The New York County Lawyers' Association: An Ambitious Agenda Gathers Momentum

Tuesday, July 1, 2008 - 01:00
Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP

Editor: Ms. Lesk, would you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Lesk: I am the chair of the trust and estates department of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP. We represent primarily high net worth individuals in connection with their estate and gift tax planning and their charitable giving.

Editor: You have also enjoyed a parallel career with NYCLA. How did you come to join the organization? Why this particular bar association rather than some other?

Lesk: I was recruited to join NYCLA as a consequence of term limits at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York. I had been on the City Bar's Trust and Estates Committee, but after three years my term was up. One of the people on the committee was also a very active NYCLA member and encouraged me to join the T&E section at NYCLA, where there are no term limits, and chair the legislation subcommittee. NYCLA's committees are open to every member of the organization. So long as a person is willing to work he or she is welcome. In time I became co-chair of the T&E section, and that led to my being asked to join the NYCLA Board of Directors. Ultimately, I became secretary of the organization and then vice president, which is the first step under our by-laws on the ladder to the office of president, which I assumed last month.

Editor: As you enter your term of office, I am sure you have a number of things you would like to accomplish. Would you share with us the key things on your agenda?

Lesk: Certainly. First let me say that most of the things on my agenda are projects that NYCLA started prior to my term of office. I think it is essential for me to continue to support the initiatives of my predecessors. There are, for starters, three items affecting the judiciary: judicial selection, judicial compensation and judicial independence.

On judicial selection, NYCLA filed amicus briefs in a New York case that mounted a constitutional challenge to the way the state selects candidates for Supreme Court Justice. This year the United States Supreme Court rejected the constitutional challenge, which means that for the foreseeable future, New York is likely to continue to use the method specified in the state constitution, which calls for party conventions to nominate candidates. NYCLA has published "A Roadmap to Reform," which included proposals to improve the system, including the use of screening panels to identify qualified candidates. The Feerick Commission also recommended changes to the current system, and some of their proposals are similar to NYCLA's. Other NYCLA recommendations go beyond the Feerick Commission's proposals. In any event, judicial selection is an important issue in New York today, and we are very hopeful that a better system will emerge from a vigorous public discussion.

The second issue concerns judicial compensation. NYCLA has consistently supported fair compensation for judges. New York's judges have not had a pay raise since 1999, and there is a growing concern that this could lead to a loss of experienced judges.

The third issue is judicial independence. The NYCLA Task Force on Judicial Independence has conducted a number of programs to date. Its focus is on supporting a fair and impartial judiciary, including an atmosphere in which judges do their work without fear of recrimination from a hostile press or the general public. Particularly since 9/11, we have seen a considerable volume of reported incidents where judges are vilified for upholding the constitutional rights of people who are accused - and sometimes merely suspected - of some sort of connection with terrorists. One of the things that I would like to pursue, and this would be a new initiative for NYCLA, is working with the Task Force on Judicial Independence to develop a rapid response program for attacks on the judiciary. Under the codes of judicial conduct, judges are not permitted to defend or even explain their actions, and I think we would be able to make a real contribution in establishing a resource, for journalists and for the community at large, if we addressed some of the difficult factual and legal questions that judges cannot address outside the courtroom. We propose to have lawyers available to discuss the background and context of judicial decisions that make up such an important part of today's news and which, unfortunately, are often misunderstood.

All of these things are connected. In order to have an impartial and objective judiciary, one that offers a fair hearing and predictability to litigants and thereby provides a sound legal structure for our entire economy, we must have qualified judges. Unfortunately, a convoluted election process, a significant drop in real compensation and the chance of being vilified in the press all combine to discourage public-spirited people from joining the ranks of the judiciary.

Editor: And some of the other initiatives that you are pursuing?

Lesk: Over the next year I would like to see NYCLA expand its Youth Law Education Project. This has been underway for 25 years, and it continues to be of enormous importance. As lawyers, we have the opportunity - and the responsibility - to educate the public about the relationship between the judiciary and the executive and legislative branches, and the importance of protecting constitutional rights. In 2006, a Zogby poll found that three-quarters of Americans could name all three Stooges - Moe, Larry and Curly - but fewer than half could name the three branches of government. Three-quarters of Americans could name at least two of Snow White's seven dwarfs, but only one-quarter could name two Supreme Court Justices - and three out of five people could not name any.

It is essential to make young people understand that there is a court system, that it exists to provide fair and impartial justice, and that it enforces rights that are vital to our everyday lives and not merely abstract principles. In 2007, NYCLA published the NYC Youth Law Manual , which educates high school students about their rights and responsibilities as citizens and provides information about law-related careers. Written in an easily understandable format by a team of lawyer volunteers, the 113-page book informs students about an array of legal topics and contains such useful resources as hotline numbers and websites. Thus far, NYCLA has presented four conferences for teachers and students about the Manual and will continue to reach out to the approximately 35,000 students enrolled in law-related programs in New York City high schools.

In addition, we are about to co-sponsor a conference on consumer debt. This is connected to a new pro bono initiative we call Manhattan CLARO [Civil Legal Advice and Resource Center] Project, which counsels pro se litigants who are defending against claims that they owe money. The defendants in these cases may have good defenses, but they need counseling on their rights.

In addition to a large increase in consumer debt lawsuits, there is now a wave of threatened foreclosures in connection with the subprime mortgage crisis. I would like to see us devise a program to assist people who have been victims of discriminatory or predatory lending practices who are facing the loss of their homes.

Finally, our Justice Center recently created the Task Force on the Family Court, chaired by Professor Jane Spinak, Columbia Law School, and the Hon. Howard Miller, Appellate Division, Second Department, which will examine the roles and responsibilities of the Family Court and develop concrete proposals for action by the Association.

Editor: NYCLA has also spoken out on increasing the compensation of lawyers representing the indigent.

Lesk: Our role in increasing the fees paid to attorneys representing the indigent is over for the time being, since the Legislature has acted to increase the fees.

The right to counsel in certain civil cases continues to be an issue, however. NYCLA issued a report supporting a pilot program to provide free counsel to elderly persons facing eviction.

Project Restore deals with counseling ex-offenders who have received training in prison in connection with certain state-licensed occupations, including barbers or beauticians. Ironically, these people are frequently denied licenses because of their former criminal convictions. We just had our first successful reversal of a license denial, and I expect that this initiative is going to pick up momentum.

Finally, NYCLA's Legal Counseling Project provides counseling to clients three times a month in the areas of family, employment, consumer bankruptcy and landlord-tenant law.

Editor: This is a very extensive agenda. At the end of your term of office it is obvious that you will not have accomplished everything on it. What do you hope to have done by the time you step down?

Lesk: As much as possible. In addition, I hope that we have made major progress in NYCLA's $5 million Centennial Capital Campaign. The organization was founded a hundred years ago and has occupied its New York City landmark building, designated the Home of Law and designed by Cass Gilbert, since 1930. It is a wonderful building, but it is in considerable need of attention. We need a new roof, a watertight exterior, improved accessibility for the disabled and upgrading for some of our safety systems. None of this is extravagant, but an organization such as ours is not able to pay for these improvements out of current income, hence the $5 million Capital Campaign. NYCLA's programs depend on the availability of the Home of Law, so that giving to the Capital Campaign will effectively support NYCLA's programs. I am hopeful that the campaign will have reached or exceeded its goal when my term of office ends. I would like to be able to step down knowing that our Home of Law will be available to NYCLA members for at least another century.

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