Sherry Levin Wallach’s Quest Against Injustice Sets her on Path to the Presidency of the New York State Bar Association

By David Howard King

Sherry Levin Wallach’s Quest Against Injustice Sets her on Path to the Presidency of the New York State Bar Association

6.9.2022

By David Howard King

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Every time Sherry Levin Wallach stands up for a client, she works to fulfill the Constitution’s promise of equal justice and treatment for all.

“Whether I’m representing a client in a civil or criminal action, my focus is always on equality, fairness and justice,” she says. “I chose to be a trial lawyer because it allowed me to provide a voice for my clients, many of whom have no other way of being heard. As a legal services provider, I strive to not only help individuals but improve the entire system.”

With the emphasis Levin Wallach puts on equal justice, it should be no surprise that one of her favorite quotes comes from the civil rights legend John Lewis who died in 2020. “When you see something that is not right, unjust, you have an obligation to speak out, to say something.”

She developed these guiding principles early in life during her many talks with her father as they sat on the front porch swing looking out at the neighborhood. They would talk about empathy and understanding, morality and justice, fairness and equality. Her mother and role model taught her to always give back to her profession. No wonder she is a driving force and a teacher and mentor at the New York State Bar Association’s Trial Academy.

The talks on that porch swing and having a trailblazer for a mother put in motion the seeds of Sherry Levin Wallach’s commitment to justice and forged the ideas that led her to be a leader. But as her identity as a lawyer evolved, the stark reality of the justice system tested her, and she was confronted with finding the balance between being a lawyer and mom. Yet, with each challenge she overcame, she emerged stronger.

According to friends, colleagues, mentors and mentees, Levin Wallach, who became New York State Bar Association president on June 1, is the ideal leader because she engages and listens to people from radically different backgrounds, knows from experience how to rise to a challenge and brings good ideas to fruition.

Levin Wallach’s energy is infectious, her drive constantly on display. She speaks in a calm, but forceful, voice, always collaborating and eager to hear the thoughts of others. She is not shy to make her points and garners respect with her consideration. Her day often begins early in the morning on her cell phone returning calls as she drives to her office, arriving in the office parking lot where she often sits in her car to complete the conversation, and then quickly getting into her office with her next meeting looming just 15 minutes away. She’s in her element when on the move, busy and engaged.

Former NYSBA President Kathryn Grant Madigan recalls meeting Levin Wallach when Madigan was liaison to the Young Lawyers Section.

“She is a force of nature,” Madigan says. “We met 15 years ago when I was president-elect and I have just marveled at her leadership path from Young Lawyers and chairing that section to the Membership Committee. She founded our trial academy because she saw young lawyers could not get courthouse experience. That is the thing about Sherry, she has innovative ideas like other people do but she always takes action.”

Senior Associate Justice of the Appellate Division Cheryl Chambers admires Levin Wallach’s determination.

“I have no doubt that Sherry will meet the demands of her presidency with the same vigor, compassion, integrity, and commitment that have defined her professional life,” she said.

Levin Wallach’s concern for others and desire to make productive change began in high school when she first saw inequities around her. Levin Wallach’s childhood in an economically and racially diverse community made her keenly aware that many of her friends who grew up in challenging environments faced obstacles in life including life choices and lack of opportunity that were not of their own making and beyond their control. She saw in real time how children from poorer backgrounds are more at risk of experiencing behavioral, health and social problems. This had a lasting impact on her and accounts for her deep commitment to equality.

“That’s really where it came from. From a very early age, I saw that our system of justice needed improvement. Things like alternatives to incarceration, rehabilitation and second chances have always been part of my narrative,” she said.

Levin Wallach headed to Hofstra Law to prepare herself for practice and a career in the criminal justice system. Upon graduation, she joined the Bronx District Attorney’s Office under Robert T. Johnson during a major upswing in violent crime across New York City.

Levin Wallach, who still considers Johnson an inspiration and the job as an assistant ADA in Bronx County “the best job she could have asked for,” made friends and connections in that job that lasted a lifetime.

