City Bar: A Dynamic Leader Steps Down

Wednesday, April 24, 2013 - 15:15

The Editor interviews Barbara Berger Opotowsky, Executive Director, New York City Bar Association (“City Bar”).

Editor: Barbara, it is hard to believe that you are retiring. Tell us about your career at the City Bar.

Opotowsky: I don’t think of it as retiring. I’m just starting a new chapter, and we will see where that leads.

As you know, since you have been involved for many years, the City Bar is an extraordinary institution, and it has been a privilege to serve here. It speaks out whenever and wherever in the world something of interest to lawyers happens.

Those leaders whom we attract and who speak on behalf of City Bar are incredibly knowledgeable and have the highest values. To be a part of that group has been a very meaningful and challenging experience, especially since the world has changed so dramatically in the 15 years I have been here.

In the last five years, the profession has been put under enormous financial stress. We have law school graduates with huge debt burdens who lack jobs, and we see in the world around us the very things we have fought for decades to achieve now being questioned. What we have tried to do is protect our core values as reflected by the positions taken by our committees and the programs that we have presented and the support we have provided for members of the profession.

Editor: Why were you willing to accept the challenges you must face in your position as executive director?

Opotowsky: Who wouldn’t want this wonderful opportunity? I have worked primarily in the government and nonprofit fields where something more is offered than the actual job, where there has been a purpose beyond a paycheck. It wasn’t so much being willing to accept a challenge, but being happy to be offered this challenge.

Editor: One of your great contributions and legacies was to assemble a fine staff.

Opotowsky: The staff is largely made up of those who have spent or plan to spend many years here. We are fortunate that it is so collegial.

When you walk into the City Bar and see those beautiful marble pillars, it projects an impression that this organization has endless resources. The reality is that most of the departments are thinly staffed with persons who have an enormous amount of expertise in their respective fields. 

This expertise is also true of our sister organization, the City Bar Justice Center, and the pro bono work that it does. The thing I am going to miss the most when I leave the City Bar is the people – they are such a joy to work with.

Editor: What were some of your priorities during your tenure?

Opotowsky: One was for the City Bar to stay responsive and be a voice for the rule of law and access to justice. People ask about change and what is new, but the reality is that what is more important is that the City Bar has remained true to the values that were espoused at its creation: a fair and independent judiciary without corruption, access to justice, and the rule of law. 

As to the profession, as it has become harder and harder for law graduates to enter the profession, we have placed even greater emphasis on career development and supporting young lawyers. That support ranges from skill training to job search skills.

We have always been supportive of access to justice for everyone. Through the City Bar Justice Center, we have dramatically increased our programs to help people who cannot afford to have legal representation. And our Vance Center has taken what we have learned domestically and expanded our efforts internationally.

Editor: Describe the changes that have taken place in the City Bar’s committee structure during your tenure.

Opotowsky: The committees are the heart of the Association. Most bar associations have a section structure with each section covering a broad area of the law and having many members.

We take a different approach. We feel that  committees with around 35 members are ideal environments for people with different perspectives to have thoughtful discussion and decision making.  When you and I sat on the Consumer Affairs Committee many years ago, its members included consumer advocates, representatives of government agencies, law firms, and corporate counsel of companies serving consumers, like yourself.  As with the Consumer Affairs Committee, our committees are ideal venues for creating a dialog among those with different viewpoints that are knowledgeable about a particular field.

There are about the same number of committees as when I came to the City Bar. What we have done is increase our efforts to promote more collaboration among committees. We have councils, whether on international affairs or on children, where we gather together a group of committees with a common interest in a particular area.

Editor: What goes on behind the scenes to assure that the work of committees gets the exposure it deserves?

Opotowsky: Our committees are our focal point. If their work doesn’t get the attention of policy makers, its value is very limited.

We have a number of ways to assure that attention. Our legislative staff makes sure the work of the committees gets to the right people in local, state or federal legislatures or agencies. We also have a very strong press office that publicizes our work so that it filters up to the decision makers.  And many of our committees have direct access to decision makers.

When one speaks what is important is what one says, and we try to be nimble enough to act in a timely fashion. After 9/11, there were a number of issues that arose very quickly. When the military tribunal issue arose, we were out there very quickly with a position, and we had some impact on the rules that were finalized.

Editor: Tell us about the City Bar’s role in examining the credentials of judges.

Opotowsky: One of the founding principles of our Association was to assure the honesty and competence of the judiciary. At all levels of the judiciary there is a review by the City Bar. At the local level, the review is by the judiciary committee. That committee looks at each candidate for judge in New York City very thoroughly. If the person is already a judge, the committee reads his/her decisions, interviews lawyers who have appeared before him/her and interviews the candidate.

At the appointive level we feel very good about the relationship we have with the Mayor’s office. Before the Mayor appoints a judge, he seeks a finding of qualified from the City Bar. However, we are not always successful on the elective level since we may find someone not qualified who still gets elected – all we can do is have our opinion known.

For appointees to the New York State Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court, the review is done by the Executive Committee. The amount of work that the Executive and Judiciary Committee members do in developing their reports on the candidates and their thoughtful discussions is truly inspiring.

Editor: Diversity is an increasing concern. What has the City Bar done to welcome women and minority lawyers?

Opotowsky: This issue is dear to my heart. Before I held this position, I chaired the City Bar’s Committee on Women in the Profession. As to the City Bar itself, we try to be inclusive at every level. When we do panels and programs in the meeting hall, we try to achieve diversity on each and every panel. When we talk to the nominating committee about nominating executive committee members and officers of the Association, we urge them to think about diversity. Similarly, we urge our committee chairs to make sure that their committees are diverse, not only in terms of different views relating to the practice area covered but also in offering seats to a diverse group.

Cy Vance as City Bar President initiated a program for diversity in the profession. We have a statement of principles that over a hundred law firms and corporate law departments have signed. We implement it in a number of ways – by sponsoring many programs focusing on diversity, by doing benchmarking that tracks the progress made by firms, and by hosting an awards ceremony for those who have made a contribution to diversity. That being said, most of us are saddened at what seems to be a slowing down of progress in achieving diversity in the profession.

We have complemented our work with a very robust pipeline program. Starting with minority high school students and continuing through to law school, there is a continuum of programming and mentoring. This program makes a difference in terms of preparing diverse young people to enter the profession. We have a program where dozens of high school students are hired by employers for a summer to provide them with exposure to what goes on in a law office or a corporate legal department. There is also a program to provide first-year law students with a summer internship in law firms so they have a leg up before the second-year hiring season.

Editor: What are the City Bar efforts in making law school graduates ready for the real world of law practice?

Opotowsky: Carey Dunne, our president, created a task force in September composed of law school deans, law firm managing partners, general counsel, career development advisors, the heads of legal services and the leadership of the City Bar. The group is tasked with discussing what to do with young lawyers entering the profession in this incredible time of change. We are planning to publish a report on this issue in the fall.

Editor: Please mention some of the City Bar’s pro bono activities.

Opotowsky:  Our Justice Center conducts a dozen programs – everything from working with veterans and the homeless to helping asylum seekers. There is also the capacity to respond quickly as needs arise. For example, immediately after Sandy hit, we called together a dozen legal service groups who worked together in providing legal services to victims of the storm. I mentioned our strong staff expertise. This staff trains, mentors and supervises the casework of thousands of pro bono lawyers, allowing us to leverage their time geometrically. In today’s challenging economic climate, the legal needs of the poor are even greater, and the Bar’s pro bono commitment is all the more critical.