Sheila S. Boston headshot
BY Sheila S. Boston
Launch of the Six Priorities

Greetings, my beloved New York City Bar Association community!

The New York City Bar Association was two months into commemorating its 150th anniversary when the coronavirus pandemic overran New York City. So much for looking back when so much is coming at us.

The City Bar’s leadership had to decide if and when to shut its doors. The decision was easy, and for a painful reason: One of the City Bar’s greatest assets, its magnificent House of the Association in midtown Manhattan, considered by many the ultimate destination for networking in the legal profession, would clearly also be an ideal networking venue for the coronavirus to super-spread itself. We thus closed our doors and went fully remote on March 19, partially re-opening in September on a limited basis by appointment only while most of our activity continues virtually.

See our Executive Director Bret Parker’s column for how the City Bar pivoted and how our members have remained engaged

On a personal note, this was all happening just a couple of months before I would become City Bar President at the Association’s Annual Meeting, held over Zoom. I had been formulating the priorities on which I thought the City Bar should focus during my term, and of course COVID-19 Recovery Projects would now top the list. Without them none of the other initiatives would be possible.

Even in normal times, there is no issue closer to the heart of the City Bar’s mission than ensuring a well-functioning justice system. It goes to the origin of our association, which was formed over a century and a half ago for that very purpose. And so we dove in to support the enormous challenges faced by Chief Judge Janet DiFiore, Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence Marks, and all the court personnel making heroic efforts to keep the justice system functioning for our fellow New Yorkers.

First and foremost, our Committees grappled with the issue of safety and the need to enhance protections in the city’s detention facilities and reduce prison and jail populations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus among the incarcerated, corrections officers, and prison staff. This would serve to protect the wider community as well, as we learned that seven of the 10 largest known sources of infection nationwide were traceable to jails and prisons.

From there we sought to advise on the best ways to protect defendants’ rights while keeping them, judges, court personnel, lawyers, and witnesses safe. These included recommendations to expand virtual court operations in civil cases where feasible, and to minimize virtual proceedings in criminal trials beyond arraignments and preliminary hearings to protect due process.

In addition, our Council on the Profession answered my clarion call to be of assistance to our law school colleagues during this health crisis. They, too, addressed issues of safety but with respect to law school buildings and the state bar examination. They also formed a stellar panel of local law school deans whom I had the pleasure of moderating in a discussion about effective but safe pedagogical methods and protocols to protect and support the next generation of our profession.

Read more on COVID-19 Recovery here

Our twin imperative was to do what we could to alleviate suffering in our wider community, and it speaks to another of the priorities I believe the times call for us to emphasize: Access to Justice.

As lawyers lined up to volunteer at the City Bar after 9/11 and Superstorm Sandy, they are logging in to respond to the pandemic. When a small business in New York City affected by the pandemic calls 311 for help, they are referred to the City Bar Justice Center’s COVID-19 Small Business Remote Legal Clinic, through which some 1,000 volunteer lawyers have provided pro bono help to over 1,000 businesses in accessing government assistance. And here I give 1,000 thanks for the extraordinary work of Lynn M. Kelly, the Justice Center’s Executive Director who recently announced that she is leaving to begin her next chapter in life.

While those who can’t afford a lawyer can turn to the Justice Center, the middle class could use a break these days as well, and the City Bar’s Legal Referral Service has stepped up by waiving its $35 initial consultation fee until further notice during the pandemic. What a wonderful service — to help people understand the exact nature of the issues confronting them.

The Justice Center’s report on the lack of Wi-Fi access for students in homeless shelters – supported by a #WiFi4Homeless awareness campaign – garnered much attention, including in the New York Times. In October, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city would install Wi-Fi in homeless shelters across the city. As the Justice Center notes in these pages, access to Wi-Fi is in effect a racial-justice issue, as people of color in New York City are disproportionately represented among the homeless.

Read more on Access to Justice here

And that leads me to my next priority: Criminal Justice Reform. I knew it would be one of my priorities from the moment I was nominated to be the City Bar’s next President, long before I announced it at the Association’s Annual Meeting on May 19. When George Floyd was killed before the world six days later, I felt anything but prescient. It came in the wake of Breonna Taylor in March, and Ahmaud Arbery in February, and Eric Garner and Tamir Rice in 2014, and Amadou Diallo in 1999, and there are too many names to say here. If George Floyd’s killing weren’t part of a pattern, if it weren’t a result of systemic racism, it would have been viewed as a horrible tragedy caused by a bad individual and quickly forgotten by most people. Instead, George Floyd’s death was the last straw.

