bar members – the opportunity to speak out and be a part of the change at home, in the global legal community and in our communities.
We are uniquely positioned to address these issues because we are New York, a legal community that impacts the nation and the world. As the New York State Bar Association, we have the means, voice and experience to lead and engage.
We have influence within our state and we have impact on a local, national and international scale. We are a global organization. We have formal partnerships with bar associations throughout the world and have nearly 1,500 international members in 84 countries. We are New York, and people at home and globally want to know what we are doing and how and why we are doing it. Our voice matters.
During my presidency, we have signed seven memorandums of understanding with seven bar groups worldwide, including the Bar Association of Puerto Rico, The Bar Council of England and Wales, the Bar Association of Serbia, the Law Society of Scotland, the Law Society of England and Wales, the Global Accountability Network and the U.S. Virgin Islands Bar Association.
Our association has not hesitated to tackle issues head on.
Our International Section added a Ukraine chapter, and then launched a task force to assist refugees and displaced lawyers. We called on the United Nations to set up a tribunal to investigate violations of international law there. In fact, we were the first international legal agency to urge the U.N. General Assembly to establish a special tribunal to investigate the crime of aggression against Ukraine, and then, when the American Bar Association adopted our policy as its own in this area, we brought that effort nationally.
That is a mere microcosm of how far our reach extends. I have traveled to Europe and met with bar leaders from around the world several times. I have joined international conversations on the status of the rule of law, access to justice, the status of courts across the world and the virtual practice of law. Each time it opens new doors and opportunities for our association and our members, in addition to raising awareness of the opportunities of membership in a collaboration with the New York State Bar Association.
We have also partnered with the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and Guam bar associations to fight for equality for the people of the U.S. Territories and to eliminate the racism embedded in our society and laws because of the Insular Cases. Our Task Force on the U.S. Territories continues to fight to have these cases overruled. The U.S. Supreme Court and lower courts have relied on the Insular Cases to limit the rights to the people of the U.S. territories since the early 1900s, establishing a second-class citizenship status and promoting racism.
Our House of Delegates approved a resolution declaring that residents in the U.S. territories should be afforded the same rights as those in the 50 states. We presented this resolution to the American Bar Association where it was adopted as policy as well. We have helped to educate on the fact that this is a national issue.
We are also addressing the growing mental health crisis within our own profession.
We have launched a Task Force on Mental Health and Trauma Informed Representation that is focusing on the intersection between the growing mental health crisis in the state and its impact on the public as well as criminal and civil justice systems. Individuals living with mental illness and/or trauma are often incarcerated or housed in hospital emergency rooms instead of in settings that have the resources to provide them with the care they need. Making this issue the topic of the Presidential Summit at our 2023 Annual Meeting displayed the importance of these issues and raised awareness about this very serious problem.
In addition, we have established a 24/7 hotline for attorneys in need of support, and our Committee on Attorney Well- Being has developed programming to support our members on the importance of self-care.
We have filed a lawsuit against the state seeking a statewide pay rate of $164 an hour for assigned counsel. If successful it will ensure that 18-B attorneys in the 57 counties outside of New York City will be compensated the same as those court-appointed attorneys within the city. This will increase the number of attorneys who are able to take on this work and prevent children and indigent adults from being deprived of their constitutional rights to meaningful and effective representation in the criminal and family courts.
With the exception of New York City, where assigned counsel have recently been granted a pay raise by court order, pay for 18-B attorneys has remained at $60 per hour for misdemeanors and $75 for felonies since 2004 in the rest of the state. By comparison, assigned counsel rates in the federal courts of New York in those same years have been raised 14 times to the current rate of $164 per hour.
We have fought against additional bail reform in the wake of the proposed bail reform rollbacks that Gov. Hochul has included in her 2023–24 proposed state budget. These changes would likely force more New Yorkers, particularly people of color, to be incarcerated and for longer periods simply because they lack the financial means to afford bail.
The association continues to protect the legal profession in many ways and keep its members informed. It is addressing the ethical and legal implications of corporations using facial recognition software to ban their adversaries – including all attorneys who work for a firm that sues them – from entering sports and entertainment venues.
Our Executive Committee has launched a Working Group on Facial Recognition Technology and Access to Legal Representation that will explore the impact of this technology on access to justice and our members’ ability to represent clients without fear of retribution.
In the wake of our state’s struggle to confirm our next chief judge, I have formed a Special Committee to Evaluate the Selection Process for the Court of Appeals. It is imperative that our judiciary remains independent, respected and strong.
After the governor signed into law new requirements for notary publics that have significant effect on the legal community, we immediately developed CLE programming to educate our members on these changes and formed a special to study their true impact with the intention to effect change and protect lawyers.
This is vital work.
In addition, our association is uniquely positioned to have an impact internationally. Our voice is part of the discussion on how virtual practice will impact the profession worldwide.
The Task Force on Emerging Digital Finance and Currency is hard at work educating our legal community in New York, across the nation and the world. It has put the New York State Bar Association at the forefront of the discussions regarding regulations, ethical considerations and Web3’s impact on the practice of law. It is exploring opportunities for bar associations to engage in and use Web3 technology to teach and provide opportunities to our association and its members. Our sections have also embraced this new ever-changing technology and continue to produce excellent programming to educate lawyers on how to handle matters involving digital assets, digital currency and non-fungible tokens.
The benefits of New York law and courts have made it a go-to place for worldwide commercial contracts. Businesses throughout the world look to our state because it offers among the most sophisticated set of rules covering a wide range of business transactions from collaborations and partnerships to joint ventures.
We are thus positioned to forge change.
We must continue to move forward to help those facing the atrocities of war and oppression, to address quickly evolving technology and to reinforce our position as a voice and ally to the international legal and business communities.
Our stake in safeguarding access to justice for everyone never dissipates. We live in a moment that is rife with issues that can appear to be overwhelming. Conversely, these issues present us with the opportunity to have an indelible impact on our profession and the rule of law itself.
Our association is at its best when it uses its collective voice to weigh in on topics. We learn from each other by exposing ourselves to new approaches toward resolutions. We possess a robust voice that is heard because of our influence, prestige, geographic position and worldwide memberships and partnerships.
We have confronted numerous issues that have demanded our attention. We should be proud of our work and what we have accomplished. However, there is always more that must be done. We must continue to forge a path and express our voice to impact change on these important issues.