Mark H. Alcott, a senior litigation partner with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison, has assumed the office of President of the New York State Bar Association, becoming the leader of the 72,000 member Association, the nation's largest voluntary state bar.
Because he regards access to justice for the poor as one of the fundamental challenges facing our legal system, Mr. Alcott's first act as president was to establish the Empire State Counsel program for lawyers who perform at least 50 hours of free legal services a year for the poor. Mr. Alcott convened a special meeting of the Association's Executive Committee at 9 a.m on his first day in office to authorize this program. Calling on all New York State lawyers to join him, Mr. Alcott said he would personally commit to this level of service and that he envisioned thousands of lawyers across the state earning the designation.
'Studies demonstrate that more than 80 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor go unmet,' Mr. Alcott said, 'on matters related to domestic violence, housing, immigration, health care and a range of other areas that are crucially important to the lives of real people. Lawyers have a special role to play by providing free legal services to the poor. Only lawyers can do that; it is our unique obligation and opportunity.'
Another fundamental challenge facing our legal system, Mr. Alcott said, is maintaining a neutral, impartial system of justice, where independent lawyers represent people vigorously and where independent courts and judges are able to decide cases fairly and without political interference.
Mr. Alcott pointed out that issues involving the judiciary will be front and center this year, with three of the seven seats on The New York State Court of Appeals up for reappointment - including the seat of Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and the seat of the only African-American associate judge, George Bundy Smith. Mr. Alcott has stressed that the Association will play an important role in vetting the qualifications of the candidates.
Promoting reform will be another major theme of Mr. Alcott's Presidency. 'We need to eliminate discrimination against 'gray lawyers,'' Mr. Alcott said, 'and deal with the issue of mandatory retirement - for judges as well as lawyers.... I will appoint a special committee to review these issues and recommend a plan of action to our House of Delegates.'
Another needed reform involves the method by which judges are selected in New York State. Mr. Alcott noted that the Association has endorsed judicial screening panels and the House of Delegates will soon consider proposed reforms in judicial conventions.
Prior to his election as President, Mr. Alcott served as chair of the New York State Bar Association's Commercial and Federal Litigation Section and chaired a Section task force that proposed creation of a statewide commercial court. He served on the committee formed by Chief Kaye to implement that proposal, resulting in establishment of the Commercial Division of the New York State Supreme Court.