NYCLA Presidential Induction Speech
By: Michael J. McNamara
May 25, 2017
Before I begin my remarks, there are a number of people that I want to recognize and thank. First of all, thank you Michael for that overly generous introduction. In my experience, the key to success is keeping expectations very low, but I am genuinely grateful for the kind words and the confidence you expressed in me and I hope I can live up to the high bar you have set tonight. Thank you also to my beautiful children, Chris and Megan, for their moving and amusing words. I didn’t know in advance what you were going to say and I must confess I’m somewhat overwhelmed. I want you to know I could not be prouder of both of you and I am so grateful to be able to show everyone here what wonderful children your mom and I, okay mostly your mom, raised. On that note, I also want to thank my wife, Maryellen, who did nothing short of transform my life over the last 35 years, raising our children while pursuing her own career as a marketing professor at Nassau Community College, sometimes with one of them tucked under her arm (they were a lot smaller then), never missing a beat and always being patient, kind and supportive. And I would like to mention my mother and father, who are still with us but not able to be here tonight. I would not be standing here without the love, support and encouragement they gave me and they would be overjoyed to see their grandchildren here tonight. And I want to acknowledge my son-in-law, Owen Barbour, who is here tonight and Jessica Herlihy, my son’s girlfriend, who is also here, and thank them for coming.
I also want to welcome our distinguished guests, including the many judges who are here tonight, as well as the President of the State Bar, Claire Gutekunst, the President-Elect of State Bar, Sharon Stern Gerstman and the Treasurer, Scott Karson, our Past Presidents, Board members and leaders of all the other bar associations who are here tonight. You honor me and NYCLA with your presence and I am grateful. Congratulations to the Officers who were elected tonight. Steve Lessard, Vince Chang, Asha Smith, Adrienne Koch, NYCLA is fortunate to have such an outstanding group of leaders. And congratulations to our new board members.
I also want to welcome all of my friends who are here tonight, including a contingent from Seward & Kissel, my professional home for the past 29 years. They include many of my litigation partners and associates, Jim Cofer, our Managing Partner, Kal Das, who’s been my partner for almost 24 years and the incomparable Mary Nielsen who has been putting up with me and keeping me on track for more than 15 years. I also want to acknowledge the Firm’s generosity in underwriting the costs of tonight’s reception which follows this meeting.
I want to especially note the presence of the long-time chairman of Seward & Kissel, Gene Souther, who was the 43rd President of this Association. Gene was the President of NYCLA when I joined the firm in 1988 and he actively encouraged my involvement with the Federal Courts Committee, my home Committee, first as a member of the Committee and later as its Chair and he encouraged me over the years to get involved in leadership of the organization. For that, and so much more, I am very grateful to him and so happy that he is with us tonight.
Finally, I want to thank Carol Sigmond for the lovely hammer and moving van she presented me with earlier this evening. To be honest, I was sort of hoping for a sports car. But I want to also thank her publicly for her hard work and dedication to this organization. And I have a few parting gifts for her as well, a framed certificate of appreciation, an Albany cap and coffee mug and some snacks which she can take with her as she embarks on her next journey in Albany as a member of the State Bar EC. Please join me in a round of applause for Carol.
Turning to my remarks, I want to say at the outset that I am humbled to become the leader of an organization that counts among its Past Presidents legal titans such as William Nelson Cromwell of Sullivan & Cromwell and Charles Evans Hughes, who was also Governor of the State of New York, Secretary of State of the United States, an Associate Justice and later Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court, President of State Bar and the ABA, to name but two of our great leaders. We are truly standing on the shoulders of giants. I am also very proud to become the President of the first bar association in New York and one of the first in the United States to welcome all lawyers regardless of gender, race, ethnicity or religion. And I feel fortunate to become the President of NYCLA at a time when there is so much going on at the Association and in our society.
