INDUCTION SPEECH OF VINCE CHANG AT THE NYCLA
MAY 28, 2021
Well thank you Jay for that generous introduction. Jay and I are among the few attorneys still physically populating our firm’s largely desolate — but assuredly still high rent — offices on Fifth Avenue. I greatly value his advice and fellowship. And I want to think the other members of my firm, Wollmuth Maher and Deutsch for their support of my bar activities.
Well my induction today is a historic moment for this bar association that was built on principles of diversity and inclusion for all and that was the first to admit diverse attorneys.
To my knowledge, I am the first — the first of NYCLA’s 62 bar Presidents — to grow up in the states of Kansas and Iowa.
Let me add that I am of course proud to further diversity in the more traditional sense as NYCLAs first Asian American president and the second person of color to serve in that role after Catharine Christian more than a decade ago.
Fittingly Catharine asked me to join NYCLA’s board at a bar association dinner at a time when I was not yet even a member of NYCLA. Thereafter, she encouraged me to take on greater responsibility. She is truly an inspiration to me and a role model for my presidency.
Well, it is great to see you in this virtual format, but it would be so much better to see you all in person. And Bar Association stalwarts, more than normal people favor the in-person networking that bar associations provide.
As Adrienne Koch, our President Elect wrote in the ABA Journal, Bar associations provide the opportunity to meet, know and work collectively with a community of lawyers and judges beyond the walls of one’s own office. This is how we truly participate in the profession of law.
But the pandemic derailed the business model of NYCLA and other bar associations.
To say that the past year was a tough year is an understatement.
Like saying that the Titanic endured a “course correction.”
We have to give thanks to our officers, Steve Lessard, Adrienne Koch, Richard Swanson and Jai Chandrasekhar and our tireless staff Sophia, Toni, Bari, and Anthe. All of them enabled our bar Association —unlike the Titanic — to AVOID the iceberg.
During the pandemic, have held over 100 programs by zoom, a technology with which we were wholly unfamiliar 15 months ago.
During the pandemic, we stayed abreast of the effect of Covid on our courts and on the practice of law and sent email blasts alerting our membership to those developments.
During the pandemic we maintained and expanded our pro bono commitment to serve those who have no voice and to remember those who are otherwise forgotten.
And during the pandemic as most of you know we sold our historic Home of Law, the source of so many cherished memories for so many of us. The sale was approved by the unanimous vote of our board of directors. We are now pounding the pavement to find space that will accommodate our needs — and our budget.
The result of these changes will be a technologically stronger and financially sound NYCLA that will serve as a voice for New York lawyers for years to come.
Well a few words about Steve Lessard, our outgoing leader who has made our transition to the future possible. His calm and steady leadership gave us the sense that we would emerge unscathed from the worst of times. And we did.
We salute his work and that of the others who dealt with our real estate problems most notably Sophia Gianacoplos, Anthe Bova, Treasurer Richard Swanson, and former Presidents Michael McNamara and Carol Sigmond With our real estate issues behind us let me assure you that NYCLA is now on the precipice of years of opportunity and leadership in the ranks of New York’s bar associations.
Now I can tell you that I do not plan to usher in a dramatic change from the understated, unifying tone that Steve has established.
His administration was marked by more light than heat.
And so will mine.
I am mindful that often the most value I can add is to clear the way for the board members and task force and Committee chairs who are so talented and so dedicated to our association.
And I am fortunate to have worked with so many great leaders of NYCLA. In particular, I served on the board during the terms of Barbara Moses and Stewart Aaron, both of whom when on to become federal Magistrate Judges.
As I stood for perhaps the last time in NYCLA’s main auditorium with the majestic portraits of its former presidents. I thought that it is really true, as our former president Michael McNamara has observed, that we stand on the shoulders of giants, the shoulders of giants.
An expression more fitting in my case than Michael’s given that I am vertically challenged at feet and five inches.
Well with our real estate issues behind us we can finally redouble our focus on the public policy and legal reform issues on which NYCLA has focused in the past.
Such stalwarts as our former presidents Jim Kodak and Michael Miller and our
officers Richard Swanson and Adrienne Koch worked hard to make sure that these issues are in the forefront. And in the forefront they will be.
In particular, Jim Kobak and Kevin McKay revitalized our Justice Center, harnessing the talents of some of New York’s greatest judges and lawyers to create a clearinghouse to promote our public policy mission.
Now, the only thing PREDICTABLE about these public policy issues is that they are UNPREDICTABLE. We do not know with precision what issues will confront us in the years and months ahead.
But we will take our guidance from great former Yankees catcher and part time philosopher Yogi Berra who instructed us that when we come to a fork in the road, when we come to a fork in the road, we should take it.
Apart from Yogi, we should heed the words of Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound who said that, “Law must be stable and yet it cannot stand still.”
And as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us, “Injustice ANYWHERE is a threat to justice EVERYWHERE.” The pursuit of justice–real justice–is the goal of our bar association.
Now Dean Pound was right that our principles are stable — but must not stand still. NYCLA’s future course will not stand still but it will build upon those bedrock principles which have always been our credo.
First, we reaffirm NYCLAs commitment to diversity and inclusion. NYCLA was the first bar Association in the world to accept attorneys without regard to race, gender or religion.
The first major bar association in the US to question in 1943 the refusal of the American Bar Association to admit African American lawyers.
Among the first to support gay marriage —long before it was fashionable to do.
