Stewart D. Aaron: NYCLA's New President Brings Longstanding Commitment To Access To Justice And Pro Bono Service In Challenging Times

Tuesday, May 31, 2011 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Stewart D. Aaron, newly elected President of NYCLA and Partner at Arnold & Porter LLP.

Editor: Congratulations on your election to president of NYCLA. Please tell our readers about your professional experience. What are your areas of practice at your firm, Arnold & Porter?

Aaron: Thank you. My practice is a general commercial litigation practice. However, over the past 27 years, I have developed experience and expertise in securities-related litigation matters. I am an active member of the firm's Securities and Enforcement Litigation group. Along with a group of ten of my partners in the New York office, we represent clients in securities-related matters in state and federal courts and before regulatory bodies and self-regulatory organizations. In addition, I supervise the handling of pro bono prisoners' civil rights litigation in Arnold & Porter's New York office. Finally, I act as the administrative partner in our New York office.

Editor: You have been active at other New York bar associations. What drew you to join NYCLA?

Aaron: I first joined NYCLA as a very young associate and became a member of the Federal Courts Committee. From the inception of that committee to this day, it has held monthly meetings at which a member of the federal judiciary comes to speak. I've always found those meetings to be interesting and informative (and trust that the federal judges feel the same). After my stint as chair of the Federal Courts Committee, I became involved in NYCLA's leadership. NYCLA's inclusiveness and diversity remain most appealing to me. I very much enjoy interacting with small-firm and solo attorneys, as well as members of the state and federal judiciaries. I should note that NYCLA and I enjoy very good relations with the other local bar associations, and I look forward to collaboratively working with them during my tenure as NYCLA president.

Editor: Before being elected president of the NYCLA, you served as president of NYCLA Foundation. Please describe its main purposes and goals.

Aaron: The NYCLA Foundation essentially is the fundraising arm of NYCLA. NYCLA has a historic and ongoing commitment to improving access to justice. The Foundation has been actively involved in raising monies for NYCLA's successful and critical programs that were created in furtherance of that commitment. Particularly in the current economic climate, NYCLA's pro bono programs that provide assistance to New Yorkers in need are in demand, and the NYCLA Foundation provides support for those programs. 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?

Aaron: Under the leadership of Jim Kobak and his predecessors, NYCLA has had many accomplishments and has in place many successful programs and initiatives that will continue. Space will not permit me to list them all. By way of example only, NYCLA's pro bono programs are first-rate, and NYCLA's committees and task forces continue to issue excellent reports, many of which have been adopted in whole or in part by the New York State Bar Association. Most recently, many of the recommendations outlined in a report prepared by a subcommittee of NYCLA's Task Force on Judicial Independence were adopted by the New York State Bar Association at its January 2011 House of Delegates meeting. The recommendations adopted seek to promote judicial independence by bringing greater transparency to the way in which the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct operates and enhancing due process and the appearance of fairness in the Commission's processes.

As I enter my presidency, our attorneys and our courts are faced with huge challenges. Many attorneys are out of work and cannot find jobs, and our courts are constrained by budget cuts. I intend to create task forces to address these challenges: First, I'll form a task force on unemployed lawyers that will provide training, career advice and pro bono and other opportunities for unemployed lawyers to gain valuable experience and a network of contacts to assist them in obtaining gainful employment; and second, I'll form a task force on judicial budget cuts that will investigate the impact of judicial budget cuts on the due administration of justice.

Another challenge relates to small-firm and solo attorneys. This group is a very important part of NYCLA's membership, and many of them need assistance in keeping up with the ever-changing landscape of technology. To that end, I intend to create a task force on applied technology to empower attorneys in small firms and solo practitioners with technology tools in e-filing, e-discovery and online legal research, as well as other practical applications of technology in case management, client development and data security.

Editor: NYCLA's CLE Department is presenting its first webinar on May 17. How is NYCLA using technology to foster better communications with members, potential members, funders and the public at large?

