Samuel Seymour - The New President Of The New York City Bar Association

Wednesday, June 2, 2010 - 00:00

Editor: You have a very distinguished legal career. Perhaps you could share your background with our readers, including your present affiliation and the composition of your current practice.

Seymour: I am a partner at Sullivan & Cromwell, which is a large New York-based international law firm. I started there right out of law school in 1982, and except for a couple of years as a prosecutor in the U.S. attorney's office, my whole career has been at Sullivan & Cromwell. I'm in the litigation group, and my practice is almost exclusively white collar defense work, which is advising people and companies who are involved in government investigations.

Editor: You also have a long history of public service, especially with the New York City Bar Association. Would you share some of your highlights with us?

Seymour: I was taught by a number of mentors at a young age that getting involved in activities outside of the pure practice of law is the best way to round out your career. My "second career" has been at the New York City Bar Association, where I actually started activities even before I finished law school.

In terms of sharing a highlight, I think my favorite experience was serving on the Special Committee on Public Service and Education, which was created in the early 1980s to educate the public about legal issues. Working with another group of people on the New York City Housing Court issues, we wrote a series of illustrated booklets, one for each borough, both in English and in Spanish. It gave very simple instructions to pro se defendants about how the Housing Court works. They were used for years, and there is a new version still being used today. I'm very proud of that as an example of not just inward-looking bar association activities, but of taking lawyers and their special knowledge and doing something that serves the public at large.

Editor: I was told that when the bar association was formed, its primary focus was to ensure the independence of the judiciary. Is there still that need, and if so, what can the bar association do to help ensure the independence of the judiciary?

Seymour: It's correct that the historical foundation of this organization was born out of a crisis involving the courts in New York. There were some terrible cases of corruption of judges by the political forces in New York. A group of leading lawyers in the city got together to do something about it. That group very quickly became the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, and we are still here. Our philosophy is that if the lawyers won't step up to deal with these issues, who will?

We have a policy to be in favor of taking electoral politics out of judicial selection whenever possible. It's a long-standing issue across the country, and the bar association has worked tirelessly, as have a lot of other individuals and organizations. For example, we had former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor here last month, and she gave a wonderful speech at our annual lecture. Her message was that we need to take steps to ensure an independent judiciary.

Editor: Speaking of judges, President Obama has had the opportunity to nominate two justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Does the bar association participate in reviewing or commenting on the selection of these justices?

Seymour: Wehave a great tradition of doing exactly that. The Supreme Court nominees are put through a special process involving both our judiciary committee and our executive committee. The process essentially consists of reviewing a nominee's writings and speeches and talking to people who have worked with the nominee. Ultimately, we come up with a recommendation, and people in Washington and around the country take note of our recommendations.

Editor: The bar association has been a leader in providing pro bono services for the disadvantaged, and in this economy the need unfortunately is swelling. How can the bar association be of greater assistance?

Seymour: It is a terrible challenge, and unfortunately it is not being fully met. We have an affiliate called the City Bar Justice Center, which is a separate organization devoted to pro bono work. It is based on the concept of leverage, and we utilize the 23,000 members in this organization, most of whom live and work in New York. The City Bar Justice Center identifies a need, such as our project involving veterans. We train the volunteer lawyers so that they can take a pro bono case in that area. It's a simple enough system; it's a matter of scale. We are very proud of the reach of our pro bono program.

Editor: In a time of economic challenges, what can the bar association do to ensure adequate funding for these legal services?

Seymour: There are certainly activities to raise money for our pro bono work at the Justice Center, and we are working with groups in Washington and Albany to try to get additional government funding. Legal services funding is always a challenge. The current administration in Washington is somewhat more receptive, but there are budgetary constraints on Albany. It is a constant struggle, and I have no easy answer. Searching for legal services funding may not be politically expedient, but it's the right thing to do.

Editor: Would you describe the Vance Center for International Justice?

Seymour: The Vance Center is one of the crown jewels of the bar association. Named after Cyrus Vance, former secretary of state and association president, it was formed in 2003 to share some of the important legal principals of our system with other lawyers throughout the world. They have been active in a number of areas, and the area that interests me most is taking the concept of pro bono service, a great American legal tradition, and sharing it with lawyers in other countries where that tradition doesn't exist. Foreign lawyers have said that they know about it, but they haven't done it in their home countries. The Vance Center was behind the concept of adopting a set of pro bono principles that can be applied internationally. Those principles are in the process of being adopted in a number of countries around the world, currently in Latin America.