Beloved colleagues, it’s time for some difficult conversations, some real talk, if you will, and the times finally appear to be welcoming it. Consider that phrases like “systemic racism” and striving to create an “anti-racist workplace” have entered the vernacular. Words matter because they reflect thought and drive action.

And don’t get me wrong. I am not anti-police. I am the wife of a retired New York State Trooper and the mother of a child in law enforcement. But we have got to find a better way to ensure that all lives truly do matter.

The pandemic may have made us close our physical doors for a time, but the City Bar continues to be a crossroads and a convener of the legal profession. We hosted two panels on policing Black and Brown communities. During the summer I moderated a top-notch panel on police reform issues from a national standpoint; the panel consisted of former United States Attorney General Loretta Lynch and other law enforcement experts. Then this fall we focused on our home city, and among the distinguished panelists engaging in frank conversation were the First Deputy Commissioner of the NYPD and the Policy Counsel of the Bronx Defenders — two people you might not expect to find together at the table.

Bridge with pedestrians at night

Consider that if our society were healthily diverse, if we were all equal in one another’s eyes, if we conducted our lives in the spirit of inclusion, we wouldn’t need criminal justice reform. We wouldn’t need, for example, to push for mandatory video recording of interrogations in juvenile delinquency proceedings in Family Court, as we have, with the knowledge that youth going through the justice system in New York are overwhelmingly Black or Latinx.

Read more on Criminal Justice Reform here

As you can see, these priorities I am outlining all blend into one another – Access to Justice into Criminal Justice Reform, into Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, the next priority and one which is also dear to my heart and for which I passionately try to advocate in our profession. After all, can there be equity in society if we lack diversity among those who make the wheels of justice turn?

While the City Bar has long worked to diversify the legal profession, progress has been stubbornly slow. Last year, the Legal Education and Pipeline Task Force of the City Bar’s Committee to Enhance Diversity in the Profession, appeared to figure out a key reason why. In a report called “Sealing the Leaks: Recommendations to Diversify and Strengthen the Pipeline to the Legal Profession,” the Task Force determined that by the time of law school, it’s too late for certain groups to compete academically. Among the Task Force’s findings was that educational deficits for Black and Latinx students begin as early as elementary school.

Recently, the City Bar issued a follow-up report with recommendations for fixing the student legal pipeline. It included interviews with Black and Latinx law students and lawyers, who spoke of barriers to a legal career, including difficulty “‘fitting in’ or being able to have conversations with those in positions of power,” and a “culture” in the legal profession that excluded them “from equal access to success in law school and beyond.” There’s no reason why these young people should feel as if they are strangers in a strange land. We owe the next generation the tools to equip themselves to pursue a path in the law, to make our professional culture more inclusive, and to help them get acclimated to the language and the dialect of the legal profession. We must assume this responsibility if we are going to move the needle on this issue. Per my personal mantra: To whom much is given, much is required.

Notably, our Office for Diversity and Inclusion is working hard to diversify the next generation of lawyers in New York City, despite the pandemic’s damage to internships and other plans. To see hundreds of Black and Brown high school students participating remotely in our Thurgood Marshall Professional Development Series is to feel more confident about the future of our profession. Daviel, a young alumnus of our five-week college program, Launching Your Career, says, “When I look at the inequities of the world I think about how to correct those inequities. The best way is to become a lawyer in our society and fight those inequities in court.” Daviel is one reason that we are, what I am calling, a Bar of Hope! #BarOfHope.

And lest you think our diversity efforts are limited to the legal profession in New York or even in the United States, look at what the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice is up to with its pioneering TotalLaw Prep program to promote diversity and inclusion in the Latin American legal profession for Indigenous and Afro-descendent lawyers. It started when former Ambassador, Vance Center Committee member, Winston & Strawn partner, and soon-to-be Chief of Staff to First Lady Dr. Jill Biden Julissa Reynoso called on the Vance Center to develop a pipeline for Indigenous and Afro-descendent Latin American lawyers to work in the New York offices of international law firms through their post-LL.M. international associate programs. It’s another stellar program at the nexus of diversity and access to justice, and, ultimately, the Rule of Law.

Read more on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion here

And that takes us to my next priority: Protection of the Rule of Law.

As a nonpartisan organization with members from across the United States (and around the world) and across the political spectrum, we don’t criticize our elected and appointed officials lightly. To do so is inevitably to be accused of partisanship in some quarters. However, when the rule of law is threatened, the Constitution and the principles upon which our nation was founded – including that no person is above the law – are threatened, and it is our duty as officers of the court to take a stand. We owe no less to the founders of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York, among whose first efforts was to confront corruption in the justice system.