I’m going to divide my remarks this evening in two parts: first I want to share my perspective on the process that is underway regarding the building and how that fits with some of the other things we are doing at NYCLA to engage our membership. And then I’d like to comment briefly on some of the things we plan to do to further our mission to improve access to justice and promote confidence in the justice system. And I promise to be brief.
The Home of Law: Process and Membership Engagement
In preparing these remarks and really over the past year or more, I have thought quite a bit about this grand building, its history and about the past leaders of this Association who worked so hard to establish the Home of Law here at 14 Vesey Street. This building was the dream of William Nelson Cromwell, who found the location, made a substantial donation for the purchase of the property, and selected the architect, Cass Gilbert, who also designed the U.S. Supreme Court.
On the day the building was dedicated — May 26, 1930, 87 years ago tomorrow — Benjamin Cardozo, the renowned Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals delivered the principal address. It is a building that houses a library that Thurgood Marshall worked in as a young lawyer in the 1940s, a building that is across the street from the chapel where George Washington prayed on the day he was inaugurated as the first President of the United States. There is extraordinary history here, all you need to do is look around this room, and the attachment that so many members feel to the building is completely understandable, indeed commendable. It was the perfect building for lawyers in the 20th Century and I have no doubt that the building contributed significantly to this Association’s great stature and attracted many members. And I understand that even the thought of change is difficult and we do not consider it lightly. As Carol indicated earlier, we are beginning to investigate our options with respect to the building. I think it is important to note in very clear terms, we are at the beginning of this process, these are early days. At this point, there is a great deal we simply don’t know. And so we have made no decisions at this point other than to engage in a process to see what options the organization might have. And while there is a lot we don’t know, there are some things we do know.
We know that the world that our members practice in today is very different than the one that existed in 1930 when this building was dedicated or even when I began practicing law in 1983. Technology has completely changed the way lawyers work, where they work, how they communicate and the tools they need to succeed. Much of our work and interaction today is virtual, the need for physical space has decreased and at the same time the demand for flexible space with state of the art technology has increased. And that trend will continue and likely accelerate.
We know that there is a very substantial and escalating cost to operating the building, both in terms of money and time. And we know that we have a new generation of lawyers, millennials like Chris and Megan and their contemporaries, many with different ideas about their careers and their lives and about the value of bar membership.
So in the event that we discover we do have options — and I hope we will — we have to keep in mind, first and foremost, that we are a membership organization and every decision we make has to take into account the interests of our members. Without members, it doesn’t matter very much where our home is or even if we have a home. So the question we must ask (and I’m confident the question Cromwell would ask) is not should we stay or should we go, but what is in the best interests of our members today and in the future? Simply put, how do we improve the lives of our members? And so we will pursue the process and it may be that we will conclude that NYCLA’s future would be better served with a moving van, or we may find we need this hammer and some more tools.
Two final points on the building.
First, having been involved for over a year in discussions about the building, having been part of the process that we engaged in with our architects to envision what an optimal space would look like for our organization, and having some understanding of the transformation the San Diego County Bar Association was able to achieve when it recently moved to a new home, depending on how this plays out we may have an opportunity to relocate to a new state of the art 21st Century home that would effectively allow us to relaunch our Association, that would serve as an incredible resource for our current and future members and that would help ensure that this great bar association will continue to thrive for many more years.
Second, we do not intend to become a purely virtual organization, whatever we ultimately decide, NYCLA will continue to have a significant physical home — a place where our members, members of other Associations and the public can come and meet — like tonight to celebrate, a place where lawyers come every day, to learn, to meet with other lawyers, to charge their phones or get a cup of coffee in the lounge, whether it is in this building or somewhere else, and it will continue to be a place that is welcoming to all lawyers.
So please stay tuned. We are at the beginning of an interesting chapter, we will update you on our progress as we move along and we are interested in hearing from you as well.