Aaron: NYCLA currently utilizes e-mail, its website, its Facebook page and a blog maintained by its Task Force on Professionalism to communicate with NYCLA members. However, like every other business and organization in the world, NYCLA must constantly strive to keep up with technological advances and improve its communications. In fact, NYCLA is currently evaluating new software platforms that will enhance member communications. In addition, when I assume the NYCLA Presidency, any member will be able to follow me on Facebook and Twitter as I engage in NYCLA business and announce new programs and initiatives.

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

Aaron: Historically, many members of the judiciary have been part of NYCLA's leadership, including Charles Evans Hughes, Alton B. Parker and Benjamin Cardozo. Also, over the years, NYCLA has offered many ideas for court-related improvements. For example, in 1948, NYCLA sponsored initiatives to reduce calendar congestion at all court levels. In 1962, NYCLA spearheaded the effort to enact a unified civil and criminal court system in New York City. Furthermore, NYCLA has consistently supported just compensation for judges and employees of the courts. And, today, NYCLA's Judicial Section continues to foster its close relationship with the courts.

Editor: According to the mission statement of NYCLA's newly announced Rapid Response Committee, their intention will be to "safeguard judicial independence." How will it do so, and how can its work benefit and educate the public?

Aaron: Unfounded attacks on members of the judiciary may compromise judicial independence and mislead the public about the role of the judiciary in our system of government. It is important for NYCLA, as a bar association with a mission to protect judicial independence and to educate the public about the role of lawyers and judges, to speak out to address such issues in appropriate cases. While robust political debate is welcome in a democratic society, there are times when criticism crosses the line, and when that happens - particularly when it comes from powerful voices in government or the media to which the judge cannot respond - it is the duty of the organized bar to correct any factual inaccuracies, provide missing context or otherwise educate the public about the role of the judiciary. We do not intend to be spokespersons for individual judges, but we will speak out (through press releases, letters to the editor and other public outreach) to respond to political or media attacks that are unwarranted and create a misimpression with the public. Editor: NYCLA has a very active pro bono program. Please describe one or two of its most outstanding programs.

Aaron: NYCLA has very successful pro bono legal counseling programs. The Legal Counseling Project provides counseling to clients four times a month in the areas of family, employment, consumer bankruptcy and landlord/tenant law. The Manhattan Civil Legal Advice and Resource Office (CLARO) is a free, weekly walk-in clinic that provides limited legal advice to pro se litigants with consumer debt matters in the New York Civil Courts. CLARO was created in response to the growing number of low-income individuals being sued in civil court by collection agencies. The volunteer attorneys at CLARO provide unrepresented litigants with information and resources to help them represent themselves effectively.

One of NYCLA's novel pro bono programs is called Project Restore. As part of Project Restore, pro bono attorneys provide assistance to individuals with misdemeanor or felony convictions who are denied vocational licenses by the New York Department of State.

Editor: Speaking of pro bono, your firm represented Clarence Gideon in Gideon v. Wainwright, the seminal case on right to counsel. Are there other high-profile pro bono cases that Arnold & Porter has handled or is handling?

Aaron: Doing pro bono work has been a core value of Arnold & Porter since the firm's founding in 1946. Our pro bono commitment is a key part of who we are as a firm and is an important part of why many of our attorneys have made their professional lives at the firm. In addition to Gideon, Arnold & Porter has had many high profile pro bono representations, beginning with the firm's representation of victims of McCarthyism, and including representation of the victims of the Buffalo Creek disaster. In 2010, on behalf of the American Bar Association's Commission on Immigration, a team of more than 150 Arnold & Porter lawyers conducted a yearlong study on the US immigration removal adjudication system, as a result of which a 280-page report was published. Most recently, in our New York office, Arnold & Porter has undertaken the pro bono representation of an Islamic group in its lawsuit against the New Jersey Township of Bridgewater over its refusal to allow a mosque in a former banquet hall.

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

Aaron: NYCLA has always been an important part of my life. When I step down as NYCLA president, it is my goal to have NYCLA be even stronger and more vibrant than it is today, with an active membership striving to do pro bono work and other forms of public service.

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