Guiding The New York County Lawyers' Association Into The Future: Norman L. Reimer Assumes The Helm

Tuesday, June 1, 2004 - 01:00

Editor: Tell us how you came to be President of the Association.

Reimer:I've always wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer. My first job in 1977 was with one of the finest criminal defense lawyers in the City, and I've worked with him ever since. During this period, the firm has grown and developed practices in other areas. I joined the Association in 1977 right out of law school because I wanted access to its fine library. I became active in its Criminal Justice Section and then got involved in other projects, including, at the request of the Association's leadership, serving on the Membership Committee and the Executive Committee.

Editor: What initiatives do you to plan to promote as President that grew out of your work with the Criminal Justice Section?

Reimer: The Association has an incredible history of involvement in access-to-justice issues.We were involved early in the 20th century in trying to secure counsel for people accused of crimes - long before the Supreme Court decided there was a constitutional right to counsel.As far back as the early '60s, the Association proposed a plan for providing representation to people accused of felonies and misdemeanors in New York City through use of assigned counsel.

In the mid '90s the indigent defense system in the City and State was in crisis.I proposed to then President of the Association Cas Patrick that we create an Indigent Defense Task Force, which he asked me to chair.

Editor:What were some of the accomplishments of the Association's Indigent Defense Task Force?

Reimer: The Task Force systematically examined the entire program by which indigent people were being provided with counsel in criminal cases. It is a two-part program in New York, involving both institutional providers and assigned counsel

The first part of our study was concerned with institutional providers.At that time, Mayor Rudy Giuliani and the Legal Aid Society were at odds over labor issues.The Giuliani administration reacted by deciding to put some work out to bid from new providers.After a meticulous study, the Task Force concluded that to do that without having practice standards could be a recipe for disaster.There is something fundamentally inconsistent between the provision of effective legal counsel to the poor and the economic interest of a governmental entity that seeks to buy legal services as inexpensively as possible.

Fearing a catastrophe, our Task Force, working with the City Bar and other bar associations, prepared a proposal for creating a new entity to develop minimum practice standards for institutional providers supplying representation to indigent people accused of crimes. We brought our proposal to the attention of the Appellate Division, which has a major role in overseeing indigent defense.It ultimately agreed to establish something called the Indigent Defense Organization Oversight Committee, whose mission is to provide standards and require proper training for institutional providers.

Editor:How did your Task Force address issues relating to assigned counsel?

Reimer: Assigned counsel are private counsel screened by a committee of the Appellate Division, which I chaired for a number of years.They are compensated at a rate fixed by State statute.At the time I chaired the Screening Committee, it was painfully evident that we could not find enough qualified counsel willing to work at the rates in effect since 1984 - $40 for in-court work and $25 for out-of-court work. At the time, there were terrific lawyers who enjoyed handling a few of these cases each year, but simply could not afford more because they lost money on them.

After careful study, the Association's Indigent Defense Task Force proposed a sweeping rate change. We took our proposal to the State Bar, which unanimously endorsed it. But we were unable to persuade government officials that the hourly rates should be increased.

By the end of 1999, we were completely frustrated by the growing crisis, not only in criminal cases, but also in Family Court, where lawyers are also compensated under the same assigned counsel plan.You had abused women who were going without counsel, and you had children who needed counsel in child protection and child delinquency proceedings. After long deliberation, we decided, as a bar association, to bring a lawsuit to challenge the rate structure.

It was a precedent-setting piece of litigation because we were not suing on behalf of the lawyers; rather, we were suing on behalf of the indigent litigants who were inadequately represented.We came up with a theory of third-party standing to assert the rights of individuals who would otherwise never be able to make this claim.

We brought what we called a systemic challenge, alleging that the failure to change the rates had so thoroughly degraded the system that competent counsel could not be provided and constitutional deprivations were happening daily.We could not have brought the suit had we not been successful in recruiting Davis Polk and Wardwell, one of the City's outstanding firms, to take the case on a pro bono basis.

The litigation was a huge success, not only because it resulted in raising the hourly rates to a more realistic level, but also because the Association prevailed on the theory that it could assert the rights of poor people in litigation to challenge the constitutionality of State statutes. That decision was unanimously affirmed by the Appellate Division. Finally the State Legislature acted and raised the hourly rate across the board to $75.

Editor:I understand that you are a great supporter of the Association's Justice Center. What are some of its future plans?

