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MCBA President’s Message: A year-end perspective — Looking forward to what might be

Carolyn Nussbaum

Carolyn Nussbaum

This is my last column as president of the MCBA. Usually, the president’s last column is a retrospective look back at the events, programs and achievements of the prior year. But we are not in ordinary times and the last three months have been anything but business as usual. So, too, this column will not be the usual.

Last week, hundreds of lawyers demonstrated to express their condemnation of racism, in all its forms. At the conclusion of the event, Jill Paperno, incoming president of the MCBA (standing in for me while I was sheltering out of town), asked the group to take a pledge: to end racism and injustice in my personal life, my professional life, our institutions, our legal system. Pledges, like statements of support, are mere words, even when spoken with conviction. The hard work is transforming those well-intentioned statements and pledges into enduring change and progress. One of the saddest aspects of George Floyd’s death is that we have seen too many abhorrent, graphic, images of violence against black men and women, and read too many inexplicable accounts of shooting of unarmed black people; too many times, we have issued similar condemnations of racism and hate, and taken pledges to stamp out racism. Why is this time different — how can we make this time different?

Ben Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” As citizens, and as lawyers, we have an ethical and a moral responsibility to serve justice, to eradicate racial injustice. But do we, as a legal profession, have the will to be sufficiently outraged to change? To change ourselves, and our institutions and profession?

We are at a critical juncture in our community and in our country. We are witnessing an opportunity in history, and we cannot let it pass. Millions of people of all backgrounds, ages, races, political beliefs are united in their conviction that there must be meaningful change. This is not a moment in time, but an extended quest to reject the old normal and examine anew what is right and just and what must change. It is simple to say that the bar association has a role and a responsibility to educate, inform and address overt racism, along with the structural racism that prevents people of color from enjoying equal protections under the laws of the state and this country. It will be a daunting task to make it happen.

The legal profession is uniquely suited to be a leader in this process. As many have noted, there is an incredible amount of privilege within the legal community. This privilege can be used for collective good, to drive true change. To use our finely honed voices to call out injustices. To put aside political labels and differences and come together as a legal industry with a common goal — to demand change and fairness in the laws and justice system. To provide education not only on implicit bias, but also to bring understanding to members of the profession how we, individually and collectively, create and perpetuate inequitable systems.

So instead of looking back at the year that has passed, I urge you to look forward, to a bar association committed to working with all members of the profession, of all races. We can work to reject what is and work toward what can be in our community and our country as we work to change our institutions to be equitable. At the bar association, we have begun to talk about how to do this work. To move beyond demonstrations and showing support to acquire a deeper understanding of racism. To learn how to listen and create safe spaces where hard conversations can be had. To be willing to examine ingrained and instinctive behaviors without becoming defensive or pointing the finger away from ourselves. To include members of the profession of color to sit at the table in all matters, not just on issues of diversity. To learn how to own up and accept responsibility for the mess that we have created, by complicity, ignorance or avoidance.

The year just passed has not been easy, personally or professionally. It has been difficult for most of us, challenged by an extraordinary period of change affecting virtually every aspect of our lives. Lawyers really tend to not like change, but we have had no routines to fall back on during these long months. And the year ahead will also not be an easy one, as we construct a “new normal” that will be unlike the past. But where there is change there is also promise. This is an opportunity to be something better than we have been and are. It will require dedication of leadership of the MCBA and the commitment of members from all aspects of the profession to bring their passion and their energy to work together to eradicate racism, personally and in the profession and in our institutions.

It is fitting to consider the words of Congressman John Lewis, who made such an indelible impression on Rochester when he came here for the funeral of Louise Slaughter. As he recently remarked on current events and admonished: “Our work won’t be easy, nothing worth having ever is.” And, so we have hard work ahead at the MCBA, to build something new and better, and worth having.

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 cnussbaum@nixonpeabody.com.