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Reflections From NYSBA’s First (and Hopefully Only) All-Virtual President
By Scott Karson
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 for what lay ahead.
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 became the norm at NYSBA. While you have heard me lament on prior occasions that nothing replaces the collegiality and camaraderie of an in-person NYSBA event, the association has experienced record-setting attendance during the pandemic for its virtual House of Delegates meetings and perhaps, even more notably, for our two-week all virtual Annual Meeting in late January 2021. Also, NYSBA 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 is incredibly positive to see how engaged our membership remains despite the isolation that easily can be felt during these uncertain times. Your support helped me persevere during a period where not only the presidency of NYSBA – but life in general – was anything but normal.
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. 6th 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. While the fate of that inquiry is pending, every local, state and national print and television news organization covered the story. 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, which I appointed in September to be an unbiased source of information on the contentious presidential race, 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 with regard to the pandemic also generated attention from mainstream and legal media alike, especially after the great work of NYSBA’s Health Law Section, which 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 while 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.
In response to the pandemic, I appointed three new task forces. The first task force I’m sure you are all familiar with by now – 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. But what you might not know is that an in-depth survey conducted by the task force will provide the most comprehensive data on lawyer well-being ever gathered in New York. I’m looking forward to the task force presenting its report at a House of Delegates meeting later this year.
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. 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 killing 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. The trial of former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, which began at the end of March, reminds us of the significance of the task force’s work.
I am extremely proud of the hard work of all these task forces and am looking forward to the coming weeks and months when they release their comprehensive reports.
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 at our November House of Delegates meeting when the LGBTQ People and the Law Section was launched. The group was converted from a committee to a section, which gives all NYSBA members the opportunity to participate in the section’s work and allocates additional resources to expand its initiatives. Established in 2008, the Committee on LGBTQ People and the Law has served as a critical voice for members of the LGBTQ community and its allies. It was the work of that committee, as a matter of fact, that led me on behalf of NYSBA to file an amicus brief in the United States 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.
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.
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. I am looking forward to celebrating that work by your side once again when the pandemic subsides.