James B. Kobak Jr.: New NYCLA President Builds On Innovation And Renovation

Monday, May 3, 2010 - 00:00

Editor: Please tell our readers about your professional experience. What are the areas of your practice at your firm, Hughes Hubbard & Reed?

Kobak: I am a litigator, and I also do arbitrations, mediations and ADR generally. Currently I chair our Antitrust Group, which is a combination of litigation, counseling and advising on deal work. Since September of 2008, I have been lead counsel for the SIPA trustee for the liquidation of Lehman Brothers' U.S. broker-dealer, a matter to which I recently have been devoting most of my time. I also chair our internal firm Practice Standards and Ethics Committee, which makes me the "ethics guru" at the firm.

Editor: How did you come to join NYCLA? Why this particular bar association?

Kobak: I got involved in NYCLA many years ago when I was a young litigator. I had been asked to work an early SIPA liquidation matter, but at the time I had almost no experience in bankruptcies. Someone suggested I join a bar association committee in that area. Since NYCLA has a policy of open admission to committees, it was very easy to get onto that committee right away.

Not only did I learn a lot, but I also enjoyed it, so I began to work on a very active trade regulation committee that was relevant to my antitrust practice. Eventually I became chair of that committee, and from there I joined the board - and when I got to know some of the people at NYCLA and its history and programs, I was hooked.

Editor: Would you tell our readers about some of the subsequent positions that you have held there?

Kobak: For many of the years since 1988, I have served on the Board of Directors. I have also been on the Executive Committee several times since 1996. In addition, at various times I have chaired several committees and task forces, including the Task Force on Professionalism (which published a report last year), the Committee on Trade Regulation, the Committee on Changing Trends in the Profession, the Committee on Law Reform and the Library Committee. I also founded the Denis McInerney NYCLA American Inn of the Court, which is affiliated with NYCLA and was the first Inn of Court in New York State.

Most recently, I was president of the NYCLA Foundation. Currently, I am a member of the NYCLA Justice Center and its Ethics Institute.And I serve as delegate to the House of Delegates of the American Bar Association and New York State Bar Association.

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 items on your agenda? What current programs/initiatives will you maintain, and what new initiatives are you pursuing?

Kobak: One of the major activities we have embarked on, and a top priority of mine, is a strategic-planning exercise. We wrote our last substantial strategic plan five years ago. We are involving the board and other members of NYCLA, as well as the staff, in the process. It is a very opportune time to do this because of the turmoil that the profession faces; I believe there are some potentially fundamental changes going on. We want to take a hard look at the organization from top to bottom and consider what the bar association of the future should be and how we can get there.

An upshot of the report submitted by the Task Force on Professionalism that I mentioned before was that we should start a pilot mentoring program as soon as possible. Our pilot mentoring program has 12 mentors and mentees. We wanted to keep it small for now, and if it works well - and so far people are very enthusiastic - we will expand it. Emphasizing professionalism and improving the image of lawyers in New York are high on my agenda.

I am very interested in public education, including defending the profession and the judiciary against unfair attacks. I believe we have an educational mission to help the public better understand the roles that lawyers, judges and the courts really serve in society.

We are also working on improving access to the courts. We have a number of initiatives through our Justice Center to promote reforms in family court and to assist people defending themselves in consumer-debt cases. We are trying to expand our educational programming for high school students. At a time when schools are offering little to no civic education, it is very important that young people understand their rights and the role of the judicial system. We published the NYC Youth Law Manual that is used all over New York City and we conduct seminars for high school students and teachers, and I think we can do even more to educate the public. We sponsor a high school essay contest and have speakers at schools for Law Day and on other occasions.

Editor: A short while ago you were president of the NYCLA Foundation. Please describe its main purposes and goals.

Kobak: We launched a capital campaign that raised about $1.6 million for renovations and improvements to the Home of Law, our headquarters at 14 Vesey Street, a historic landmark building. We also obtained underwriting for many NYCLA projects, among them our Summer Minority Judicial Internship Program, our Youth Law Education Project and the Task Force on the Family Court.

