New York City Bar Association: Transforming The Practice Of Law

Tuesday, August 12, 2014 - 10:48

The Editor interviews Debra Raskin, President, New York City Bar Association (“City Bar”).     

Editor: Please describe your background generally and with respect to the City Bar.

Raskin: I went to Yale Law School and then practiced in civil legal services in Chicago for four years. I married a New Yorker and they can’t live anywhere else, so I got dragged to New York. Now I love it. In particular, I love Brooklyn, but I love all of it.

When I got to New York, I clerked for Lee Gagliardi, a federal judge in the Southern District of New York. I spent some time at the Civil Rights Bureau of the New York State Attorney General’s Office. Then I went to The Vladeck Law Firm, which represents employees in discrimination, contract and other matters.  In my practice, I’ve pretty much always been on the employee’s side.

I first got involved with the City Bar in the early nineties, when I became a member of its Civil Rights Committee. I was particularly impressed by the lawyers on the committee, the level of discourse, the length and thoroughness of many of the committee’s reports, its attention to cutting-edge issues, and the effort of its members to leave their clients’ concerns at the door in order to think more broadly about the public good in the legal world. All of those things I found very impressive about that committee and the other City Bar committees I became familiar with.

I then became chair of the Labor and Employment Committee. That was a great experience in the sense that we had lawyers representing management who are usually my adversaries, lawyers on the employees’ side, and some neutrals like mediators and arbitrators. We made an effort to think about the ways that we could improve the world of employment law and not necessarily just advance our clients’ interests. After that, I was on the Executive Committee of the City Bar for four years, and last year I was a vice president. Effective May 20, I became president. 

Editor: Please describe the City Bar’s dedication to diversity.

Raskin: We have a dedicated area that works on diversity and inclusion. It’s almost cradle to grave in the sense that it works with high school students to help them find summer jobs at law firms and corporate legal departments, particularly those with mentoring programs. We work with college students of color to help introduce them to the possibility of legal careers and work with diverse groups of law students to help enhance their opportunities. We encourage law firms to diversify, from junior-level associates to partnership to leadership positions for women, LGBT lawyers, lawyers of color and lawyers with disabilities. There is a good representation of all of these groups in the leadership of City Bar committees and the Executive Committee.

Editor: What about the City Bar’s dedication to the rule of law worldwide?

Raskin: There are several ways the City Bar promotes the rule of law internationally. We have fifteen committees that are focused on international legal issues. We just started a committee on Middle Eastern and North African Affairs. There is an International Human Rights Committee and a UN Committee that are both very active. In addition, we find that bar associations from different countries are interested in communicating with us. For example, I recently met with representatives from the bar association in Bilbao. Much of our international work is done through our Vance Center, which focuses on developing pro bono opportunities and furthering the rule of law in Latin America and Africa.

Editor: Tell us about the City Bar Justice Center.

Raskin: It’s led by Lynn Kelly, and it’s brilliant at leveraging legal talent. The Justice Center has specialists in a variety of areas, such as immigration, who train volunteer lawyers from firms and legal departments to multiply available resources. Veterans’ assistance is another excellent example of the Justice Center's work. And the Justice Center partnered with a trusts and estates attorney from Wachtell to set up a program for trusts and estates lawyers to give free advice to low-income families. The Justice Center tries to focus on areas of need that are not necessarily being handled by other organizations like The Legal Aid Society or Legal Services NYC.  

Editor: In-house counsel have unique needs. What is the City Bar doing to meet these needs?

Raskin: This is going to be one of my areas of focus. The City Bar places great importance on having in-house counsel represented in its leadership positions. We have three vice presidents, including one that is in-house at Estée Lauder. Our executive director, Bret Parker, held an in-house position prior to coming to the City Bar. I think it’s important that all of our committees have significant participation by in-house counsel. We have networking receptions for in-house lawyers and other events that target their areas of concern. The Justice Center works with in-house departments to get them interested in various pro bono activities. Their Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project is particularly attractive to the many in-house people who are transactional lawyers rather than litigators.

Editor: Corporate counsel are concerned that law schools don’t prepare their graduates to step right into practice. What is the City Bar doing to address this concern?

Raskin: My distinguished predecessor, Carey Dunne, convened a working group with law school deans, managing partners of law firms, general counsels of large companies, leading government and nonprofit attorneys and career services professionals to put together a report on new lawyers in a changing profession. It’s called Developing Legal Careers and Delivering Justice in the 21st Century. Part of the focus was on the problem of lawyers coming out of law school and not being prepared to practice. With respect to the training of these lawyers, we will roll out in the fall a New Lawyer Institute to provide recent law school graduates with rigorous training in the practical skills required to provide meaningful legal services. It will also provide training in such career development skills as how to write a resume, how you plan for your first job, and so on.

Editor: Corporate counsel are also concerned about the burdens of e-discovery. Is the City Bar looking into this issue?

Raskin: We have a working group focused on issues of e-discovery. Our Federal Courts Committee recently had significant input on proposed changes to the Federal Rules proposed by the Federal Rules Advisory Committee.

Editor: Are there other areas of City Bar activity that you would like to mention? 

Raskin: We have a Lawyer Assistance Program which has a social worker who works with lawyers who are having mental health or substance abuse issues. And we have a Small Law Firm Center and committees that provide counseling and programs to help lawyers not associated with large firms develop their careers and run their practices.

Our Legal Referral Service is staffed with lawyers who answer approximately seventy-five thousand calls a year. In many instances, we will be able to help them right on the phone.  If the caller requires further counsel, we may suggest someone from a list of vetted attorneys in various areas maintained by the Service. Attorneys on this list agree to do an initial consultation for a very modest fee. Sometimes the initial consultation is all that is needed. If additional help is required, then it is up to the attorney and the client to agree upon the fee.

Another thing I would like to mention is that we are actively reaching out to the next generation of lawyers. The City Bar has set up four committees that target new lawyers and that focus on areas including career development, public service, networking activities, and the National Moot Court Competition.