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MCBA President’s Message: MCBA and the reopening of Rochester: Leadership for recovery

Carolyn Nussbaum

Carolyn Nussbaum

As the Rochester region looks forward to a gradual reopening, the legal profession and the justice system face profound challenges. The shutdown has wrought changes that impact virtually every aspect of the legal system. The closure of state courts has delayed resolution of disputes and sidelined many litigators. Matters that are moving forward are forcing lawyers and the courts to find new ways to communicate, operate and get the work done.

At the same time, many lawyers are addressing legal issues that did not even exist a few months ago. Transactional lawyers are counseling clients on brand new funding options (with incomplete and evolving rules and guidelines), drafting disclosures of novel unknown uncertainties, and working to keep deals on track. Labor and employment counsel have had to quickly learn the rules of new benefit and leave policies and programs, while advising employers on developing, implementing and managing working from home policies, furloughs, layoffs and review and analysis of potential claims and defenses of non-performance.

All of this is occurring against a backdrop of upheaval to our daily routines, with children out of day care and school, grown children fleeing the cities to return to their childhood bedrooms (if they still exist), inconsistent food supply, and the isolation of quarantine. Add the overlay of fear of the virus itself and obsession with numbers and statistics, and planning for the future seems almost overwhelming.

So then, when the challenges ahead seem almost insurmountable, why bother with a bar association? I submit to you that your local bar association is more important now than ever before — and can provide you with the tools to overcome those challenges.

First, the MCBA has been at the forefront of informing, educating and providing you with what you need to know. Where else can lawyers gain competence to advise their clients in this new world, on new laws, regulations, programs? In the last eight weeks, the MCBA has convened panels to provide education and information essential to get up to speed on the changes and developments in labor and employment, the Paycheck Protection Program and other financial support programs, ethics when working from home, and the technology necessary to communicate with colleagues, clients and the courts. Just this week, more than 75 people signed on to FREE training provided by the MCBA on the technology that the state courts are using for conferences and filing, with the details pertinent to our local courts.

Second, the MCBA is working to ensure access to justice for all in the Rochester community. As the COVID crisis emerged, the MCBA President’s Commission on Access to Justice convened the legal services providers to enhance coordination, cooperation and innovation. When the State Bar created a statewide task force on pro bono, the MCBA participated to make sure the particular and different needs of the Rochester region were noted and included in planning. We can all anticipate significant need for assistance when the moratorium on housing action is lifted later this year; the MCBA is already communicating with the courts on planning.

Third, the MCBA has been representing, advocating and communicating on behalf of the legal profession. As the Finger Lakes region puts together a plan to reopen Rochester, the MCBA participated in the exchange of ideas and comments on how to get the legal and business communities moving forward and will continue to do so as planning for future phases evolves. We have organized interactive forums with the federal and state judiciary, so that judges can hear from the lawyers what is working and exchange ideas on next steps. As the governmental units and courts have issued orders, we have circulated those to our members in real time.

Fourth, the MCBA supports the profession — personally and professionally. The MCBA has organized support groups and promoted its free mental health counseling services. Professionally, the MCBA is convening the managing partners of all law firms so that they can benefit from shared ideas, exchanged knowledge and coordinated planning for reopening law offices.

Finally, we are here to celebrate, recognize and honor our members. Now, more than ever, we should express appreciation for each other, and particularly for those who do so much for Rochester. We know there will be enormous needs within our community in the coming months. Now is the time to build upon the legacy of present leaders, to encourage new leaders to step up, to engage and contribute their time and energy to the recovery of Rochester.

In that spirit, I want to highlight two lawyers who represent different stages of a lawyer’s career. Sid Bahl is receiving the Emerging Bar Leader Award, while Jim Grossman is receiving the Justin L. Vigdor Senior Award for Service, to recognize a senior attorney who continues to contribute extraordinarily and voluntarily to the MCBA and the profession.

I do not consider Jim Grossman to be a “senior” lawyer; he is one of the most active community volunteers that I know (as is Justin Vigdor). As a lawyer and volunteer on behalf of nonprofit agencies serving those with developmental disabilities, mental illnesses and substance-use disorders, Jim has been an advocate for some of the most vulnerable residents of our community for more than four decades. More than a dozen organizations have benefitted from his generous contribution of leadership, ranging from the Jewish Family Services to Foodlink to the Al Sigl Center. Both a golfer and a smooth ballroom dancer, Jim has served the MCBA as its president, and continues to offer his wise counsel and expertise as an active member of the Finance Committee.

Nearly everyone knows Sid Bahl. A tireless networker, in the three short years since his admission to the New York State Bar, Sid has become an active participant and contributor to bar association activities, at the local, state and national level. His enthusiasm and commitment have been recognized with his appointments first to the Board of the MCBA Young Lawyers Section, then to the Board of the Foundation of the Monroe County Bar, and most recently nominated to serve on the MCBA Board of Trustees next year. He also serves as a productive member of the MCBA Finance Committee, the MCBA Fee Arbitration Committee, as a Part 36 Referee, as a member of the State Bar Young Lawyers Section Executive Committee as well as the Executive Committee of the State Bar Dispute Resolution Section. He was a tireless volunteer on the Jazz For Justice Committee benefitting the Foundation, and serves as a volunteer for VLSP as well as the Make-a-Wish Foundation of Western New York. Sid exemplifies the leadership attributes that this award recognizes.

In the coming weeks and months, as Rochester reopens, the legal community will be called upon to help meet the needs of those who have been adversely impacted by COVID-19 and the extended shutdown of our economy. The MCBA is planning today for that time — educating, informing, advocating and convening. Building upon the examples of volunteerism and selfless dedication to others from lawyers at the start of their careers like Sid Bahl, inspired by the lifetime commitment of more seasoned lawyers such as Justin Vigdor and Jim Grossman, I am confident that our legal community will heed that call, rise to the challenge, and join with the MCBA to lead Rochester into a season of recovery and hope.

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 protected]