Reimer: Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Housing Court, our Justice Center is convening a conference to which we are inviting people and organizations with an interest in housing. Statistics show that 90-95% of all tenants are unrepresented while landlords consistently do have counsel. The goal of this conference is to develop recommendations to improve the Housing Court.

I am also going to be setting up a task force to improve the quality of the Criminal Courts and to make them more user friendly. The Housing and Criminal Courts are extremely important because they are so heavily used.

Editor: I understand that the Association will soon be offering its members a completely new Tech Center.

Reimer: Yes, within a few weeks, we will be unveiling in a test mode, a state-of-the-art Tech Center, with a formal opening in the fall. The Tech Center will give our members online access, enabling them to be in touch with their offices and the court system, as well as conduct research. We are also exploring the possibility of installing a "WiFi" wireless network.

Editor: How does the Association plan to ready itself for the anticipated business expansion downtown?
Reimer: We are at the perimeter of the Trade Center site and also in the heart of the financial community. In my acceptance remarks on May 27th, I announced a very important initiative Ñ a proposal to create a Business Law Center that can focus on commercial issues. Center members from academia, the bench and the bar will design a series of programs to study the jurisprudence of business law and to comment on cutting-edge issues of special interest to the corporate community.

Editor: I understand that one of the great advantages of the Association's committees is that they provide members with insights into the thinking of the judiciary.

Reimer: That is correct. One of the great values of our Association is that it brings lawyers from all practice areas into a collegial environment. It is wonderful to be able to connect with your adversaries in a non-adversarial way. By the same token, the ability to interact with judges outside the courtroom is an invaluable benefit both for practicing lawyers and for judges, who can learn first hand about the concerns of the lawyers who practice before them. We sponsor an annual summer program called Lunch With a Judge for associates at the big firms. We also launched a new program on the criminal side where we have Lunch With a Judge in the judge's chambers so that prosecutors and defense attorneys can sit and talk about the practice of law with judges in an informal environment.

Editor: Let me ask you about the Association's proposal that interrogations be videotaped.

Reimer: This is another exciting innovation proposed by the New York County Lawyers' Association, which I hope will eventually have a major effect on our criminal justice system. Our Civil Rights Committee developed a proposal to require that all custodial interrogations be videotaped. Typically in this country, a recording will be made at the end of interrogations when people say what their interrogators want them to say.However, we have no record of what went on up to that point. There have been startling revelations around the country of people convicted on the strength of false confessions. A good example is the 1989 case involving the Central Park jogger, where the convictions were recently overturned. Recording interrogations will also protect the police as the recordings will serve as irrefutable documents.

Editor: What does the Association offer corporate counsel?

Reimer: NYCLA is vitally involved with issues relevant to corporate counsel. When Sarbanes-Oxley came along, NYCLA was the first bar association in the country to get comments posted on the SEC's website. We are an open bar association where people can join any committee. At NYCLA, corporate counsel have the opportunity not only to interact on our committees with other lawyers interested in business law, but also to participate in drafting reports and position papers that are likely to have an impact on public policy.

Editor: What about diversity?

Reimer: Our Diversity Task Force developed a statement asking law firms and corporate law departments to pledge to do a better job with diversity, including providing clients with information about how much of their work was done by minority lawyers. Fifty-four bar associations and 27 major law firms have already signed the statement.

The new slate of officers elected by members of the Association at its annual meeting on May 27th included a majority of women for the first time in our history. Our leadership ladder includes Catherine Christian, our new Vice President, who is in line to become the first African-American and the second woman to serve as President of the Association.

Editor: How does the Association attract younger lawyers?

Reimer: We have a number of law school initiatives to stimulate their interest. There is nothing better than meeting people in practice when you are thinking about getting your first job. Hopefully, providing an early introduction will stimulate long-term interest in the Association. Additionally, our Young Lawyers Section offers networking opportunities and a full range of programs designed to enhance career options.

Editor: What do you want to accomplish by the end of your term?

Reimer: Without sounding falsely modest, my primary goal is to leave NYCLA in as good shape as I found it when I became President. Beyond that I want to launch our strategic plan, hold successful events for our 100th anniversary, make substantial progress in building our endowment, and get our Business Law Center off to a running start. Lower Manhattan is in the process of undergoing a dramatic resurgence. I want the Association to play an important role in that revitalization.