With some 72,000 members, the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA) is the largest voluntary statewide association of lawyers in the country, and the official organization of legal practitioners in the state.
While more than half its members are in private practice, the organization includes not only practicing attorneys, but also judges, professors of law and non-practicing attorneys who work in other fields—the governor, for example. Specialties run the gamut, with the most common areas of concentration being real property, corporate, trusts and estates, business and general practice.
The term bar, referring to the entirety of the legal profession, derives from 14th century England, when a literal bar separated the barristers from the hoi polloi at the Inns of Court. One who passed jurisprudential muster was said to be "admitted to the bar."
Chartered as a private, non-profit corporation, the NYSBA was written into the state constitution as part of Chapter 210 in 1877, a year after its founding in Albany. Presidents Grover Cleveland and Chester A. Arthur were members, and Charles Evans Hughes, Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, served as the NYSBA's president.
The NYSBA still calls Albany home, although with markedly nicer accommodations. The 37,000-square-foot headquarters captured two major architecture awards in the 1970s. The design—like the organization itself—is a blend of modernism and tradition. The organization boasts 118 employees and an operating budget of some $21 million, all drawn from membership dues—not a cent comes from your tax dollars.
The organization was originally all men, but today almost one third of NYSBA membership is women, including the president-elect, Kathryn Grant Madigan, and the executive director, Patricia K. Bucklin.
The group is governed by a 267-member House of Delegates, which convenes four times a year. A more streamlined executive committee of 26 members is authorized to act on behalf of the larger group, if need be. In addition to 60 committees, there are 23 law sections with varying specialties. A number of these sections publish specialized legal material not otherwise available to the public, one of the many perquisites the NYSBA offers its members.
"The NYSBA has long served a dual role as an advocate for the profession and for the public," according to its website. "Often it is difficult to separate these two responsibilities, but during the last few decades with the growing complexity of society and our legal system, the NYSBA's public role has gained both emphasis and breadth.
"During the past decade, the association has initiated programs addressing a wide range of public concerns; from child abuse to the problems of the elderly; from governmental corruption to the high cost of justice. State Bar positions play an influential role in determining public and social policy in state and national forums."
The ambitious mission statement of the NYSBA lists eight purposes, which are: to cultivate the science of jurisprudence; to promote reform in the law; to facilitate the administration of justice; to elevate the standard of integrity, honor, professional skill and courtesy in the legal profession; to cherish and foster a spirit of collegiality among the members of the association; to apply its knowledge and experience in the field of law to promote the public good; to promote and correlate the same and similar objectives in and among the bar organizations in the State of New York and in the interest of the legal profession and the public; and to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and the Constitution of the State of New York.
To help readers better understand the organization, The Cooperator spoke with Andrew J. Rush, the director of media services and public affairs for the New York State Bar Association.
What are the NYSBA's goals for the immediate future?Are there any new initiatives in the works?
"The New York State Bar Association is very active on a number of issues that are extremely important to the legal community.Our president, Mark H. Alcott, who practices at the Manhattan law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP has launched an initiative aimed at ending age discrimination in the legal profession. At our most recent House of Delegates meeting on March 31, 2007, our association formally endorsed a report calling on law firms to end this practice.
"In addition, we adopted a position calling for an increase in the mandatory retirement age of judges.
"We are also working with New York Court of Appeals Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye to advocate for a long overdue pay raise for judges in New York.
"Encouraging and fostering pro bono work among lawyers is always at the forefront of our efforts as an association.In fact, after taking over as president of NYSBA on June 1, Mr. Alcott launched the highly successful Empire State Counsel program, which recognizes lawyers who provide free legal services for the poor, and encourages others to provide services as well."
What are some notable past successes the NYSBA has enjoyed?
"Our association is more than 130 years old, and as the largest voluntary bar association in the nation, we have a long history of achievement.Some of our most recent success stories include: working with the NYS Unified Court System to achieve new changes in lawyer advertising rules which will protect consumers throughout New York State; being recognized as a national leader in the fight to defend the attorney-client privilege from attacks by the federal government and others; successfully lobbying the state legislature to increase funding for civil legal services for the poor; creating the mock trial camp and running mock trial programs that teach students about the legal process; and successfully educating the public about the roles lawyers play in people's everyday lives through a series of non-commercial sustaining announcements (similar to PSAs) that are now running on more than 200 radio stations throughout New York State."
Are there any current hot-button issues within the organization that are controversial?
"Of the 'hot button' issues that are currently under debate in New York State, the one that is garnering the most interest is in the way we select judges.A current court ruling has said that the current method for selecting judges in New York is unconstitutional. In fact, the U. S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case later this year. Our Association is currently advocating for New York to go to a 'merit based' system of judicial selection and do away with elections.While this has been the association's position for more than 30 years, it is a controversial issue, and one that the association will continue to pursue."
What sort of work does the NYSBA do for the community at large? In other words, how does the NYSBA affect the average Joe?
"We do a variety of things to help the public at large. In addition to encouraging lawyers to do more pro bono work to help those in need with legal problems, our association sponsors things such as:
• Free legal clinics across the state for the elderly.These clinics give free legal advice to seniors who may need advice in planning their estates and dealing with legal issues;
• We publish 'Legalese Pamphlets' which explain, in common language, common legal situations people may find themselves in.
• We coordinated free legal services for flood victims in the southern tier this past summer; and
• We run a highly successful lawyer referral service that helps people find a lawyer with expertise that fits their needs.
Greg Olear is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Cooperator.