President Of New York State Bar Association Tackles Toughest Issues

Monday, July 5, 2010 - 00:00

Editor: What issues will be the focus of your term?

Younger: People wonder why anyone would want to be president of a major bar association in a time of crisis. To my mind, every crisis offers an opportunity to reflect on the status quo and consider whether there is a better way to do things.

Last year was probably one of the worst years in history to be a lawyer in New York, and there were immediate problems that needed to be addressed. We now have time to take a hard look at ourselves and figure out how the New York State Bar can make the practice of law a better profession and address pressing concerns about governmental ethical standards and the court system.

Editor: Tell us about the new task force that will focus on the future of the legal profession.

Younger: We have assembled a cross-disciplinary task force ranging from managing partners to practicing lawyers to academics to law firm consultants who will study four issues affecting the future of the profession.

First, they will consider how we train our young lawyers. I have long felt that while law schools do a wonderful job teaching our young lawyers how to think like lawyers, they aren't as good at helping them to apply those skills to drafting a contract or preparing a complaint. Law students are dumped on the doorsteps of law firms that are then expected to train them to serve the needs of clients.

We are seeing more and more corporate clients who say that they don't want to have first- or second-year lawyers working on their matters. If we don't come up with a way to fix the system, our young lawyers will never get that all-important first chance to try a case.

In the past, there were a lot more opportunities to try your first case as a young lawyer or to handle your first small deal. Those opportunities just aren't there as often for young lawyers. So we need better systems to train our new lawyers.

The second issue is to look at the workplace environment. For a long time there has been discussion about flexibility in the environment of a law firm to provide a better work-life balance. Working against that is the evolution of the BlackBerry and the cell phone. Each of us has become a virtual law office that is open 24/7. Lawyers were never nine-to-five people, but now it has reached a point where you can never turn off the office.

The third issue is that the hourly billing system is no longer being taken for granted. More and more corporate clients are exploring alternate billing systems. My own sense is that hourly billing is not in sync with the goals of the lawyer and the client since it leads to judging young lawyers by the quantity of their work as opposed to its quality. As a result, we are challenging the task force to come up with best practices that can meet this challenge.

The last issue is technology. The BlackBerry has dramatically changed how we practice law. The lawyers who are out ahead in applying the game-changing technology of the future will be the most successful. So we need to help our members face up to the fact that they must understand and use the big new technologies that are coming down the pike.

Organizations like the New York State Bar also need to realize that if they are going to stay in touch with their members and potential members, they must communicate with them using media with which they are most comfortable. This is why I have become the first Facebook president of the New York State Bar. I felt that if I wanted to encourage young lawyers to become involved in the activities of the New York State Bar, one of the best ways to do this was through Facebook. On a daily basis, I post on Facebook what I am doing at the bar. (See www.facebook.com/NYSBAPresident.)

Editor: Tell us about the program that Michael Getnick, your predecessor as president, will spearhead.

Younger: During his term, Mike created an initiative to explore whether law students could get some practical experience by being involved in New York State Bar projects. This has probably been our most successful new program, both for experienced members of our association and for law students.

The idea is that whenever we have a committee, a task force or a section that is doing a project requiring research, it will enlist the help of law students. Mike has agreed to continue this work to ensure that this program will be aggressively implemented by working with our sections and with our not-inconsiderable resources in the law schools. We already have law student representatives at most law schools in the state. We have a significant number of law student members. At my alma mater, Albany Law School, the entire student body is enrolled in the New York State Bar.

I can give you an example of how this initiative works. When our criminal justice section undertook a new project, we sent out an email blast to our student members offering an opportunity to work on the project. We had 40 responses from students who wanted to get involved.

It is a real win-win from both sides. For the students, it gets them in front of experienced practitioners (who are potential employers) who are working on an exciting, cutting-edge issue. For us at the New York State Bar, it allows us to enlist our members in projects that they would otherwise be unable to undertake.

Editor: How can law schools do a better job of preparing their graduates to draft a contract or walk into a courtroom?

Younger: We need to reexamine the third year in law school. There are lots of people who feel that the third year should be a practice-oriented year. We also need to look at other options to better equip young lawyers so that when a corporate client hires them they know they will get somebody who actually knows how to do the work as opposed to a lot of the clients feeling as though they are paying to train the young lawyers on the job.

Editor: What will your task force on government ethics do?

Younger: The task force will look at whether New York State should adopt legislation that would give prosecutors more power to ferret out corruption in government. The federal "honest services" law is before the U.S. Supreme Court right now. A lot of people think that the law will be invalidated, but hopefully we will have guidance from the Court's decision with respect to what the contours of a constitutionally valid anti-corruption bill would be.

We also need to figure out how best to develop a set of ethical rules that the public can really believe in. We currently have multiple bodies that promulgate inconsistent rules. Some of these bodies don't have sufficient independence to merit public confidence.

The task force will also suggest ways for public officials to get advisory opinions so that they can appropriately guide their own conduct. One of the complaints about the federal "honest services" legislation is that it provides little guidance to government officials.

The task force will also study the need for comprehensive ethical standards for local government. Business corruption is fostered if businesses assume all of government is dishonest, which is not the case. Taxpayers will benefit if there is a level playing field that encourages more businesses to compete to serve local government.

Editor: What are the missions of the family courts task force and the special committee on youth courts that you have launched?

Younger: Let me address each of these courts separately. Over the past 20 years, the caseload of our family courts has increased by 20 percent. Also, because of new legislative requirements, each case typically involves more hearings. Yet, in New York City, we have had no new family court judges, and upstate we have had only a handful. The result is intractable delays in the family court system.

In a down economy, the burden on family courts only gets worse. For example, in the last two years, filings related to family violence increased 30 percent. The task force will look at how the workload of the family court system is handled and whether there are technological solutions that will help it deal with a very difficult caseload.

As to youth courts, there are now 80 around the state. They handle minor offenses - things like vandalism. Instead of sending these cases to the juvenile justice system, courts of true peers, such as students in a high school, act as judges.

This system has several advantages. Statistics show that kids who go through these youth court processes are much less likely to go back into the justice system than kids who go through the conventional criminal justice system. School-based youth courts are better able to apply a problem-solving approach and then to track the long-term success of whatever adjudication the youth receives. Another plus is that this process causes youths to become really interested in the justice system. Some of them may go to law school or pursue a career otherwise involved in the justice system. It makes them part of the system as opposed to having a system which kids feel is stacked against them.

The groups looking into these issues include family court judges and practitioners, youth court volunteers and law school professors. They will take a good look at what can be done to improve the family and youth court systems.

Editor: Steve, as president of the New York State Bar Association, you have created task forces involving ambitious and rewarding projects that are of great interest to our readers. I am looking forward to interviewing you at the end of your term about the progress that has been made.

Please email the interviewee at syounger@nysba.org with questions about this article.