One other point on membership: We are going to be doing a lot more than just focus on space issues. Cromwell believed that every lawyer should belong to a bar association. I agree but the reality is that we need to work hard to demonstrate the value proposition to existing and potential members. Our new Co-Chairs of the Membership Committee, Pam Gallagher and my partner, Jack Yoskowitz, will be working with our Director of Membership, Toni Valenti, on initiatives and projects to do just that. There are a number of different ways we will be engaging our members and prospective members, including through our new website, but one of the things that I have asked them to keep in mind which I think is very important and underrated is the social aspect, having fun events and happy members. A point, by the way, that has been made to me emphatically by my own millennial lawyers.
Over the past few years we have held some terrific events here at NYCLA. In addition to the musical tributes and operetta that my friend Marti Stine highlighted earlier, we also had a great casino night in this hall. Those were some of my favorite bar association nights and I hope we will have many more like that in the coming year. And I hope to see many of you at those events.
Justice Center 2.0
As I embark on the leadership of this great organization, I am acutely aware that our communities and Courts are also facing many challenges. At NYCLA, we do a lot, we have outstanding programming and events, we sponsor terrific pro bono programs and we have Task Forces that are tackling important issues. But in view of the “interesting times” in which we live, we can and need to do more, so we are also relaunching our Justice Center.
Originally founded in 2003, the Justice Center was intended as a bridge between NYCLA and community leaders and organizations to help identify important social justice issues and collaborate to find solutions. One of the premises was that lawyer-citizen partnerships would lead to increased citizen understanding of the justice system and result in meaningful improvements and increased confidence in the justice system. And the Justice Center was instrumental in a number of very successful programs and initiatives but it lost a bit of its momentum in recent years.
With the current crisis in confidence and challenges our communities are facing, there has never been a more important time for a revitalized Justice Center that can act as a catalyst and a think tank for additional programs and initiatives. Over the past several months I have been working with Jim Kobak and Kevin McKay, the leaders of the Justice Center, to identify some new Advisory Board members and worthy endeavors for the Justice Center. Very pleased to report we have made excellent progress and that Justice Center 2.0 will be kicking off this fall with several new enthusiastic Advisory Board members, lawyers and non-lawyers, some of whom I see here tonight, and a renewed focus on some very timely issues, including (1) civic education, (2) racial justice, and (3) access to justice, including immigration issues, which loom large in our city and nation these days. I am very confident that a year from now I will be reporting to you on the great work Jim, Kevin and the Advisory Board have been doing at Justice Center 2.0.
NYCLA’s Relationship with the Courts
Before I conclude, I want to mention briefly NYCLA’s relationship with the bench and the organized bar. NYCLA has always had a special relationship with the federal and state courts . We have worked cooperatively with the leaders of our Courts to identify issues of concern and propose effective solutions. We have spoken out when “so-called judges” have been unfairly attacked. We have also spoken when budget cuts threatened the operations of the Courts and the interests of the public. That role is very important to us at NYCLA and it will continue.
In the coming weeks, I will be reaching out to and meeting with court leaders to talk about the things we are doing at NYCLA and to see how we can be of further service to them.
NYCLA’s Relationship with Other Bar Associations
I also believe that there are numerous opportunities for us to work collaboratively with our sister bar associations and, where appropriate, use our collective voice to speak out on important issues. We live in a time when the collective voice of the organized bar has never been more important. I am very grateful that so many bar leaders have taken time out of their busy schedules to be with us tonight. As we go forward, we will seek out additional opportunities to collaborate with you and work to deepen our ties and further strengthen the organized bar in New York.
Before closing, I have one final thank you, to the exceptional Staff at NYCLA. It is truly remarkable what we accomplish day in and day out, year after year at this organization with very lean staff and sometimes under very difficult conditions. Please join me in a round of applause for our outstanding Executive Director, Sophia Gianacoplos, the leadership team, Bari Chase, Lois Davis, Dan Jordan, Toni Valenti and Anthe Vorkas, and their support staff.
Thank you all very much for being here tonight in the rain and please join us across the hall for the reception.