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President's Message | July/August 2018 Newsletter

As some of you know, the Attorneys in Public Service Committee (“APS”) was formed to foster increased participation by public sector attorneys in the Bar Association. The committee acknowledges that attorneys in government have differing needs than those in private practice or in-house positions. Therefore APS is focused on making sure public sector attorneys feel welcome and that their needs are addressed by ACBA. To that end, APS began hosting a social event about seven years ago which was held in the rotunda of City Hall with just a handful of people in attendance. The goal was to celebrate being public servants and to socialize with fellow bar members. Now the social has evolved into an annual ACBA tradition with the addition of public service awards given to members of ACBA after a competitive review process.

Most recently, the APS Award event, held on June 20, 2018, was inspiring and attended by close to 80 people. Undoubtedly, a big draw to the event was the two recipients of awards. The recipient of the Commitment to Excellence was Acting Supreme Court Justice Denise Hartman. After she was introduced by Andy Ayers, the Executive Director of the Government Law Center, it was crystal clear that the award was well-deserved. In addition, the evening celebrated another awardee—Judge Mae D’Agostino, former president of ACBA and current United States District Judge of the Northern District of New York, who received the Gavel Award. This award was presented by former ACBA president Judge Peter Crummey. Among other things, the award recognizes the importance of educating students regarding the judicial branch of government and, after learning about Judge D’Agostino’s years of educating Albany Law School students and many others, we all celebrated her recognition.

At the commencement of the award ceremony, I was honored to give opening remarks and I began by pointing out that while we were there to celebrate the two awardees, we were also there to celebrate every individual in the room who has made a commitment to public service either through work in the public sector or through a commitment to provide pro bono services as private practitioners. I also highlighted what I have come to realize in my tenure as president which is that members of the bench and bar, regardless of where they practice have a lot in common. Most of us went to law school to make a difference, to be an advocate and we believe in justice for all.

Before and after the ceremony members of the bench and bar mingled, had some food and drinks while old friends caught up and some new friendships began. Indeed, this event reminded me of how much ACBA offers to all it’s members—Volunteer and Pro Bono Opportunities, Networking, Business and Professional Growth, Committee Comradery and most importantly—Fun. Nonetheless, what I like about celebrating public servants is the fact that public sector work is extremely crucial to a functioning society, but many times that work goes unnoticed. This event is a way to annually honor essential public service work and this year we were all blown away by the two awardees.

 

This month I had the privilege of interviewing ACBA member Serena Joyce White-Lake.

 

What is your current job title and what does your job entail?

I work as an Assistant Counsel in the Employment Law Unit (the ELU) of the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS). My primary responsibilities include analyzing complaints of discrimination against employees, drafting legal opinions based thereon, and representing the agency at hearings before the New York State Division of Human Rights. I am also a member of OCFS’ Racial Equity Learning Exchange, a cohort of employees who work to eliminate racial disproportionalities in the areas of juvenile justice, foster care, child welfare, labor relations, hiring and firing decisions, etc.

 

What inspired you to work in public service?

I always intended to use my legal education to help others. Upon graduating from law school, I clerked for the New York State Court of Appeals, where Stuart M. Cohen, former Chief Clerk of the Court, emphasized that “it is an honor to work as a public servant.” Mr. Cohen explained that, there are several ways to make a living—many of which are undesirable. But being able to help others and positively impact society while earning income, is truly honorable.

At the Court of Appeals, I observed how court decisions directly impacted people’s lives. The decisions affected whether a person would get a new trial and possibly be freed from prison, whether someone received compensation for injuries, or whether a person alleging discrimination could sue certain entities under specific provisions of law. Going to OCFS was a natural next step in my career because it allowed me to continue working for New York State—which I enjoy, and to use the skills I developed at the Court.

 

Has your role in public service shaped your view on what it means to be an attorney?

No because I always considered lawyers to be protectors and problem-solvers. Each day at work I am reminded of the importance of our roles as attorneys because the dozens of units in my agency seek the advisement of the Division of Legal Affairs before making decisions that will affect people’s lives.

 

What do you find most valuable with your ACBA membership?

The friendships that I am developing with ACBA members! Having so many lawyers as friends does feel a bit monotonous, but I keep meeting great people through ACBA, so—so be it!

I am so thrilled to be a member of ACBA. Executive Director Marquita Rhodes was always very nice to me when I would see her at different events, and she invited me to attend ACBA events, even though I was not a member. One such ACBA event was the February Brown Bag Lunch held in the chambers of United States Judge Mae D’agostino. I sat two seats away from Judge D’agostino, who, over orange juice and sizeable donuts, imparted wise career advice, and patiently answered each of the questions of the attorneys and law students in attendance. Upon returning to work that afternoon, I immediately joined ACBA. Finally, I enjoy the opportunity ACBA provides to have real conversations and develop relationships with other attorneys, partners, judges, law students, and legal support and bar association staff.

 

What can ACBA do to encourage more public attorneys to join?

ACBA can continue to offer trainings, including financial-themed ones like budgeting for lawyers, strategies to pay off student loans, or long term care insurance for lawyers. Additionally, continuing to offer low- to no-cost events for public attorneys will allow them to experience ACBA, and consider joining. Finally, ACBA should continue to collaborate with other bar associations, public interest firms, and non-profit organizations, to organize events to meet more public sector attorneys, and ask them what they want from a bar association.  

 

Hon. Christina L. Ryba
ACBA President

 

 

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