The Association Of The Bar Of The City Of New York - Broadening Perspectives On Professional, Community And Global Issues

Tuesday, June 1, 2004 - 01:00


Editor: How has leadership in bar association activities enhanced your career?

Plevan:
I have been practicing in New York City for 30 years. Currently a partner at Proskauer Rose, I practice labor and employment litigation. I have been active in the Association of the Bar of the City of New York ("Association") and other bar associations, as well as community activities, throughout my entire professional career.
My early involvement in the Association came at the suggestion of the more senior lawyers where I was practicing at the time. I'm glad I took their advice. I've met a lot of people whom I would not have met otherwise because they practiced in a different area, especially on the public side. It has been a valuable way to learn more about other people's professional experience and to hear different perspectives on the issues we have in common.
Over the years, I've served on various Association committees and chaired a few, including the Women in the Profession Committee and the Long Range Planning Committee. I've also served on boards of a variety of other organizations and have been active in the public arena, including legal services organizations that provide pro bono legal services either directly or through volunteer programs.
The Association's committees are open to people at all stages of their career and not just to senior lawyers. I encourage more junior lawyers in my firm and elsewhere to participate.

Editor: How does participation in bar association activities benefit the employer - whether a law firm or the in-house legal department - as well as the individual?

Plevan:
Almost anybody who has participated in a bar association in a serious way realizes that they learn a lot from their experiences, either in their narrow field or in the legal profession. As people become better informed, they become much more valuable in terms of their perspectives on not only the City but also the world.
Frankly, the legal profession involves a lot of interaction with other people and constant exposure to others is an enhancing experience in developing professional skills. The public service opportunities available are also important incentives.
The Association continues to work hard to encourage public service. We have a very large membership, and I hope to do a lot to enhance the participation of our members throughout the activities of the association.

Editor: What issues affecting the practice of law in New York City do you plan to address during your term?

Plevan: I plan to address two principal areas - diversity in the profession and participation in pro bono service programs. The Association recently launched a new initiative on enhancing diversity, which includes a set of diversity principles for firms to sign. We already have almost 90 signatories from corporate law departments and law firms. We have had other similar, but more narrow statements of this sort in the past. This one is much broader because it includes disabled people, older employees and other forms of diversity. By signing the pledge, firms and law departments commit to programs that will not only increase hiring of attorneys with diverse backgrounds, but also their retention and advancement.
We have asked corporate law departments to focus on diversity when they are retaining outside counsel. Their focus will enhance the spirit of progress at the law firms as well.

We want to do much more. We have started what we expect to be a series of activities. Our initial program focused on mentoring and training, which are two crucial pieces to a successful retention program. We expect to have ongoing programs and discussions like that to facilitate the exchange of ideas among the signatories about how to make diversity in the legal profession a reality.
We are tracking the diversity statistics for the city's law firms, so they will be able to track their progress themselves on a confidential basis, as well as to compare their progress with other organizations on an aggregated basis.
I intend to focus on pro bono legal services. I think we need to look for more ways to secure the participation of lawyers as volunteers in pro bono legal services. We also hope and will continue to advocate for more public support for pro bono legal services in the form of government subsidies and aid. In the meantime there are many areas where people are not being served, particularly in New York City. We want to do what we can to enhance the programs that exist and increase the level of participation by the private bar in particular.

Editor: What aspects of the judicial system is the Association addressing?

Plevan: In the last year, we issued a report on judicial selection, which is a topic that will continue to get attention in the coming years. New York has a legislatively mandated merit selection system for our Court of Appeals, but the rest of our judicial system is predominately elected judges without a mandated screening process or other process for determining merit.

Historically we have been unwavering in our hope of implementing a statewide program similar to the Court of Appeals, which involves a judicial commission on nomination and a limited number of candidates being proposed for appointments from which the Governor can select.

In our most recent report, we stood by our commitment to merit selection. But until such a change occurs, we are advocating independent screening panels within the framework of our existing elected system.
Judicial salaries are also a problem in the city. This applies to all levels of the judiciary - state and federal. In New York City the starting salary of first year lawyers at large law firms exceeds the salaries of many judges - to me that says it all. I would like to do something about the way our society compensates our judges.

Another area needing reform relates to developing assistance for pro se litigants, particularly in our housing courts and family courts, where we are talking about a group of people in dire need of help. Again, it is an issue of finding volunteers and having programs that are organized well and provide training to facilitate volunteerism.

Editor: You have made significant contributions to public interest issues and community service throughout your career. How does the City Bar encourage participation in pro bono projects?

Plevan:
One arm of our organization is called the City Bar Fund, which is a pro bono legal services organization. Our focus right now is on such areas as immigration, public benefits and assistance, elder law, family law and matrimonial pro se litigants. We also focus on health law, including a program for cancer victims. Our newest program, which we are looking to expand, is the small business initiative.
Our staff works in these areas themselves, but they also develop projects involving volunteer attorneys. The City Bar Fund staff develops the framework for the project and coordinates with the applicable parts of the judicial system. They operate a huge training and mentoring program, so that the volunteer attorney can provide crucial legal services.

In addition, our staff - in collaboration with two other organizations in New York - publishes a pro bono opportunities guide, which is handed out to new lawyers being admitted to the bar, both to encourage them to get involved and to pinpoint particular pro bono opportunities.

We have done several other projects collaboratively. Probably the most significant and well known work for which we won an award was the work we did after September 11th. Most recently we published a book called "Public Service in a Time of Crisis" in which we document how we responded to the events of 9/11. We recently sent a copy to the bar association in Spain after the terrible train bombing there.

Our current small business initiative grew out of the events of 9/11. Many small businesses were hurt very badly. To help small businesses citywide to negotiate loans and find advice and counsel, we created our Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project. (NELP) The goal is to foster entrepreneurs in communities that are economically disadvantaged. The success of that business person will create more jobs and revitalize the community.

Our greatest asset is our members. I learned the other day that our patents committee met with NELP staff because the entrepreneurs need legal assistance protecting their home grown inventions. This is just one example of the collaborative and cooperative spirit of our members and the generosity with which they share their expertise and time.

We also operate a hotline every morning from 9:00-12:30, for low income New Yorkers who have no place else to get advice. We created a website with other legal services groups in the city, www.lawhelp.org/ny, which provides referrals for legal assistance, court help, social services as well as crucial legal information.

Editor: How do the Association's activities broaden perspectives on global issues?

Plevan: One example is the extensive work that the Association has done on the issue of protecting civil rights and civil liberties in connection with the war on terrorism. Right now there isn't anything more important in this field than the need to ensure that our government adheres to the rule of law in the way that it is treating prisoners and other people in custody. We issued several reports on this issue, even before the recent events came to light. The focus of our very extensive report in April on the Geneva Convention and its application was Afghanistan, but everything in that report applies to the situation in Iraq. We will continue to not just monitor the situation, but to speak out and advocate that our government adhere to those principles.