The New York County Lawyers' Association: A Great Tradition Is Reaffirmed

Saturday, July 1, 2006 - 00:00

The Editor interviews Edwin David Robertson, Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft LLP, and Catherine A. Christian, Director of Legal Staff Training, Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor for the City of New York, President and President-Elect, respectively, New York County Lawyers' Association.

Editor: Would each of you tell our readers something about your professional experience?

Robertson: I grew up in Virginia and went to the University of Virginia for both my undergraduate degree and law school. Following law school I was commissioned in the United States Air Force and went on to take the New York bar exam. Following a brief stint of active duty, I joined Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft.

Christian: I was raised and still live in Brooklyn. Following undergraduate studies at Hofstra University, I went to Dickinson School of Law in Pennsylvania. From law school I joined the D.A.'s office for six years. From there I tried life as a defense attorney for a couple of years and moved on to work for the New York State Commission of Investigations. I then went to work for the Hon. Rosalyn Richter, who was supervising the Bronx Criminal Court. I missed my work as a prosecutor, however, and in time I went back to it, this time as a senior trial counsel in the Office of the Special Narcotics Prosecutor.

Editor: How did each of you come to the New York County Lawyers' Association? What was it that attracted you to this particular professional association home?

Christian: My first contact with NYCLA was when I was a law student. I was working for a small firm which sent me here to do research. I thought the atmosphere was very welcoming. After joining the D.A.'s office I became good friends with one of my supervisors, Peggy Finerty, who was an active member of NYCLA. She encouraged me to become more involved. In time, I became active in the Minorities and the Law Committee, which gave me an opportunity to interact with practitioners who were not criminal lawyers. Eventually I became chair of that committee.

Robertson: About thirty years ago one of my partners, Dan Draper, was active at NYCLA. He suggested I join, and over the next decade he introduced me to a great many people. Like Catherine, I found them to be very congenial. It was a very heterogeneous group of people in terms of background and practice areas, but they had a common desire to do the right thing as lawyers.

Editor: NYCLA is almost a hundred years old at this point. What is its origin?

Robertson: It was established as a consequence of the city's other bar association excluding lawyers who were Jewish. A number of very prominent New York lawyers, including Paul Cravath and Henry Taft, joined with a group of their Jewish friends to start a bar association that did not exclude people on any basis. This captured the imagination of others - Charles Evans Hughes, Secretary of State and later Chief Justice of the United States, for example - who believed that a tradition of inclusiveness is not only essential for a bar association but also that it is in the public interest. This was the era of the progressives, and they looked for the best in people, not the worst. This was the culture that served as a foundation for NYCLA.

We are coming out with a book next year on the founding of the organization, its history and its culture of inclusiveness. That inclusiveness extends to women, who were admitted to membership long before it became available elsewhere, and to members of all minority groups. When other doors were closed to him, Thurgood Marshall used to come here to use the library when he was appearing before the Southern District of New York or the Second Circuit.

We take pride in having done the right thing, although, at the time, our advocacy might have seemed pretty controversial. The abolition of prohibition was the right step for the country, for example. One of the founders of my firm, George Wickersham, headed a group to recommend that the country recognize that prohibition was a failure. We also take great pride in having broken with the ABA in 1943 over their refusal to admit African American lawyers.

Christian: As an organization we have a history of being at the center of the discussion on all kinds of controversial issues, even those with a political dimension. Representation of the indigent is a good example. I am a criminal practitioner, and I was outraged when I discovered that assigned counsel were being paid $40 an hour for courtroom work, $25 an hour for out-of-court work. Five hours of office work on a case would generate $125. I know what goes into the preparation of a criminal case, and that kind of compensation does not begin to reward the effort. In any event, NYCLA brought a lawsuit that resulted in increased compensation for these attorneys. They are still underpaid, but I think the point that they are engaged in defending someone faced with jail time and deserve fair compensation has been made.

Editor: This is a continuing battle?

Christian: Yes. Klaus Eppler, a partner at Proskauer Rose and a past president of NYCLA, is a member of Judge Kaye's special commission on indigent representation. No doubt, this battle will go on long after Dave and I have left office. There are few public debates that exceed this in importance, in my view.

