Q&A: Barbara Berger Opotowsky

Barbara Berger Opotowsky '71 in The New York Law Journal, February 01, 2013

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After a 15-year tenure as executive director of the New York City Bar, Barbara Berger Opotowsky is resigning in May. A search committee under city bar president Carey Dunn has been formed to find her successor.

Opotowsky has served with nine presidents while overseeing the now 24,000-member organization. She also has overseen a budget of about $15 million for the city bar and another $5 million for its public service affiliate, the City Bar Fund.

Opotowsky, who said she's in her 60s, said she stepped down because "it felt like it was a right time to take a break." She has no specific plans afterward other than some traveling and visiting friends and family. "A number of my friends and family, including my son, live outside of New York and I look forward to having more time to visit them," she said. She may find some part-time or consulting work later on, likely in the nonprofit world, she added.

Opotowsky, a 1971 graduate of Fordham University School of Law, started her career as an associate at Stroock & Stroock & Lavan before moving into public service, first as the general counsel of the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs and then as an assistant commissioner of the agency.

She entered the nonprofit world when she became president of the Better Business Bureau of Metropolitan New York, serving in that role for 19 years before joining the City Bar as executive director in 1997.

It never occurred to her that public service and nonprofit work would become her long-term career path, she said, but she stayed in it because she found it rewarding. "The mission is bigger than the salary," she said.

Q: What is your role as executive director?

A: I essentially function as the chief operating officer of the city bar. With 24,000 members, 150 committees, a staff of 150, 200 events a year and nearly as many CLEs, plus owning and occupying a large landmark building, there is a lot of activity to oversee. Our committees are constantly engaging important law and policy issues, which requires extensive coordination of their efforts. No one individual or small group can accomplish this. Thus, an essential role of the executive director is attracting strong volunteers and staff. For volunteers, we seek out leaders of the legal profession who are motivated to act in the interests of the legal profession and, notably, the public interest. This is true of our committee chairs, our executive committee and our presidents. And these wonderful people are complemented by a talented, truly collegial staff.

Q: How has the City Bar changed during your tenure?

A: When you look back over 15 years, your instinct is to note the changes: the dramatic change technology has had on the profession, the challenging job environment for young lawyers and the globalization of the legal profession. We have responded to each of these challenges.But, I think what I am proudest of is what has not changed. When Michael Cooper gave his inaugural speech as city bar president in 1998, he said, "First do no harm." When you have the opportunity to share the responsibility for the organization that was founded to fight corruption in the judiciary, marched in Washington against the Vietnam war and, over the past decade, fought to preserve a balance between civil liberties and national security, then preserving the culture that fosters such conduct is critical. And we have continued that culture in a time when it really matters.

Q: What were your successes as executive director?

A: The city bar has continued its long tradition of speaking out on the critical public issues of the day. That has meant a focus on civil liberties following 9/11, including the issues of surveillance, military tribunals and Guantánamo; government ethics reform; civil rights issues like same-sex marriage; and international human rights. We have increased our advocacy efforts in order to increase our effectiveness and make sure our positions do not just remain on decision makers' shelves.

We have increased our support of our members with the creation of the Small Law Firm Center, many programs designed for young lawyers, a robust continuing legal education program and a Lawyers Assistance Program to assist those at risk with alcohol, drug dependency and mental health issues.

Key to success is building on the past. We have built on the initiative taken in 1991 by a committee chaired by Cy Vance to foster diversity in the profession. Over 100 firms and legal departments have signed the city bar's diversity goals. Since 2004, six benchmarking studies have been prepared by the city bar to monitor progress. And we have most recently expanded our efforts by developing a robust diversity pipeline project starting with inner-city high school students who show interest in entering the legal profession.

A source of great impact has been the city bar's sister organization, the City Bar Fund, which is home to the City Bar Justice Center and the Vance Center. The City Bar Justice Center has grown into a leader in providing pro bono help to over 20,000 low-income people a year. Last year the center's staff trained and supervised 1,000 lawyers to provide $20 million worth of pro bono services to assist clients in areas ranging from homelessness to trafficking. Over the past 15 years, the Justice Center's staff has more than doubled and its budget has increased six-fold. The center has had an important role in assisting individuals and families and has nimbly responded to emerging legal needs, such as those of returning veterans and of young immigrants seeking the opportunity to work and study.

For those who can afford a lawyer, our nationally recognized legal referral service assists almost 100,000 people a year in obtaining advice or counsel from vetted attorneys in almost every conceivable area of law.

We also created the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice in 2001 to advance justice in countries undertaking legal and institutional reform. Its efforts to stimulate pro bono in Latin America resulted in the Pro Bono Declaration of the Americas to which over 500 firms have subscribed and the establishment of pro bono clearinghouses. The center also has conducted a number of programs in Africa, including a program in which South African lawyers of color work for one year in New York law firms and corporate legal departments. The center's current programs engage law firms on a pro bono basis to pursue projects in human rights and access to justice, environmental sustainability, health and development, free speech and press and strengthening the legal profession.

Q: What have been the main challenges during your leadership at the bar?

