Seymour James, the Legal Aid Society’s attorney-in-charge, announced Tuesday in an internal email that he will depart as head of the nation’s largest legal services organization in 2018.
“After 43 enriching and rewarding years, I will be retiring from the society next June,” James said.
When he joined Legal Aid in the mid-1970s, James said he only intended to stay for three years. During that time period, he said, he wanted to provide “the highest quality representation to the clients assigned to me and making a difference in their lives.”
Through the years and positions he filled—from a staff attorney in Brooklyn to head of the criminal practice before being elevated to the head of the organization in 2014—James said he’s had the privilege of working alongside colleagues with the same goal.
“Working together we have fought to provide high quality legal representation to those who cannot afford counsel,” James said. “In doing so, we have not only helped hundreds of thousands of people confronted with some of life’s most difficult challenges, by addressing their needs and improving their lives, but we have also made the legal system fairer and more just.”
James tenure at head of Legal Aid came amid a period of flux for the legal organization. After two decades working with, and often against, city government controlled by Republican mayors, James took over the organization at the start of the current administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a self-proclaimed progressive Democrat from Park Slope.
In many ways, James worked to continue the efforts at rebuilding and expanding the organization begun under his predecessor, Steve Banks, now the head of the city’s Human Resources Administration under de Blasio. After dealing with its own internal budget crisis at the start of the 2000s and navigating lean years of government budget cuts following the onset of the global financial crisis in 2007, Legal Aid has continued on solid footing under James. During his tenure, the organization grew from 1,450 or so staff members in early 2014 to some 2,000 today, according to James.
In a joint statement, private attorney Richard Davis, chair of Legal Aid’s board of directors, and Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom of counsel attorney Blaine (Fin) Fogg, board president, lauded James for enhancing the organization’s diversity efforts, both through training and hiring, as well as for successfully pushing the board to create a strategic blueprint for the organization going forward.
“Much has been accomplished at The Legal Aid Society during his tenure, and he will leave LAS in a very strong position,” they said.
The past three years have also seen social and political winds shift in favor of the kinds of changes long pushed for by Legal Aid and other legal groups. New laws have been passed, such as limitations to caseloads in criminal and child protective proceedings, as well as new commitments by city government for counsel in deportation and other hearings, that have helped expand the organization’s capacity. The rise of the police accountability movement, sparked in large part by the death of former Legal Aid client Eric Garner by an apparent chokehold, has allowed the organization under James to also be a strong voice for changes to the criminal justice system, from the prosecution of subway fare dodgers to the public release of internal police disciplinary proceedings.
Glenn Martin, founder and president of JustLeadershipUSA, a leading criminal justice organization in the city, said he grew to particularly appreciate James’ leadership while the two served on the independent commission studying conditions at Rikers Island headed by former New York Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman. The commission, made up of top representatives from a variety of stakeholder communities in the city, ultimately released a report suggesting the island jail be shuttered.
“Having a voice of authority on the issue, coming from his perspective aligned with the advocates, I think was really powerful, and also influenced a lot of the decisions by members of the committee who might not have been assuaged by advocates like myself,” he said.
James’ leadership on a broad range of criminal justice reform issues over the years has been “invaluable,” according to Martin, who called James’ tenure a “dramatic shift” from the previous leadership at the legal services organization.
“I think he has freed up his team at Legal Aid to make more value-driven decisions and statements, with respect to their work,” Martin said. “It takes a lot to change a culture in an institution, but he has definitely moved the needle at Legal Aid and I hope that continues.”
According to James, he will stay on “to ensure a smooth transition for the new attorney-in-chief after a search is concluded.” He did not announced any specific plans, but said he would not be giving up the practice of law, though he looked forward to spending more time with his family and interests.