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President's Message | April 2018 Newsletter

The American Bar Association Leadership Institute in Chicago is a three day jam-packed seminar that is meant to inspire and educate incoming Bar presidents as they embark on their year in leadership. Presidents-elect from all around the country meet in Chicago to brainstorm, develop ideas, and learn how to overcome obstacles - all while honing in on the management skills they’ll need to be effective bar leaders. In March 2017, I was thrilled to have the opportunity go to Chicago and participate in the Leadership Institute. Unfortunately, the weather had other plans and my flight was cancelled. Fortunately this year, while it did snow the day before my flight took off, I made the journey to Chicago and the conference was truly amazing. It reminded me in some ways of the much needed leadership training I received about 15 years earlier.

As background, I was appointed as Deputy Director of a City of Albany agency early in my legal career. I assumed at that time that the skills I learned in law school would be applicable to my role as Deputy Director. Little did I know that I had a lot to learn! Initially I thought that research, advocacy and writing would easily translate to my role in management. In addition, I tried emulating the management styles of others by ruling by intimidation. That mechanism didn’t work so well as I was one of the youngest employees at the agency and was hardly intimidating. Lucky for me, I was sent to management training soon thereafter and was provided with a template that I have built upon to eventually become an effective leader. What I know for sure is that effective management requires an entirely different skill set than effective lawyering. In my opinion, having a sense of empathy and being a good listener aren’t exactly skills that win a trial verdict but they go a long way in managing people.

It’s been almost 15 years since my first management training seminar and I have to say, the ABA Leadership conference was a wonderful tune up. The seminar began with an exercise in “Crafting your minute message.” Within five minutes of being at the conference I raised my hand and was presenting an answer to an audience of my peers. After that abrupt beginning, the experience got even better. At one point, the tables were divided by bar membership population, which allowed for collaboration among similar sized bar associations.  One team building activity involved an Improv-based Leadership presentation inspired by Second City where the audience was able to learn how to “thrive amid change.” In summary, I learned four things that are required for prospering during change:

1) the ability to recognize where you are in any given moment.

2) the flexibility to choose a new path

3) willingness to choose a new path

4) the freedom to take a risk and learn from failure.

This exercise involved the audience attempting to catch and throw an imaginary balloon, swapping clothes with members of the group and planning an elaborate party all while learning to support new ideas instead of simply dismissing them. Outside the context of the seminar, it may sound a bit odd but the exercise was surprisingly impactful. Not only were we focusing on collaboration but we also challenged our natural instincts to say “no because” before saying “yes if” or “yes and.”

The next seminar “A snapshot of our changing landscape” dove into the common obstacles that all bar associations are facing. Speakers shared their perspectives on change and what questions bar associations should be asking:

1) What does our legal landscape look like – in other words, who is entering and leaving the profession? (Lawyer population is decreasing and law student graduates are decreasing)

2) What’s the big picture?

3) What about diversity?

4) What does this mean for bar associations?

5) What are member expectations?

I must admit that I don’t have all the answers, but I have more ideas and want to work with the membership with the goal of continued growth. Indeed, this seminar reminded me that the heart, soul and solid core of our bar association are the members. My goal is to make sure all members feel welcome. While some seminars discussed the difference between the character traits of baby boomers, generation X, generation Y and millennials, I believe we actually have more in common. Chicago inspired me to encourage more participation from all generations.

So, don’t be surprised if we reach out to you with some new ideas soon. And again, if anyone has suggestions, please email me at

As set forth in my inaugural column, each month I am showcasing a public service attorney with a short interview. This month I had the pleasure of interviewing Deborah Kearns.

Please state current job title and description of work?

I am the Chief Clerk of Albany County Surrogate’s Court, where we handle decedent’s estates, trusts, guardianships and adoptions. As Chief Clerk, I am responsible to the Surrogate, regional court administrators and the Office of Court Administration for managing all aspects of court operations. My central responsibilities include legal review of proceedings filed, working with lawyers and unrepresented individuals on procedural and related matters, management of the court’s caseload, revenue and statistical reports, as well as the supervision of court personnel and records management in an effort to provide efficient and timely service to all court users. Albany Surrogate’s Court handles approximately 4,000 proceedings and collects more than $500,000 in revenue each year.

You were previously a professor at Albany Law School – Did your professorship impact your desire to work in public service? If so, how


While at Albany Law School, I directed the Tax & Transactions Clinic and was responsible for the coordinated delivery of pro bono legal services through a faculty supervised clinical legal education program. That work translates directly to my work in Surrogate’s Court, because as a court of record, we serve the public and I work directly with unrepresented court users to educate them on Surrogate’s Court practice and procedure. I also work with attorneys to assist with complex procedural issues. In Surrogate’s Court, people come to us at some of the most difficult times in their lives and my work at Albany Law School solidified my desire to remain in a profession where I could continue to help and educate people.

How has working in public service shaped your view on what it means to be a lawyer?


Working in public service is a natural extension of how I have conducted and viewed my entire legal career. To me, a central tenet of being a lawyer is the commitment to access to justice. While I am no longer in an advocacy position, working in Surrogate’s Court allows me to be an active participant in the fair administration of justice. All of us at Albany Surrogate’s Court strive to provide individuals with a forum in which they can obtain a fair resolution to their problems within the confines of the law. It is our goal to make everyone feel respected and that their voices are heard, even if the outcome is not always favorable to one side or the other.

What can the association do to engage public service attorneys?


I think the association does a great job engaging public service attorneys, given that it provides a collegiate atmosphere that is affordable for all attorneys through its low cost or no cost events.

The newsletter is another way to engage public service attorneys. Albany Surrogate’s Court writes a column every month on topics related to practice in Surrogate’s Court. We get great feedback on our columns and it keeps us more connected to Albany County Bar Association.

Hon. Christina L. Ryba
ACBA President



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