Seymour W. James Jr. (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)
Seymour James Jr. has been chosen to lead the Legal Aid Society in New York City, capping a 40-year career at the organization representing indigent New Yorkers.
Legal Aid announced James as the new attorney-in-chief Tuesday, elevating him from his longtime role as attorney-in-charge of criminal matters to head an organization with a $230 million annual budget that handles more than 300,000 criminal, civil and juvenile justice matters annually and employs 1,100 attorneys and more than 700 social workers, investigators, paralegals and support and administrative staff.
James, a past president of the New York State Bar Association, succeeds Steven Banks, who was Legal Aid’s top attorney for 10 years before becoming commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration in March.
James, 66, said that becoming attorney-in-chief was not something he imagined when he was starting out, but the appointment was a “nice culmination to a career.”
According to James, Banks left the organization “very sound fiscally and structurally.” He said he saw his new job as a continuation and expansion of Banks’ work.
James said he wanted to continue providing comprehensive criminal, juvenile and civil representation, but “there’s more we can do in communities.”
For example, James said he wanted to increase “know your rights” programs to educate people on the rights and remedies they have in both civil and legal matters.
He said he would like to undertake a strategic planning process in which the organization would study how it delivered services, where there was room for improvement and how it should attempt expansion. The review would not be a reaction to perceived shortcomings but would be the type of examination that was healthy for any organization to do periodically, James said.
James’ also pledged to push legislative changes, including a priority of raising the age of criminal responsibility to 18 from 16.
Richard J. Davis, chairman of Legal Aid’s board and search committee, said the search process began by reaching out to nearly 500 people for their thoughts on applicants. “We were looking for somebody who demonstrated commitment to the mission, who was a strong leader, who was respected in the justice system and the legal community and somebody who we thought could be an effective manager.”
James fit that bill, he said.
There was “no question of [James'] commitment to the mission” of indigent representation, Davis said, noting James had the managerial skills to lead the criminal practice and the state bar, and was highly respected both inside and outside the organization.
Applications are being sought for James’ successor as attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice. James held the post for nine years.
After Banks’ departure, the organization convened a search committee made up of board members, staffers and union leadership.
The committee received more than 20 resumés, none from other Legal Aid staffers, and interviewed seven candidates.
Both the committee and the board unanimously supported James.
Davis said they were “absolutely willing” to bring in someone from outside the organization if deemed to be the best person for the job.
“We didn’t,” he said. “We thought he’d be the best.”
In a statement, Blaine Fogg, Legal Aid’s president, said James has “devoted his life to the cause of equal justice. He will be an outstanding attorney-in-chief. I look forward to working closely with him in his new role.” Fogg is of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.
Likewise, Deborah Wright, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, with a membership of about 1,000 Legal Aid lawyers, said she was “very excited” to have someone like James as attorney-in-chief. “He comes from our ranks,” she said, and was well versed in issues facing the Association’s clients and members. Wright emphasized the significance of having “an attorney of color now as the attorney-in-chief, who really reflected” the organization’s client base.
James was born in Brooklyn and raised in Queens. A graduate of Boston University School of Law, he joined Legal Aid as a staff attorney in 1974.
He rose through the ranks and held supervisory roles in various boroughs before becoming attorney-in-charge of the organization’s criminal practice.
During his tenure as the organization’s top criminal lawyer, James oversaw the four-year phase-in of about 250 additional attorneys due to legislation capping attorney case loads.
That process, involving recruiting, training and supervision, was “one of the most important things he did,” Davis said.
Under James’ watch, the criminal practice added new units to handle specialized cases such as trafficking, boosted the number of investigators and enhanced social services for clients.
As state bar president from 2012 to 2013, James focused on reforming criminal discovery rules, voter participation matters and made a push for a judiciary budget that increased funding for civil legal services.
As attorney-in-chief, James will be expected to keep up the organization’s “strong fiscal position” as well as maintain the organization’s role as the primary indigent defender in the city, Davis said.
Davis said he hopes the organization can reach more individuals in need of civil legal representation, as well as to continue collaboration among Legal Aid’s various practices.
James has a busy workload outside of his Legal Aid duties.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently tapped him to sit on a task force to examine mental health issues in the city’s criminal justice system.
James is also a member of the New York State Justice Task Force, the New York State Permanent Sentencing Commission and serves on Committee on Character and Fitness for the Second Judicial Department.
He said he will continue serving in those roles.
James lives in Brooklyn and is married to Justice Cheryl Chambers, who sits in the Appellate Division, Second Department. They have three children.
In a 2012 Law Journal profile of James as he became state bar president, observers described him as “soft-spoken” and “very polite”—but immediately able to command attention when he talked (NYLJ, June 1, 2012).
Davis said the search committee kept hearing that theme when its members talked to people outside Legal Aid about James. “People listen to him when he speaks,” Davis said.
David Schraver, immediate past president of the New York State Bar Association, made the same point about the respect James has garnered. “I don’t think there’s anybody as committed to the mission of the Legal Aid Society as Seymour,” said Schraver, who served as president-elect during James’ term.
Schraver, of counsel at Nixon Peabody, said James was great to work with, and a “calm, steady presence” who was also effective. James had deep credibility when talking about both civil legal services and indigent criminal defense.
“That’s his life,” Schraver said.
Likewise, current state bar president Glenn Lau-Kee said James’ “leadership ability, good judgment and breadth of experience bode well for the Legal Aid Society. He is an outstanding choice.”
In a statement, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman called James “a consummate professional, and I have every confidence whatsoever that he will do an outstanding job and continue the tradition of excellence at the Legal Aid Society.”