The calendar may say the year starts in January, but we all know that the circle of professional and personal lives “starts” in September. A new school year, a new crop of law school graduates enters the profession, the Monroe County Bar Association continuing legal education calendar fills up, and everyone gets “back” to work after summer vacations. It is in many ways a new season; this year, there are a number of MCBA initiatives that will kick off over the next few weeks and months.
We have been blessed in Rochester with a history of collaboration among our state and federal judiciary and the local bar associations. Together, bench and bar work on a number of initiatives to benefit the Rochester community. This year, we are working together to ensure the area’s reputation for excellence in trial practice.
It’s no secret that diversity in the legal community is a concern. At the most general level, the legal profession is less diverse than the general population. This is particularly apparent in the courtroom: The Commercial and Federal Litigation Section of the New York State Bar Association released a report in 2017 that focused on gender disparity among litigation attorneys, finding a low percentage of women appeared in speaking roles in courtrooms across the state — upstate and downstate — and particularly in the private sector.
While women comprise around half of law school graduates, and have for some time, that simply has not translated to more diversity in the courtroom. At the same time, changes in litigation practice have limited courtroom opportunities for all newer attorneys. Some things you can only learn by doing; without experience, skill development, career progression and promotion can be more challenging, perpetuating the problem. These realities have been a topic of discussion for some time.
Locally, the bench and bar have worked to move beyond “how did we get here” to drive solutions. District Court Judge Elizabeth Wolford was one of the first in the judiciary nationally to take action, implementing a standing rule to encourage opportunities for newer lawyers to argue motions and participate substantively at trial. To address concerns that, by lack of experience, a less-experienced lawyer might miss a point, this innovative rule permits more senior lawyers to supplement a presentation by a newer attorney. Judge Wolford has noticed a visible difference in the number of junior lawyers standing up to speak in her courtroom.
Justice Craig Doran, Administrative Judge for the Seventh Judicial District, is also driving change. Working together with the presidents of the local bar associations, he prepared a statement — promptly adopted by 47 additional members of the judiciary — encouraging innovations that will create a culture conducive to opening up opportunities for the next generation of lawyers.
Last week, these local bar association presidents met with Justice Doran and Judge Wolford to continue the collaboration, discussing the next steps the judiciary and the bar can take to implement the statement and work together towards the goal of creating a more diverse litigation bar. We will continue to collaborate with senior litigators, to educate them on these initiatives, and to train newer lawyers to ask for and be prepared for expanded courtroom responsibilities.
Our CLEs will continue to teach practical litigation skills as well as changes in the substantive law and advances in technology to lawyers at all levels of experience. What distinguishes MCBA CLEs, however, is the unique opportunity to gain insight from local judges on what they think and what resonates with them. That collaboration will be on full view on Oct. 31, when the Litigation Section will present Halloween Hearsay, with four of state court judges entertaining, enlightening and providing their own perspectives.
The committees and activities of the Monroe County Bar Association support and enhance relationships between the bench and all members of the bar. A few weeks ago, Justice William Taylor invited all members of the Litigation Section to an informal meeting to talk about alternative dispute resolution, leading to a well-attended candid and spirited roundtable discussion of what works and what doesn’t.
Each year, just before the Bench & Bar Holiday Party, the judiciary turns out for a special reception before the main event with just the members of the Young Lawyers’ Section. Chamber chats organized by the MCBA offer a behind-the-scenes personal opportunity for a small group of lawyers to talk with judges to learn more about the perspective from the other side of the bench and gain tips on honing the art of persuasion. The next program in this series, on Sept. 20, will feature Justice Matthew Rosenbaum and what goes on in the Commercial Division. When they stand up in court, or attend a preliminary conference in chambers, MCBA members benefit from these opportunities to know — and be known to — the judges they appear before.
The issues of diversity in the Rochester legal community are not limited to litigation practice, and the MCBA is doing something about it. The Diversity Clerkship program provides opportunities for first-year law students from underrepresented groups to work for Rochester employers — law firms of every size, corporations and legal service providers. Collaborating with GRAWA and RBBA, MCBA staff work year-round to recruit students and employers, screen applicants, arrange interviews and oversee the matching of students and opportunities, organize the summer training and entertainment, and pursue follow-up to continue to support the students as they pursue further employment, hopefully in Rochester. Our Diversity Committee is also working on new programs directed at career management, from retention to promotion.
And MCBA can and is doing more to benefit the entire Rochester community by fostering inclusiveness and diversity. Several years ago, MCBA sponsored a sold-out program on implicit bias featuring Professor Lisa Werkmeister Rozas of the University of Connecticut. On Oct. 2, Professor Werkmeister Rozas will return, presenting a more advanced program on microaggressions, the acts and words that are regarded as subtle or unintentional discrimination. Joined by a stellar panel of diversity professionals and lawyers, they will lead a discussion to educate and enlighten, followed by a networking reception.
In the year ahead, bench and bar will continue to work together to improve and enhance our legal community, to advance the reputation of Rochester as a special (in the best sense) place to practice law.
Carolyn G. Nussbaum is president of the Monroe County Bar Association and is a partner and litigator at Nixon Peabody LLP. She can be reached at email@example.com.