A: Like every business and nonprofit in the city, we have been affected by the economic challenges of the last five years. We responded in three ways. First, we had to be fiscally prudent to allow us to remain on sound fiscal footing. And, as the economic crisis evolved, two additional priorities were the focus of our activities. Given the weak job market for lawyers, many of our members were and continue to be at risk and greatly need support. We have increased our career development, networking and skills development programs to assist those in search of jobs. For those beginning their own practice, we enhanced our Small Law Firm Center and made even more online services available in our library. Of equal concern to us is the vast number of individuals who cannot afford legal services, facing increasingly challenging legal problems. In response, we ramped up the capacity and services of the City Bar Justice Center to assist clients in new areas, such as bankruptcy and foreclosure.

Q: What challenges will the bar association face going forward?

A: The biggest challenge is staying relevant to the legal profession. There was a time, decades ago, when membership in the city bar was a given for many lawyers. That mind-set just doesn't exist the way it used to, so we need to continue to work hard to communicate the benefits of membership. We also need to stay relevant to the world around us. Technology is playing a greater role in everyday lives, and so we must adjust our capabilities in this area. Events seem to move faster now, and we have to be able to be more nimble, as the Justice Center was in responding to the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy. And events that affect us take place over a wider area, with increased globalization. Our profession is more attuned to international issues, and the city bar, being located in the center of the legal world, has long been a leader in engaging foreign lawyers and addressing international issues. We need to expand those efforts.

Q: How has the profession changed and how has that affected membership in the bar?

A: The profession has changed so much that we've set up a blue-ribbon task force to figure out how we can all best adapt to it. When only roughly half of law school graduates are finding full-time employment in the law, the status quo is not an option. Also, those who are employed are often working longer hours, trying to balance their work and their personal lives, and being courted by many other interests beyond professional bar involvement. Our membership has held steady but we are constantly aware that we must provide more value to attract and keep membership.

Q: What is the relevance of bar associations today?

A: In a changing profession and a fast-changing world, bar associations can offer a kind of stability to lawyers. In the past, many had a firm that was their one legal home their entire career. This has become far less common. Today it is the bar association that can be your legal home throughout your career. You may change firms, find yourself between jobs, go into private practice or public service over the years, but it's good to know there's a place both central to the profession and centrally located where you can continue to network, learn and cultivate your career.

Q: What steps can the bar association take to remain relevant for young lawyers who don't rely on traditional legal networks?

A: There is still no substitute for face-to-face networking and no entity that brings together lawyers of all stripes the way bar associations do. Time and again we hear how serving on a committee is a transformative career experience for lawyers. If we provide committee opportunities for young lawyers, keep our events and CLE courses relevant and attractive, provide useful member benefits, and continue to be seen as a leader in the legal profession—in short, if we continue to build it—they will come.

Q: How would you describe the membership? What personalities and traits are common or unique within the membership?

A: With 24,000 members from firms and corporate legal departments of all sizes, solo practitioners, judges, prosecutors, nonprofit practitioners and public servants, plus a sizable segment of national and international members from over 50 countries, our membership is remarkably diverse. I do think, given the long and storied history of the New York City Bar, there is a New York City attitude—in a good way—that permeates the place, a sense of energy and excitement that comes from our members knowing they are central players in the legal profession.

Q: What were some of the most memorable moments for you at the bar?

A: There is no question that the bar's response to 9/11 was the most profound professional experience. If we had a disaster planning session a week before 9/11 we would not have been able to comprehend what we expected of ourselves and what we were able to do. With little more than 24 hours notice for our first training of pro bono lawyers to learn about new death certificate procedures, 800 lawyers were in line at the House of the Association. The next day 120 of those trained lawyers were assisting the families of victims and, in one month, 1,800 certificates were processed. From that day on, each family affected by the tragedy had counsel to assist with issues ranging from insurance to immigration to employment law.

The work accomplished was a result of collaboration of the entire legal community, a holistic approach to legal representation and the use of technology. But there was one other over-arching factor that really made the difference—a clarity of purpose. Much legal work and certainly bar association activities are fragmented and require the juggling of priorities. In the months after 9/11 there was no question what our purpose was; we all knew what was most important and, as a result, the profession accomplished far more than anyone would have expected.

Q: Every two years, the bar elects a new president. How is your role affected by the constant change in leadership? What are the pros and cons of the frequent turnover of bar presidents?

A: The change in leadership every two years is one of the factors that make my position so rewarding and the association so vibrant. From my perspective there are no significant downsides to the turnover. People ask about the differences among our presidents, but that misses the point. The city bar has a thread of values that informs all that we do. Those who are selected to serve as president uniformly share those values. The differences are not at the core but are on degrees of emphasis. Each president shapes his or her agenda around the issues and activities being addressed on day one of her or his term and adds items or shifts emphasis. One president may be particularly committed to issues concerning judicial selection, another to diversity and a third to pro bono. Every two years, we get a fresh injection of new ideas and energy that keeps us vital and evolving. The job of the executive director and her staff is to provide the continuity. I wouldn't have it any other way.