And in response to protests for police accountability following the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, NYCLA’s Criminal Justice section and our Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Committee supported legislation that increased transparency of prior disciplinary records of law enforcement officers by reforming 50-a of the civil rights law. After our committees issued their letter, the Governor signed that legislation into law.
On June 2 are proud to host congresswoman Grace Meng who ushered the recent hate crimes legislation through congress. Thanks to board member Margaret Ling for this event, which will be the first of many events we will sponsor on diversity issues.
Now within the NYCLA board there are some true bar junkies who have been leaders in minority bar associations as well as our own. I myself fall in that category. Asha Smith, Margaret Ling and Austin De Sousa are leaders in their minority respective organizations. Together we will make the case for members of minority bar associations to join NYCLA and to thrive in our bar association.
Second, we will continue our efforts to promote Judicial independence. Former NYCLA president, vice president of the US and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court Charles Evans Hughes wrote that “the judiciary is the safeguard of our liberty and of our property under the Constitution.”
We have long stood shoulder to shoulder with the judiciary.
We have fought against Court budget cuts.
Fought for increases in the salaries of our judges. Fought in defense of judges in the media when they were faced with unfair attacks to which they could not respond.
And more recently our appellate and Supreme Court committees opposed the effort to remove the certification of dozens of experienced and highly qualified senior judges.
Our latest initiative is a special masters program spearheaded by new board member Austin Dsouza. It is an example of Dean Pound’s doctrine of building upon stable principles — but not standing still.
In 1976 when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy and our court system was pressed to the point of despair 350 NYCLA lawyers volunteered as special masters to help our judges resolve discovery and other matters. This support helped the judiciary to weather the fiscal crisis in the 1970s.
So too will our new special master’s program make a contribution during THIS financially difficult time.
A third pillar of NYCLA’s past –and its future –is access to justice. Former chief judge Lippmann Estimated that we are at best meeting only 20 percent of the civil legal services needs of New York State’s low-income residents. That means that literally millions of litigants each year are left to navigate our court system without the help of a lawyer.
We are working to improve the compensation provided to attorneys who serve the indigent as assigned counsel pursuant to county law 18 b. It is axiomatic that indigent representation under 18b will suffer if 18b attorneys are under compensated. Yet 18b lawyers are compensated at 60 dollars per hour for misdemeanors, a rate that has not increased for nearly 20 years.
Nearly 20 years ago NYCLA and Davis Polk initiated litigation to bring about the last increase in compensation for 18b attorneys. The need for change is just as great today. Again, we seek to build upon stable principles – but not stand still.
In addition to 18 b, we will examine innovative programs like the New York courts navigator program to involve non lawyers in helping to ease the justice gap.
On access to justice issues we are pleased to point out the great work of our general counsel Anthe Bova. She has worked to land us grants and other revenue streams earmarked for pro bono. And she has put that money to good use.
All of our pro bono programs — project restore, the state central registry project, the Social Security SDNY project and the Manhattan CLARO legal counseling project – all of these programs continue to help New Yorkers during the pandemic when the need for our help is greatest.
Our Fourth priority, protection of the rule of law. I cannot say it better than our former NYCLA president and former state bar president Michael Miller did. He said: It behooves all concerned citizens-especially leaders of the legal profession- to speak out against attempts by anyone to undermine the rule of law or diminish this constitutional norm.
Thus, NYCLA issued statements condemning the attack on the US Capitol in January of this year.
Condemning the dramatic incursion on the rule of law that those attacks represented.
We will remain vigilant in the defense of the rule of law.
Fifth, criminal justice reform. Recently, NYCLA wrote a landmark report on innocent people pleading guilty. Our group wrote a law review article on the issue, held a forum and secured the approval of the New York State bar association. This was one of the most significant undertakings that I have seen in my time at NYCLA led by luminaries as Lew Tesser, Chet Kerr, Jim Kodak, Seymour James, Judge Kevin McKay, SDNY Judge Rakoff and others too numerous to mention.
I’m pleased to point to a new initiative — David Cohn, Asha Smith, and Jai Chandrasekar are working on gun control and gun violence issues, a problem that remains a scourge year after year. This weekend alone there were 12 mass shootings in this country. In one, not particularly remarkable, weekend.
Now I realize that at this point I may personally be contributing to another scourge of our time — that of zoom fatigue.
So I close with a few words about our operations. At the core of our operations are Sophia, Anthe, Toni and Bari. They are our core without whom we could not function.
To support our staff and our operations, we will find new space that enables NYCLA to carry out its mission and to preserve its financial resources
We will improve our website and our technology.
And we are taking steps to improve and assist our committees, the lifeblood of our association.
We will launch a new membership effort, led by Tom Maroney who has so ably worked on state bar’s past membership efforts.
We are planning trips to law schools in the Fall in connection with this effort.
And Gene Frenkel and Ron Minkoff are working on a mentorship program to help young lawyers benefit from the wisdom of more experienced ones.
You will hear more about our operations in the upcoming months.
Well, bar associations throughout American history from the Federalist period on have been an engine for change. The role of the lawyer in De Toqueville’s time prompted him to say that “I cannot believe that a republic could hope to exist at the present time if the influence of lawyers in public business did not increase in proportion to the power of the people.”
Let us today continue to rise to that challenge — as NYCLA has done for over a century.
Thank you for attending our annual meeting. We value your support of NYCLA and look forward to seeing you in person soon.