Debra Raskin
Debra Raskin (NYLJ/Rick Kopstein)

As Debra Raskin prepares to assume the role of president of the New York City Bar Association, her to-do list includes access to justice and an effort to broaden membership within the organization.

As a partner at Vladeck, Waldman, Elias & Engelhard, a plaintiff labor and employment firm, Raskin said those priorities reflect her concerns about inclusion and using the legal profession’s “unique position” for social good—two principles for which the city bar has always stood.

“Lawyers speak a language that others don’t have. As a keeper of these languages, we have some obligation to share that,” said Raskin, who takes the lead of the approximately 24,000-member organization May 20, succeeding Carey Dunne, a partner at Davis Polk & Wardwell.

Raskin said Dunne did an “amazing” job and that she would continue projects started under his watch, including efforts to aid new lawyers in a challenging job market.

Raskin said among her goals is to bring more solo practitioners, small firm attorneys, government lawyers and in-house counsel into the fold. The city bar is a “big tent that has something for all lawyers in our community,” she said.

As a member of a 13-attorney firm and a city bar member since the early 1990s, Raskin said she has always been impressed with the city bar’s array of services for attorneys in large firms, as well as solos and small firms.

“The benefits we can offer to lawyers in those situations are not as widely known or recognized as they should be,” she said.

She said she would make a “special appeal” to in-house counsels, who are an “untapped and unaddressed resource, both in the sense of our providing CLE and training to them and perhaps their giving back with us” through pro bono and legislative work.

It would be “foolish to ignore the importance of large corporations in our society,” she said. In-house counsel are often are “the people who help guide corporations to do the right thing and we care about that. We care about all sectors of society doing the right thing. So we need to communicate with them and we need know what their needs are,” she said.

On the access to justice front, Raskin said the city bar already had models for delivering free services, like the City Bar Justice Center and a Monday Night Law Clinic, but a “broader look at pro bono” was needed to improve “expertise and ability to deliver services.”

Attorneys must have specialized knowledge to represent pro bono clients—be it in welfare or landlord-tenant law for example—just as they do for paying clients, she said. “The question becomes how we meet both lawyers’ obligation to give back to society, and meet clients’ needs to have [skilled] counsel,” she said.

Another question to answer was how to find ways for attorneys to help if they are not able to take on cases, she said.

Raskin said the organization supported mandatory reporting of pro bono hours and contributions.

She also said she will continue to support the work of the city bar’s Task Force on New Lawyers in a Changing Profession, which was launched by Dunne. The task force recommended several projects to help new lawyers close gaps in training and education and offered an account of the current state of the legal profession (NYLJ, Nov. 14, 2013).

One of the pilots, the New Lawyer Institute, is scheduled to launch this fall.

Raskin, 62, graduated from Yale Law School in 1977, and her career began in civil legal services at the Legal Assistance Foundation of Chicago, where she became supervisor of employment litigation.

Raskin then clerked for now-deceased Southern District Judge Lee Gagliardi from 1982 to 1984.

The late Judith Vladeck of Vladeck Waldman litigated several cases before Gagliardi while Raskin was a clerk. She said she was impressed by Vladeck and the firm.

Raskin spent two years as an assistant in the New York Attorney General’s Office in its Civil Rights Bureau before joining Vladeck Waldman in 1986. She became a partner in 1988.

Raskin is an adjunct professor at Columbia University School of Law, where she co-teaches a course on employment litigation with colleague Anne Vladeck.

Within the city bar, she has been chair of the labor and employment committee and the executive committee. This past year, she served as one of three vice presidents.

Raskin will continue handling a full-time practice. “Keeping practicing is going to help keep me honest in the sense that you’re not just looking at the difficulties lawyers face from 2,500 feet. You’re in the trenches,” she said.

Dunne said in an interview that the past two years have been a “great opportunity and a great experience.”

Raskin was “an inspired choice” for the next president, he said. Given her years of experience with the organization, Dunne said no duties would be new to her. She was a “very steady hand” and a “great calming influence,” said Dunne, calling Raskin’s plans for the organization “perfectly consistent with what we’ve been doing.”

Raskin is married to Michael Young, an arbitrator and mediator at JAMS who was named last week as chair of the board of Legal Services NYC. They have a daughter, Dara Young, who administers Wesleyan University’s Center for Prison Education, and a son, Isaac Young, who is an associate at Morrison & Foerster.