I spent 8½ years as an administrative judge and have now completed my first year as Presiding Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department. In these capacities, I have been involved in the administration of our state’s courts. There are many stakeholders with whom court administrators interact. These include our judges and their associations, our partners in government in the executive and legislative branches of the state and its municipalities, our own employees and their union representatives, district attorneys, law enforcement agencies, institutional criminal defense providers, and advocates concerned with particular issues, such as domestic violence prevention and adjudication, just to name some. But critical to our success is meaningful interaction with the organized Bar. It is important for court leaders, judges and lawyers to work together to ensure that the courts of our state promote and protect the rule of law and deliver equal and timely justice to all. Participation in the organized Bar affords some of the best opportunities for judges and lawyers to collaborate in addressing common issues and problems.
The day-to-day work of lawyers who litigate cases and the judges who decide those cases proceeds on separate tracks, with communication between lawyers and judges limited, in the main, to formal arguments, conferences and the submission of written papers, all focused on the resolution of the particular case at hand. When it comes to assessing from a broader perspective the state of our courts and the practice of law in New York, judicial administrators need the honest, candid and insightful perspectives of the attorneys in the trenches. No two lawyers ever think exactly alike and we all have different ways of looking at the same problems, borne out of our differing experiences. Rather than relying only upon ad hoc, and perhaps unrepresentative, input from those attorneys whom we happen to encounter, the views of the Bar are best gauged through the prism of our many bar associations, organizations which carefully synthesize the opinions and concerns of their members and develop thoughtful reports and recommendations in their representation of their members.
It is not enough for judges to simply be passive recipients of formal bar association communications. We need to work side-by-side with our fellow lawyers in order to gain a true understanding of the issues confronting the practicing Bar and to work in tandem to guide the legal profession and shape the development of New York law and the New York courts. This is not a one-way street. Judges and court administrators should be actively engaged with the Bar in order to assure that the Bar is aware of the concerns of the Judiciary and has a true understanding of pending changes and the reasons for them, and, importantly, to provide the Bar the opportunity to weigh in and help shape reforms. By active engagement, I mean regular attendance at meetings, legal education programs, receptions and dinners. Our judges should fully participate so that our Bench-Bar dialogue is as meaningful as possible.
In recent months, I have heard that there has been a decline in interest among lawyers in participating in organized Bar activities. This is most distressing. We lawyers owe it to ourselves and the future of our common profession to re-energize our colleagues to take an active role in our professional organizations. Court leaders need the active support and engagement of vibrant bar organizations in order to best carry out their administrative responsibilities.
Since my admission to the Bar over four decades ago, I have always been involved in bar association activities. These have been some of the most professionally and personally worthwhile experiences in my life. I have learned much and have met colleagues from around the state who have become lasting friends. Within the State Bar, I have served in the House of Delegates, on the Committee on the New York State Constitution, on the Committee on Courts of Appellate Jurisdiction (now in my third stint as a member), and on the Task Force on Administrative Adjudication, and I have been active in the Commercial and Federal Litigation Section, the Family Law Section, and the General Practice Section (once upon a time I was co-editor of the Section newsletter). In these roles, I have been able to, in conjunction with judges and lawyers from various geographic and practice areas, study and debate issues of concern to the profession and to develop proposals and recommendations for action.
As a court administrator, I have tried to reach out to the representatives of the organized Bar and meet with them regularly. In the past year, I have held two separate meetings in the Appellate Division courtroom with State Bar leaders and leaders of the many bar associations within the Second Department. We had a lively and valuable discussion on important issues and I look forward to continuing these forums. In addition, members of our court have been designated to continue the dialogue through smaller group meetings with Bar representatives from their home communities.
Lawyers who are active in bar association work are able to play meaningful roles in influencing the debate on matters affecting the legal profession, such as attorney admission, attorney discipline, and efforts to promote civility in the practice of law, as well in relation to substantive legal issues. They also have an opportunity to provide feedback regarding programs and practices adopted by the courts, such as the efforts made in recent years to improve the operations of our state’s courts. The input of the organized Bar has been invaluable in the ongoing reassessment of court procedures pursuant to Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s Excellence Initiative, the continuing expansion of e-filing, and the use of the latest technology that is bringing about significant changes in how we do things. I have consulted, and will continue to consult, with the Bar on measures to address the crushing caseload, and the resulting delays in civil appeals, experienced in in the Appellate Division, Second Department.
The view from inside the courthouse can often be very different from the view of the lawyers who are coming into the courthouse to seek justice for their clients. Although many of today’s judges were once themselves practitioners who were looking in from the outside, the challenges faced by lawyers change over time. The practice we once knew is different from the practice of today. Lawyers who work alongside judges as members of the organized Bar can help keep us attuned to the needs and viewpoints of the lawyers and litigants who appear before the courts. By doing so, lawyers provide court leaders with an invaluable perspective which will enhance the formulation of fair and user-friendly court rules and practices.
Bar association participation provides lawyers with opportunities to fulfill their obligations and to keep up with the latest developments in the law and to give back to their profession and their community. Bar associations offer a wide variety of interesting continuing legal education programs, through which we can share our knowledge with each other. Bar associations’ ethics committees offer important advice and counseling; bar associations operate volunteer programs that enable lawyers to help those who are unable to afford critical civil legal services.
Another significant function fulfilled by the organized Bar is educating the public about the roles of judges and lawyers, and about how the legal system works. Bar associations sponsor programs and make public statements that serve to enhance the reputation of the judiciary and the legal profession in general. Today, anyone with a smartphone and social media account can disseminate uninformed comments about judicial decisions and the judicial process to a vast audience, including comments that unfairly impugn the integrity of judges. Ethical constraints restrict what judges may properly do in response. Bar associations must, and do, step in to correct misconceptions about how the law works and how cases are decided. This intervention is critical to the preservation of judicial independence.
For all of these reasons, I would suggest that any lawyer who is not already an active member of the organized Bar should get involved. A fully engaged and participatory Bar is essential to the continued vitality and integrity of our profession. Participation in one or more of the bar associations throughout our state offers is an open opportunity to contribute to the betterment of our profession. Join up and join in today.