We are continuing to seek support for the renovation through our second century campaign. The Foundation's new president is Stuart Aaron, NYCLA's president-elect, who will have a full understanding of NYCLA's needs and will articulate them persistently, professionally and persuasively.

Editor: NYCLA has long maintained an active and close relationship with the courts. How did this happen?

Kobak: Federal and state court judges were among NYCLA's founders over a century ago and the first two presidents were judges. Throughout the Association's history, we have focused on issues such as judicial selection, preserving the independence of the judiciary, advocating appropriate judicial salaries, and court reform. We have numerous committees and task forces focusing on various courts, as well as active federal and state court committees that claim many judges as members; likewise, judges also participate actively as members on many of our task forces.

Editor: NYCLA has a very active pro bono program. Please describe one or two of its most outstanding programs.

Kobak: For a long time we have had the Legal Counseling Project that counsels people on various aspects of law such as consumer bankruptcy, family, employment and landlord/tenant law. We have recently initiated several highly successful programs for which I see the need increasing. One is our Manhattan CLARO, which stands for Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office. In this program, which we run in conjunction with Fordham Law School's Feerick Center for Social Justice, a lawyer provides limited legal advice to unrepresented debtors with consumer credit casesin civil court. Not surprisingly, there has been a big demand for that kind of service. This is a very attractive program for our members, particularly members who work in small or mid-sized firms,as they help the community without the pressure of taking on a case on a continuing basis. Recently we have gotten involved in representing Bronx County homeowners at settlement for which we have been working with the neighborhood office of The Legal Aid Society.

In general, our members seem to particularly like clinic-counseling programs, in which one person or a number of people give basic advice and legal explanations. We also see an advantage in partnering with other bar associations and institutions to conduct joint training and collaborate on the provision of legal services.

Another recent pro bono program is Project Restore, launched about two years ago, which entails representing previously incarcerated people who are inappropriately denied licenses or access to practice a profession. If these people can get some representation and have that impediment removed, they will have a much better chance at reentering society in a positive way.

Editor: Your firm, Hughes Hubbard, has a long history of urging its lawyers to be active in philanthropy and pro bono activities. Permitting you to take the time from the firm over the two-year period of your presidency is reflective of this spirit. Is it typical of the firm's generosity that it would spare you from some of your firm duties?

Kobak: It is a wonderful firm in that and in many other ways, and that is definitely why I have been here so long! Both Charles Evans Hughes and his son were president of NYCLA, and the firm has boasted presidents of several other bar associations and organizations like The Legal Aid Society since.

Editor: NYCLA is in the process of addressing much-needed repairs to the exterior and interior of its landmark building. How is that going?

Kobak: The first thing we did was fix the roof and the exterior of the building to make it watertight. I am happy to say that following the March rainstorms, NYCLA was absolutely bone dry - more than I can say for my own condominium. Over the summer, we are rehabilitating the windows, marking the second phase of the project. We have a laundry list of other things we would like to get done, and we will eventually raise the money to do those. Our most immediate needs will be taken care of before the end of my presidency.

Editor: Do you have a separate library fund?

Kobak: Yes, we do. We have some funds that have been contributed over time and then, a few years ago, a woman named Gladys Glickman left us a substantial bequest in her will. A longtime member - in fact, a member of the Trade Regulation Committee - she had, early in her career, written a book on franchising, with much of the work done in our library. We are very grateful for her gift, which allows us to make improvements to the library.

Editor: What lasting legacy do you hope to leave when you step down?

Kobak: My hope is to leave our association in good shape physically, organizationally and programmatically. I want to make sure that we have the kind of bar association that lawyers in New York need going forward, one they will see as not only relevant but indispensable. I want to make sure our organization is the right size and has the right resources to accomplish that mission. That is why I think this strategic-planning exercise is so important. I believe there are some potentially fundamental changes taking place in the profession and that during this difficult economic time, lawyers, judges and other participants in the legal system need NYCLA's resources more than ever.

For more information about NYCLA go to www.nycla.org with any questions you may have.