When she decided to leave the Bronx District Attorney’s office to expand her knowledge and skills and also to take a step back as she explains “Due to the intensity of the job and incredibly high volume of cases, I felt myself becoming desensitized. I didn’t want to allow myself to become a person that wasn’t really looking at the people behind the issues, that didn’t have concern, sensitivity, or empathy,” she said.

Looking to diversify her legal experience while still a young attorney, Levin Wallach joined McAloon and Friedman to handle matters in the area of medical malpractice defense. “I really felt I needed to have civil practice experience to fully develop myself as a lawyer, I was drawn to medical malpractice defense work having grown up in a household with a father who was a surgeon and a mother who was a nurse.”

After moving to Westchester County and realizing that her heart was in the criminal justice system, she resigned from the firm in pursuit of a way to continue practicing law while being a mother involved in her children’s daily lives. While searching for a way to reignite her legal practice, she found inspiration in an unexpected place.

While pregnant with her first child, she met another woman lawyer at the nail salon who was also eight months pregnant. They soon became friends. “We had a great deal in common. She had been an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Nassau County and I had been an assistant district attorney. She had civil plaintiff’s experience and I had civil defense experience. Rather than abandon her law career after giving birth, Levin Wallach and her new friend, Andrea Carpello Rendo, launched the law offices of Wallach & Rendo.

“With the encouragement of our friends and families, we decided we were going to open a law practice together so we could practice and be moms,” says Levin Wallach. “And that is pretty much what we did, for a long time. When one of us was having a baby, the other one would be covering the practice.  We handled matters involving civil personal injury, residential real estate and criminal defense. We both joined the Westchester County assigned counsel program.”

During those years, Levin Wallach also began her path toward NYSBA leadership. She found her first opportunity in 2008 when she became chair of Young Lawyers Section. Eventually, she would chair the Membership Committee and Criminal Justice Section too.

Today, Levin Wallach acknowledges that she has come full circle. In her position as deputy executive director at the Legal Aid Society of Westchester County, she can train young lawyers, create new programs to support people who are faced with criminal charges and convictions and influence change in the criminal justice system. And as president of NYSBA, she can work together with lawyers across the state, country and world to improve access to justice and adherence to the rule of law.

“It is an exciting time because I can activate our association to study and address issues that I have seen need attention. It also allows me to collaborate with the different groups within our legal community and government to develop an improved future for our profession and our clients,” she said. “We as lawyers must support each other, we’re better lawyers when we do. We are better for our clients when we take advantage of being part of this larger community.”

As president, Levin Wallach will address an issue near and dear to her heart — a task force on modernizing criminal practice that will look to improve access to justice and practice in the criminal justice system. She says she’ll focus on winning better pay for assigned counsel so that all defendants receive the justice they deserve.

Another task force will look to increase awareness around mental health and trauma impacted representation, by exploring how lawyers can better address the needs of their clients as well as improve the legal system’s answer to mental illness and trauma.

Her focus for the last eighteen months on educating the legal community on the devastating impact of the Insular Cases on the residents of the U.S. Territories and racism in the United States has created a base for her task force on the U.S. territories. She also launched a task force on emerging technologies to explore the new legal landscape of digital currency.

Colleagues envision that Levin Wallach will make NYSBA a sanctuary for lawyers in need of camaraderie, guidance, expertise and direction, the same role her mentors and colleagues have played for her. Visiting Levin Wallach’s home today, echoes of her formative years greet you. You’ll find a bell on the patio like the one that summoned her to dinner in her youth and the childhood swing where she absorbed her father’s wisdom.

Levin Wallach wants NYSBA to function in the same way that bell did—she wants it to be a clarion call through the dark and uncertainty that unites lawyers of all practice types and walks of life to a single purpose, a repository of knowledge. So that should they lose their way, have a moment of doubt, or encounter an obstacle they never imagined they would face, they’ll have a group of people to turn to help them through, to show them the way and find a home in NYSBA.

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