President's Message - June 2017
by Susan Edwards Colson, Esq.
Of late, conversation has centered on questions about winding down my term as WWBA President. The first few times I was asked about this, I hesitated before I answered because I was a little surprised, thinking “A year? Already?” The fact that I am having a hard time believing my term is almost over is evidence that I truly enjoyed being WWBA President.
However, one does not do this job alone. Deep thanks to the dutiful, devoted officers and outstanding board of the WWBA! To the vice presidents, Joelle Burton, Jennifer Netrosio, and Lisa Denig, thank you for being there every step of the way. To the recording secretary, Angela Giannini, and the corresponding secretary, Kim Berg, thank you for dedication to these relentless tasks. And, speaking of relentless, thanks also to Amanda Fried, for keeping the books and keeping us straight with Women’s Bar Association of New York (“WBASNY”) at membership settle-up time. Undying thanks to our executive director Elisabeth Campos, for keeping everything organized and especially for working every Thursday night to put our Weekly Update in your inbox each Friday. Thanks also to our committee chairs and members whose meetings and CLE’s filled the calendar with superb and informative programs.
Occasionally throughout the year I was asked: Why a Women’s Bar? What is different about WWBA? A half century ago, other bar associations (actually, many clubs or groups) might have subtly or not-so-subtly excluded members on the basis of race, religion, gender or national origin. So the first thing that comes to mind about the WWBA is that diversity and inclusion are a core value. Diversity of gender, of race, of religion and of ethnicity.
There is also diversity of age. Our membership includes dozens of lawyers who have been admitted for less than five years. Here, we never think of them as “junior attorneys” in any way. Here, they are “lawyers” like the rest of the members. Their perspectives, insights and experiences enrich us all. Our tradition of inclusion poses the challenge of recruiting those lawyers to join us and the challenge of exciting them about the ideals that brought our founders together nearly half a century ago. Our committees and task forces are immediately open to their perspectives and thoughts.
There is also “diversity” of what we accomplish as lawyers. In days’ past, many of our members and, indeed, most of the bar, were in private practices, either alone or in a law firm. Today, many of our members work directly for institutions, businesses or the government in addition to solo practice or in firms large and small. They too are members here and their experiences and perspectives are invaluable. Together, we all, as lawyers, confront the challenges of today and plan the actions of tomorrow.
In times past, any bar association might have described its mission to advance the administration of justice in the public interest and to elevate the standards of integrity, honor and courtesy in our profession. Integrity, competence and collegiality – in the public interest. As you know, WWBA’s position on a lawyer’s duty to provide pro bono service is expressed in terms that include public service within the letter and spirit of pro bono publico. I have continually called on and they continually heeded to assist the many modest sized not-for-profits whose need for help is not matched by the means to pay. As lawyers, each of us is especially suited to say “Yes” when asked to serve in helping a non-profit board, helping update its structure, plan its work, or with its many compliance efforts. Last Fall, I was proud to accept, on behalf of our membership, the recognition given our organization by the Pace Women’s Justice Center. Our collaboration with the Center is just one of our many projects where the WWBA and many of its members work in advancing the public interest. We were so honored and the work not only continues but in fact has expanded to today.
This past year brought further emphasis and progress in this area with a groundbreaking partnership between WABSNY and the New York State Bar Association that will help victims of domestic violence and their children get the legal relief, safety and stability they need. Domestic violence, defined as ongoing, purposeful behavior aimed at exerting power and control over one’s intimate partner, and can be psychological, physical, sexual or economic in nature, has reached an epidemic level in New York and across the country. New Yorkers statewide experience domestic violence without regard to gender identity, race, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, age, disability or educational or economic status.
Domestic violence victims often have few resources and desperately need legal help in obtaining orders of protection against their abusers and in addressing collateral issues including housing, child support, custody and visitation, and divorce. High-quality civil legal assistance plays an invaluable role in protecting and empowering victims and their children. But the need dwarfs the available resources. Despite the tremendous efforts by legal services lawyers and the many hours of pro bono service by members of the private bar, there continues to be an urgent need for legal representation of domestic violence victims.
To assist and support legal services providers and increase access to justice for victims, we have joined forces to create the NYSBA/WBASNY Domestic Violence Initiative. Building on work done by and working closely with WBASNY and its chapters and NYSBA Sections and committees, our partnership will leverage our combined resources and tap our extensive membership around the state to collaborate with and assist existing legal services providers and bar association and law firm programs, help in recruiting and training volunteer attorneys, and expand pro bono programs serving domestic violence victims. The Initiative will include representatives from legal services providers, bar association and law firm pro bono programs, the private bar, the state court system, and law schools, and will have three major components: education and training: expanding pro bono services, and legislative advocacy. In short, this partnership will help victims of domestic violence and their children get the legal relief, safety and stability they need. I am sure you will continue to hear of our progress.
As you can see with this ambitious effort, WWBA members will never look the other way and say, “Someone else needs to deal with that.” Our challenge is to keep “doing that” and inspire others to join in the effort. Indeed, it would be easy to say that the traditions of the past present a challenge of such magnitude that we will merely sustain what we have been doing and what we are doing in terms of our programs. This past year often reminded me that things rarely go smoothly. New challenges present themselves regularly. The WWBA will continue talking about, refining and developing ideals in response to new challenges. My optimism remains as strong as ever.