Editor: New York City is a world leader in business and commerce. What is the bar association doing to encourage international communication?

Seymour: In addition to the work at the Vance Center, we have a big international human rights effort. We have committees that have done some very important field work, visiting across the world to study international human rights issues and shedding light on questions of human rights abuses.

On the commercial side, commerce and finance are a very important part of our work. We have committees that deal with international business transactions, international dispute resolutions, and cross-border commercial activity. These are very popular committees that do a lot of work studying international legal issues and reporting on them, including geo-political issues. Obviously, it's a very broad topic, but people who are particularly interested in European affairs or African affairs or Asian affairs can join a committee at the bar association.

Editor: In this era of new technology, one of the areas of concern to both corporate lawyers and law firms is the challenge of e-discovery. Has the bar association addressed the issue?

Seymour: It's been an area of study of ours for a number of years. It's a topical issue on which we've had public programs for lawyers to be educated, and we've also had reports of our various committees whose work overlaps this area. We have looked at both New York state and federal discovery issues, and our federal litigation committee wrote a report on federal e-discovery. It is something of great interest to litigators. With 23,000 members and 160 committees, it's pretty hard to find a topic of practical interest to lawyers where work should be done and we haven't done it.

Editor: The New York community has been particularly hard hit by the current economic crisis, and many legal jobs are not going to return. Does the bar association have any programs to either help its members find jobs or to help them restructure their careers so they can apply their legal training in a non-legal position?

Seymour: The answer is that we have both those things and many more. We have a whole series of programs designed to address the issue of lawyers in transition and lawyers who need additional training. The programs include how to take your legal degree and find a non-legal career, how to switch disciplines within your legal career, how to reenter after you haven't been practicing law for some years, as well as lots of basic training.

We found a greater need in the last couple of years for younger lawyers to engage in training and mentoring programs than before, and so we set up a "boot camp," which is a very basic training for lawyers. In some sense, it is meant to replicate the kind of on-the-job training and in-house training you might get at a law firm. And this also is for someone who hasn't been able to find a job but still wants the training. So they come to us, and they go to basic training here. We teach them fundamentals about contracts, depositions and some of the elements of law practice. We quickly tailored the offerings we have for career development, networking, and training to address the very issues that you're talking about.

To help deferred associates, we established a deferred associate placement network. We placed some of them with the Justice Center to work on our pro bono projects, and we helped others find public service jobs around New York.

I'm very proud of how quickly the bar association reacted to the needs of our members. Every single week, we have offerings for lawyers addressing issues about their own individual careers. We even have one on how to use social networking sites, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

Editor: Given today's financial constraints, many lawyers must consider carefully which bar association to join. Why would an attorney choose to join the New York City Bar Association?

Seymour: We don't view ourselves as an "either or" organization. This goes back to a fundamental question, Why get involved in a bar association? Why this bar association in particular goes back to the ability to join forces with enough other independent lawyers whose collective voice will be heard. If you join a bar association, you can make a difference to society. It's also very good for you personally.

Of course, some attorneys have financial constraints, and almost all are overworked. However, you owe it to yourself as a lawyer to participate in professional development, networking, mentoring, and training. If you choose to cut yourself out from that by not joining - not being part of it - you're going to fall behind, and you're not really going to reach your potential.

I'm not saying that this bar association is the only place to do that. However, we do offer the opportunities, but they only pay off if you take them. You have to come in here and invest some time. Member after member has said that although I enjoy my career, the activities that really fire me up, the stuff that I really remember, the stuff I really value are the things I've done as a result of the bar association. Virtually every lawyer can find an outlet for his or her own personal interest here. Granted, it is expensive, and participation does add to one's work day. However, I think it's pretty clear that it pays multiple dividends on the investment. I agree with one of our members who said in last month's newsletter, "Who can afford not to be part of this group?"

Please email the interviewee at sam_seymour@nycbar.org with questions about this interview.