Roger Juan Maldonado, who takes over as the new president of the New York City Bar Association at its annual meeting Tuesday, is a partner at Smith, Gambrell & Russell. Some of the clients he represents are musicians, publishers and record labels in copyright and contractual matters and students in federal class actions involving special education services.
At the New York City Bar Association, Maldonado was until recently the chair of the task force on Puerto Rico. He has also served as a vice president and member of the executive committee and as chair of the Council on Judicial Administration, the task force on international legal services, the task force on Housing Court and the Housing Court committee.
He is a referee for the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct, a member of the Commercial Division Advisory Council and a member of the boards of directors of the New York Community Trust, the New York Bar Foundation and United Neighborhood Houses.
Q: Why did you decide to seek the presidency of the New York City Bar Association? What in your experience has prepared you for the position?
A: Actually I didn’t seek the presidency. The nominating committee meets in the fall and they decided to nominate me. As to what has prepared me for this, I have chaired several committees, including until very recently the task force on Puerto Rico. I also chaired the Council on Judicial Administration, an experience that was enormously important in helping me prepare for what may await me as City Bar president, if for no other reason than it gave me the opportunity to meet, together with the president and executive director of the City Bar, with the chief judge at the time, Jonathan Lippman. Beyond being a privilege and enormously interesting, it was very informative about what’s happening within the New York state court system, what isn’t happening, and what needs to happen and how you go about trying to achieve those results. That was very good training in how to deal with issues beyond just issues of importance to the City Bar.
Q: With law firms cutting expenses, how will you demonstrate that membership in the New York City Bar Association is essential? How will you get members who are not active to take advantage of their membership?
A: We need to show our current and prospective members, for one thing, that there’s no better way to advance their knowledge of an area of law than by getting on one of our committees. The collaborative committee work our members do on reports, presentations and amicus briefs develops skills that will translate to these attorneys’ environments at work. We provide a place to hone leadership skills and get feedback on how you’re doing from someone other than just your immediate employers. And because it’s a collegial setting, the feedback more often than not is going to be supportive. For small-firm and solo lawyers, the member benefits the City Bar offers, including online legal research, our virtual law firm services, and meeting space are enormously valuable. Beyond these tangible benefits, we offer a way to get involved in public service generally, for members to view themselves as part of an institution that looks to promote the proper role of law in society for the benefit of all. Membership financially supports the good work we strive to do, and every member here, across the U.S. and around the world, makes our voice bigger. And with our building so conveniently located in midtown, we are always looking for ways to bring our members together just to socialize, network and have fun, with events like “Game Night” and “Bar @ the Bar.”
Q: What efforts will you make to increase membership, particularly among diverse lawyers, lawyers with unpopular political views and those employed by midsize and smaller firms?
A: We have a strong working relationship with many of the affinity bar associations, so we want to continue building on that, and I also want to be sure we extend our attention and reach beyond Manhattan to the other boroughs, which are diverse in terms of ethnicity and type of practice. As far as political views, we welcome all of them. The strength of our committees is dependent on having a representative cross-section of views on any given topic, and that’s what gives the positions we ultimately take a certain credibility. The first committee I chaired was the Housing Court committee, where you had very marked differences of opinion between the landlords’ bar, the tenants’ bar and the judges. A diversity of viewpoints adds to the satisfaction you feel when your committee is able to come out with a position.
Q: What is your plan for attracting lawyers in specialized fields?
A: The plan exists already, and it’s the over 150 committees and task forces that are focused on areas of law that are enormously important to the lawyers in this association and the communities in which we work and live. When these committees meet they often have presentations by experts in their area of practice that not only inform but also ensure they want to be there as a part of this networking and learning process. And these committees don’t just sit around and talk. They produce work: advocacy letters, amicus briefs, CLEs. They come up with a work product that we disseminate, not just within the association but to the wider interested community.
Q: What will be your priorities as bar association president? Name ways in which you want to take the bar association in new directions.
A: I’ll preface this by saying that every former City Bar president I’ve spoken with has made clear that, without regard to whatever agenda I may think I want to push, there will be a requirement to respond to the issues of the day as they arise. That said, I believe that it’s important for the City Bar to engage other institutions and organizations in a collective effort to better understand the appropriate role of law in society. We need to work together with the communities in which we live and work and those with which we interact—here and abroad—to ensure that the rule of law operates to serve all members of these communities, and not just those with the independent means to access the courts and petition government. The committees and task forces at the City Bar should continue to analyze and comment upon the current legal framework pertaining to immigration, access to justice, housing, education and health services, to name just a few of the issues we are likely to be called upon to confront one way or another by external forces.
Q: In order to make room for new priorities, it’s often necessary to decide what an organization no longer wants to do. What committees, task forces or events should the New York City Bar Association disband?
A: I don’t know the answer to that question just now, but I do agree with the premise, which is that you can’t just keep doing what you’ve always been doing without questioning whether it makes sense. Task forces are usually formed to deal with a specific issue that arises, so they are not necessarily intended to go on indefinitely. One of the task forces I chaired, on International Legal Services, no longer exists. But sometimes the issue persists, and therefore so does the task force. Our Task Force on the Independence of Lawyers and Judges is a good example. It was launched to take some of the burden off of our International Human Rights Committee, which doesn’t have the capacity to respond to every threat to lawyers and judges around the world. It’s a particularly good task force for us because it takes us all the way back to our roots and the reason the City Bar was founded. We actually have—are you ready for this?—a Committee on Committees, whose purview includes recommending when committees should be wound down or merged into other committees.
Q: At the end of your term, how will you judge if it has been a success?
A: It’s hard to quantify, but it would matter very much to me the degree to which we have engaged with other institutions and have been involved in efforts to secure and preserve crucial rights and a proper understanding of the role of law in society, and that we have demonstrated our ability to continue to work with other members of our communities to ensure that we all enjoy a vibrant society.