Through the great work of the Task Force on the Rule of Law, chaired by Stephen L. Kass, and with the help of numerous other Committees, the City Bar was nimble and forceful in speaking truth to power on such timely issues as the use of militarized force against protesters in Portland and Lafayette Square, shenanigans at the U.S. Postal Service, in defense of Inspectors General, and on lawyers’ and public officials’ obligations during the Presidential transition, among many other important reports and statements. Great thanks go to Senior Policy Counsel Maria Cilenti for her tireless work in this endeavor, as well as Director of Communications Eric Friedman for his efforts in spreading the word about this work and everything going on at the City Bar.

The Task Force on the Rule of Law recently completed a five-part forum on the rule of law, featuring some of today’s leading legal analysts and commentators. All sessions are available on video on our website and together serve to document this consequential moment in history.

Read more on Protection of the Rule of Law here

And last but certainly not least, we need to prioritize Mental Health and Wellness. This was true before the pandemic, and it’s doubly true now in the midst of it. As with COVID-19 recovery efforts, without it – without ensuring our own health and wellness – nothing else is possible. That’s why during every public appearance I plead for all of us to take mental health and wellness seriously.

Our Lawyer Assistance Program (LAP), which is led by Eileen Travis and which helps those in the legal community and their families deal with substance use and mental health issues, has stepped up with virtual counseling, support groups, and monthly webinars. And, once again, our close relationship with the Courts allows us to receive referrals from the Character & Fitness and Attorney Grievance Committees in the First and Second Departments, so we can help bar applicants with admissions issues and help lawyers find recovery and return to practice.

Our Mindfulness and Well-Being in Law Committee, chaired by Cecilia Loving, has been quite active as well, producing a “Mindfulness and Well-Being Took Kit” and holding weekly “Mindful Mondays” remote sessions on yoga, meditation, and other life-enhancing activities.

I am so proud of the legal profession’s reckoning with this issue. As with many other issues, it’s a long time coming. And here I wish to honor one of my predecessors as President of this Association, Michael Cooper, who passed away just weeks ago. He was instrumental in the creation of the Lawyer Assistance Program, writing in the January 1999 edition of this publication, “It is time, indeed, past time, that we took care of our colleagues suffering from this scourge.”

With LAP having been in the trenches on this matter for two decades, it’s gratifying to finally witness a cultural sea change taking place on this once taboo topic. It was helped by a 2016 joint study by the ABA and the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation that found that lawyers struggle with substance use and mental health issues at levels substantially above those of the general population or other highly educated professionals. Hundreds of firms have pledged to confront the problem and support their employees’ well-being, and the legal media has enthusiastically chronicled the movement.

An unexpected highlight of my tenure over the past few months was my invitation to participate on a panel of bar association leaders from Germany, India, Mexico, and Italy to discuss mental health and wellness initiatives for the international law community. I was and am honored to add my voice to the all-important cause of reducing the stigma surrounding these issues and promoting solutions to alleviate them. I am also thrilled that our Policy Department is working with LAP and the Lawyer Assistance Program Committee to propose a standalone mental health, substance use, and well-being CLE, to further reduce the stigma and educate us in the legal profession about this all-important issue. The legal profession is only as strong and healthy as its practitioners.

In its Well-Being Toolkit, the ABA lists six dimensions of well-being. The first four are fairly intuitive: Occupational, Emotional, Physical, and Intellectual. It’s the last two, however, I find most intriguing for our purposes here. One is Spiritual: “Developing a sense of meaningfulness and purpose in all aspects of life.” As a “PK” (preacher’s kid) that certainly resonates! The other is Social: “Developing a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support network while also contributing to our groups and communities.” I can think of no better way for a lawyer to develop a sense of meaningfulness and purpose, or a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed network while also contributing to our communities than by joining and engaging with a bar association! It’s worked for me, as I’m sure it has or will for you as well. If you’re not a member, please join the City Bar, and encourage your colleagues to do so as well.

Read more on Mental Health and Wellness here

I cannot conclude without saying that, of all the trials and tribulations of 2020, one of the most heartbreaking has to have been the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. We are so blessed to have had her among us in the legal community, so fortunate to have had her as a member of the City Bar, and so thankful that she quickened our pace to becoming a better, more just society.

Read about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the City Bar here

And so, my dear, fellow City Bar members, I invite you to join us in these six priorities…and more. Let’s make this a Bar of Hope! I’m dreaming of a New York City legal profession thriving as never before, and doing more good than ever before. I know that we can recover from the challenges 2020 has thrown at us, and that together we can help build a better and more just world.

I send you the warmest of wishes and blessings, and am praying for all of us to have a better, prosperous, and happier new year!