ALBANY – As he takes the reins of the New York State Bar Association, David Schraver said he wants to focus the organization on a single issue: legal education.
"I’m not all about appointing new committees and taskforces," said Schraver, 67, a partner at Nixon Peabody in Rochester. "I’m about trying to focus on what the issues are about."
First and foremost, Schraver said he wants to enlist lawyers, law firms and the other stakeholders to consider the state of legal education and how best to prepare lawyers for a changing profession.
"When you look at the challenges facing the legal profession, in my view, the challenge of legal education, admission to the bar, changes that are now occurring in the profession, really require the attention of the profession," he said. "The New York State Bar Association should be meaningfully involved in that discussion and perhaps leading the discussion."
Schraver’s one-year term began on June 1, when he succeeded Seymour James Jr. as president of the 76,000-member bar group. James is attorney-in-charge of the criminal practice of the Legal Aid Society.
In anticipation of the emphasis of his presidency, Schraver said the leadership of the state bar’s Committee on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar has been expanded and its mission broadened past its recent focus on the state bar examination.
Schraver said the committee is helping to coordinate contributions to the September issue of the Bar Journal, which will be given over to topics surrounding legal education. He also has decided that half the program at the Presidential Summit, which is held during the state bar’s annual meeting in New York City each January, will focus on legal education.
In addition, Schraver said he would like to convene a one- or two-day "conclave" next spring at which lawyers, law school officials, state bar examiners and others will discuss problems with existing modes of legal education and possible improvements. Virginia bar officials have sponsored such gatherings on legal education for two decades, he said.
Schraver said he does not yet know enough about legal education in New York to assess the effectiveness of the state’s 15 law schools.
"The profession is changing," Schraver said in a recent interview from the state bar’s headquarters near the state Capitol. "There are not the number of high-paying jobs with law firms that there used to be. There’s resistance on the part of clients to paying for first-year lawyers who are really in training. There are other types of organizations doing things that lawyers used to do."
He added, "How the law schools are trying to address those issues, I really don’t know. But I think as the profession changes, as non-lawyer competition, if you will, becomes more of a force in the marketplace, legal education needs to change. Not only reactively, but in anticipation of what we can foresee and even things we can’t foresee."
He said he hopes a report expected later this year from the American Bar Association’s Taskforce on the Future of Legal Education (NYLJ, Nov. 23, 2012) will promote flexibility for law schools accredited by the ABA to experiment with different models, such as providing more practical lawyering skills to students in their second and third years of study.
Schraver also cited approvingly a program at the University of New Hampshire School of Law, where about two dozen students a year are automatically admitted to the bar upon graduation without having to pass that state’s bar exam.
While the number of New York law students—4,700—might make such a program impractical, Schraver said the approach exemplifies the kind of innovation he’d like New York schools to discuss.
Working With the ABA
Schraver’s presidency will partly coincide with Sullivan & Worcester partner James Silkenat’s one-year term as president of the ABA, which begins Aug. 1. Silkenat will be the first New York lawyer to head the ABA since Robert MacCrate in 1987-1988 (NYLJ, Jan. 30, 2012).
Schraver, a former member of the ABA’s House of Delegates when he was president of the Monroe County Bar Association, said he has been in frequent contact with Silkenat for more than a year and expects to work in tandem with him on some issues.
Schraver said he is interested in a Silkenat proposal to create a "legal jobs corp" for law students and young lawyers.
"We intend to coordinate with him, communicate with him, keep him involved in what we’re doing as much as we can," Schraver said. "My expectation is it will have tangible benefits for the New York State Bar Association."
For his part, Silkenat said, "I like and admire Dave," adding, "There is a huge range of issues for us to deal with and the involvement of state (bar) leaders like Dave is critical."
Schraver is an Albany native who quarterbacked his high school football team before attending Harvard and the University of Michigan Law School. He was in the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General’s Corps following law school and returned to Nixon Peabody (then Nixon, Hargrave, Devans & Doyle), where he had clerked before entering the service.
He spent five years for Nixon Peabody in Palm Beach, Fla., where he focused on estate planning, real estate and commercial law.
Back in Rochester, he said he became interested in Indian law thanks to partner G. Robert Witmer Jr. Land claims and other Indian issues have remained a focus of Schraver’s practice since then. He has represented Madison and Oneida counties, the town of Southampton on Long Island and other governments against tribal land claims and has spoken and written on tribal sovereignty issues, often in conjunction with Nixon Peabody colleague David Tennant.
"From a lawyer’s point of view, it’s a very interesting practice," Schraver said of Indian law. "If you’re interested in history, if you’re interested in politics, both past and present, if you’re interested in a developing area of the law."
Schraver said Witmer, president of the state bar in 1994-1995, encouraged his involvement with the state bar and promoted his advancement through the ranks.
Witmer said Schraver’s knowledge of legal ethics and professionalism will be a plus as president.
"I am pleased for the state bar because I know that he is solid and as good a leader as anyone as I have seen in the state bar organization," Witmer said. "I think he will do a very fine job. He thinks before he speaks and the one certainty for his year as president is that you will be hit by issues that you will not anticipate. It happens. He will think through those issues before he speaks and acts."
Witmer will formally swear in Schraver as president during the meeting of the state bar’s House of Delegates in Cooperstown on June 22.
Schraver lives in Brighton with his wife, Nancy. He has two children and two step-sons.
Glenn Lau-Kee of Kee & Lau-Kee in Manhattan is set to become the next state bar president on June 1, 2014.
@|Joel Stashenko can be contacted at email@example.com.