Robertson: There has always been a lag time between the economic realities of the day and the compensation lawyers are paid to represent the indigent. This is a transcendent issue, however. It does not matter whether you think people should be locked up. The issue revolves around the fact that if you do not make adequate representation available to the accused, they are going to be convicted without benefit of law and that, in time, develops into a disrespect for the rule of law. The legal system is then perceived as an instrument of oppression. Such a perception is enormously corrosive to society. In making provision for adequate representation of the indigent, we are not only serving the weakest among us, we are serving everybody's interests.

Editor: Does NYCLA have an official attitude towards election of judges versus appointment of judges?

Robertson: NYCLA's official position is that some kind of system which considers the merits and qualifications of the person concerned is preferable to an elective system. Given the political realities in New York, I do not see our preference - which would require a constitutional amendment - becoming a reality any time soon.

Christian: I agree. I have appeared before both appointed and elected judges, and some of both varieties have been excellent, others less so. The one certainty I have is that any change in the system will cause anger and resentment somewhere in the system.

Robertson: One of the experiences I have had on the civil side is that there are not enough judges. Were there three times as many judges, the quality of justice would improve dramatically because each judge would have more time to address the issues. And while such a step represents an increase in costs, the resulting benefits, in my view, vastly outweigh the added costs.

Editor: Catherine, you mentioned compensation of public defenders. What about compensation of judges?

Christian: The Chief Judge of New York, the Hon. Judith Kaye, has stressed this issue on numerous occasions, and we are on record as favoring increased compensation for judges. Their work load is very heavy, especially in Criminal Court, where they work nights, weekends and holidays. Many of them have not received a raise in years, and in fact the work load is only increasing.

Editor: In 2003 the NYCLA's governing board adopted a new mission statement. What was behind this step?

Robertson: The actual language of the 1908 charter and that of the new mission statement are essentially the same. The latter is more contemporary, of course.

Christian: The new mission statement was the work of our Task Force on the Future. It was perceived as not so much a new statement but rather a reaffirmation of our principles. Access to justice, provision of services to the indigent, diversity in the profession, a commitment to pro bono service, contributing to the public policy discussion, and so on, all affirm what NYCLA is about.

Editor: Each of you, for at least a limited period of time, is a kind of embodiment of the organization's mission. How do you perceive that mission?

Robertson: I wish to energize our membership around NYCLA's traditions. I do not think of the mission as a means of advancing the career ambitions of our membership, but rather as a challenge. I think our members agree with that perception, and that, in concert with the optimism that caused NYCLA to be founded in the first place, they will work to perpetuate its values. My responsibility, I think, is to excite the members about the things that have excited all of us about this place.

Christian: One of the best things about NYCLA is the diversity of career path that you find in our leadership and in the organization generally. Dave is a law firm practitioner, I am a prosecutor, our vice president is a trusts and estates lawyer, our secretary is a New York Supreme Court special referee, our treasurer is engaged in international commercial litigation, and so on. Out of all this, you have a basic agreement on the organization's values. I agree with Dave that perpetuating those values is extremely important.

I have a personal interest in that part of the mission that focuses on young people. I would like to try to reach children on the importance of education and on the fact that it is possible to go to college and law school. As an organization, we are good at broadcasting this message, and we have many members who are excellent role models for young people. I propose to emphasize this aspect of the mission.

Editor: Dave, as you come into office, what are your priorities?

Robertson: There are several specific matters that I wish to pursue. One has to do with Article 81 of the New York Mental Hygiene Law, which covers how people are declared incompetent, especially the indigent. At present, the process puts an enormous strain on the court system, and, with an aging population, the problem is only going to get worse. The system needs more resources for training the participants in the process.We have a group looking at this. I am planning to launch a project that will result in a non-profit organization governance tool kit. I would also like to see the discussion on integrity and professionalism rendered into more contemporary language that people can understand. I think NYCLA is in a position to help with this.

Editor: Catherine, looking ahead, what do you see as your agenda items?

Christian: Having waged the battle for indigent representation in the criminal court arena, I want to see people who cannot afford an attorney in civil matters, and particularly in family court, have access to some sort of representation. NYCLA's pro bono efforts, and its connections with a variety of community groups, will play a role in that discussion.