Lewis Tesser (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
The new president of the New York County Lawyers’ Association, Lewis Tesser, said his top priorities are helping the public better understand the role of lawyers and helping young and unemployed attorneys find jobs.
But he wants to explore the priorities of other members as well. “I want to let NYCLA be NYCLA. It should be open, it should be generous, it should be inclusive. And if I can help move things along and not become a roadblock to what NYCLA is, I’ll have been happy,” he said.
Tesser, a NYCLA member for 15 years, said the organization has been a “university of learning for what a bar association can be.”
The association was founded in 1908 by lawyers denied entry into other local bar groups because of their ethnicity, religion, race or gender. Today, NYCLA is one of the nation’s largest bar associations, with more than 9,000 members.
Tesser, 67, is a senior partner at Tesser, Ryan & Rochman who represents licensed professionals, particularly doctors and lawyers, in litigation and mediation. He also works on administrative and commercial cases and serves as a mediator.
Tesser, who took the reins as president last night, was installed along with president-elect Carol Sigmond, a construction industry partner with Horowitz Sigmond; vice president Michael McNamara, a litigation partner at Seward & Kissel; treasurer Stephen Lessard, a senior tax associate with Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe; and secretary Megan Davis, a commercial litigation partner at Flemming Zulack Williamson Zauderer.
Chief among Tesser’s priorities is restoring the public’s trust and respect for the rule of law.
“I’m concerned about the political climate in the sense that the judicial system, the legal system and lawyers seem to be fair game for politicians to take potshots at,” he said. “It’s not a healthy public environment.”
Although Tesser represents lawyers in trouble for their missteps, he said his job and his involvement in NYCLA has shown him that lawyers are generally honorable and good people. There’s a “structural integrity” built into the profession, he said.
To combat negative perceptions of the profession, NYCLA is planning a series of conferences next spring exploring ways in which lawyers can solve polarizing problems. In particular, the series will highlight “the role of the rule of law in balancing common security and individual freedom,” Tesser said. McNamara will spearhead that effort.
“I’d like to influence the discussion so that there’s an appreciation that lawyers are good people, that lawyers are in it for good reasons and are really interested in serving their clients’ interests,” he added.
Additional programming for the upcoming year is being planned around the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal Civil Rights Act, Tesser said.
NYCLA’s 100th annual dinner, which will take place later this year, will celebrate the 225th anniversary of the Southern District of New York.
This summer, the association will begin construction on a new members’ lounge at its 14 Vesey St. headquarters.
“I’m very enthusiastic about that,” Tesser said. “Why shouldn’t members have a place to go between cases to charge their batteries, read the paper and network with other lawyers?”
Tesser has given the green light to past president Stewart Aaron, a partner at Arnold & Porter, to start a “legal concierge” program at NYCLA’s onsite library. Librarians are being trained to assist lawyers with tasks such as document shredding and locating expert witnesses or foreign language interpreters.
“We want to assist lawyers beyond the lookup of a statute,” he said. “We think this will be especially helpful to small firms and solos without libraries.”
Tesser wants to expand NYCLA’s professional skills development courses for starting and mid-career lawyers in transition. Though the association currently offers such courses, they will be fine-tuned and marketed for those audiences specifically.
The association’s efforts to reach younger lawyers starts with students still in law school, Tesser said. It invites students to serve as co-chairs and participate on committees. It will begin partnering with New York law schools to form student chapters. That effort will be led by Daniel Wiig, assistant general counsel with the Metropolitan Credit Union and a co-chair of NYCLA’s Young Lawyers Section.
Outgoing NYCLA president Barbara Moses described Tesser as a “natural consensus-builder.”
“Being president of a volunteer-led organization is sometimes like herding cats,” Moses said. “We have a large and diverse membership, and a large and diverse board of directors. Lew has the skills and personality to be an effective cat herder.”
Having a sense of humor may help. As chair of the NYCLA Foundation, the group’s fundraising arm, Tesser wanted to try something new with NYCLA’s first-ever spring fundraiser this year. The result was “The Book of Betty,” a musical tribute to the life of Alston & Bird senior counsel Betty Weinberg Ellerin, the first female justice of the Appellate Division, First Department. Musical numbers were performed by several NYCLA members.
“He’s brought innovation, energy and a lot of fun to the fundraising aspect,” Moses said about Tesser.
Tesser has served as co-chair of NYCLA’s CLE committee and helped found NYCLA’s Ethics Institute, which he directed until last year. The institute is an umbrella entity that oversees the association’s committees on professionalism, attorney discipline and professional ethics; as well as CLEs on legal ethics within various fields of law.
He also co-chaired a NYCLA task force that, over the course of four years, recommended changes to the state bar on the rules of professional model conduct for lawyers. Several of NYCLA’s suggestions were adopted in 2009, said Tesser, who was editor-in-chief of a treatise on the new rules published by Oxford University Press.
Tesser grew up in Queens and graduated from Queens College. He was drafted into the U.S. Army while he was still a student at George Washington University Law School, but he was allowed to graduate in 1970 before reporting to basic training.
Over the next four years, Tesser served as a Judge Advocate General, prosecuting and defending cases all over the world. He also served as chief legal adviser to the commanding General of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa.
While in the army, Tesser earned a master’s degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.
In 1974, Tesser joined the Eastern District U.S. Attorney’s Office. He left three years later to establish his own firm. In the earlier years, he focused on civil rights and employment law.
Tesser lives in West Nyack and is married to Marjorie Tesser, a poet and editor of the literary journal Mom Egg. He has one daughter, 31, and two sons, 28 and 21.
In addition to NYCLA, Tesser has been active in the state bar. For the past year, he has chaired its general practice section, which has more than 2,100 members, and is a member of the professional discipline and alternative dispute resolution committees.
But there’s “something in the DNA” of NYCLA, he said, that attracts particularly “open-minded, inclusive and generous” members.