Profiles in Leadership: Dick Lewis, NYSBA President, 2023-2024
The New York State Bar Association Committee on Leadership Development is profiling the association’s leaders in a series of articles that will appear on the website. In each profile, we examine the path they took to become a leader, the mentors that inspired them and the beliefs that made them successful. We hope these interviews will encourage all members of all backgrounds to pursue positions in leadership. This profile features NYSBA President Richard C. Lewis.
Q: What made you become involved and stay with NYSBA?
A: I’ve been a member of the New York State Bar Association since I passed the Bar Exam. When I was a young lawyer, it was expected that all attorneys would join the local and state bars. When I became president of the Broome County Bar Association, I was asked to speak at a leadership conference in Albany about some successful programs we had run. While there, I wandered around for a while, and I came upon one program that really moved me. It was a mock substance use intervention – a process with which I had no familiarity. I found it to be so well done that I investigated other programs put on by the state bar association and was awed by the excellence of those programs. Since that time, I have been very committed to NYSBA.
Q: Which past or present NYSBA leader inspires you and why?
A: I think the most important part of leadership is listening. It’s important to listen especially to the people with whom you may disagree, and to listen with respect. I believe that in our profession, debate and argument are fundamental and there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing. All sides of the issues have to be heard. Eventually, if consensus cannot be achieved, a decision may have to be made to move in a fashion that will not be preferred by one side or the other, but clearly that is not unique to our profession, or our association and it is important to be able to move on to the other critical matters at hand. Lawyers, as a rule, and our association, for sure, are not one-issue oriented. All sides must be able to make informed decisions and be prepared to confront other issues. Disagreement is not personal, but issue motivated and whether your position is adopted or not we must work together on the many other issues that confront our profession and our association.
Q: How do you determine which goals to set and work on as a NYSBA leader?
A: As the president of the New York State Bar Association, I am given some latitude as to areas that are of significant concern to me, so long as I believe them to be legal issues that confront our profession or our society. I believe that issues involving end of life medical assistance, anti-Asian and anti-Sematic hate, and homelessness are key concerns. In addition, as I have said repeatedly, I think it is necessary that the Bar Association stand for lawyers and do what it can to assist lawyers in their quest to be efficient and effective. In addition, there are issues that that have become extremely critical to the Bar and require comment. Certainly, the recent affirmative action decision is one of those and the Bar has reacted with immediacy to address the issues. Additionally, artificial intelligence issues have arisen that we, as lawyers, must investigate and understand. As a result, I believe the issues that are chosen by me happen to be relevant and critical to our association and need to be dealt with by our profession. I want to make it clear that no task force is established without input from numerous members.
Q: What are your leadership strategies for working with NYSBA members?
A: My strategy for working with the membership of NYSBA is very simple. I start from the premise that we are all striving for the same goals. Specifically, we are trying to represent our clients and we are trying to do so in an efficient and effective fashion. We may have differing opinions as to how to get to a common end of access to justice, but we most assuredly want to find a way to ethically help our clients and to improve ourselves as lawyers and our profession as a whole. Lawyers from every discipline, and from opposite sides of issues can certainly take advantage of our programs. We attempt to reach consensus, but at the same time we must recognize that there is always going to be disagreement and that we have to listen in a respectful fashion. We have a great opportunity to learn from those with whom we disagree. Another strategy that I believe in is that there is no single group of people that has a monopoly on ideas. We have gotten great ideas from our past leadership, the general membership, and from our staff, which should never be under-rated or under-appreciated. All of these groups have special knowledge about various subjects and hearing their input is, in my opinion, crucial to leading our organization effectively.
Q: What advice would you give to future leaders?
A: The advice I would give to future leaders is to immerse yourself in the culture of the Bar Association. It is necessary to understand the concerns of the various sections and understand the concerns of the general Bar as well. We can’t forget the tens of thousands of attorneys we represent and their varying needs. In addition, it is critical that you understand the value of listening to past leaders. Being the head of this Bar Association is not like anything that I’ve ever experienced and I’m sure it is unique to each and every president. Listening to the people who have gone through the experience is critical. Likewise, listening to our experienced staff and taking their advice is extremely important. Lastly, it’s important to know that you are not always the smartest person in the room. Surrounding yourselves with bright people is certainly a way that will help you guide this organization. Encouraging people to speak up with their ideas is critical to achieving a diversity of thought within our organization so that we do not stagnate. Operating in an echo chamber destroys innovation and imagination. Everyone counts.