Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Dianne Dixon ('82)
Dianne Dixon is currently the Executive Director of the Access to Justice Center, an entity established within the New York State judiciary to focus exclusively on civil legal services issues.
She has worked in the public interest arena for over two decades, serving in legal positions at various agencies, including the Legal Aid Society, the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College, the New York City Commission on Human Rights, and recently, at the New York State Department of Law as Deputy Bureau Chief in the Consumer Frauds Bureau.
She is a graduate of Princeton University and NYU School of Law.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Dianne E. Dixon ('82)
Executive Director, Access to Justice Center
As the first Executive Director of the Access to Justice Center, you will have the ability to apply your vision for what will be accomplished by the Center. What is this vision? What are your organizational goals?
Fundamental to my vision and the mission of the Center is the concept that there can be no equal access to justice without an increase in the number of attorneys available to represent those unable to afford legal services. Thus, the highest priority for the Center is the establishment of a permanent source of funding for civil legal services programs statewide. The Center will serve as a vehicle for enhancing the availability of legal assistance and for developing new and innovative ideas for improving service delivery to ensure that the structure of our justice system is not itself a barrier to access.
How are you facilitating the means by which attorneys working in the private sector can assist the public good?
Although pro bono efforts are not the Center's central focus, it would be foolish to think that there will be sufficient monies to address the legal needs of the poor solely through civil legal service programs. So, the Center has included in its agenda the goal of increasing pro bono participation. I worked with others in the Judiciary's Justice Initiative program to sponsor pro bono convocations around the state this past summer and fall. The convocations brought together representatives from every aspect of the justice community to evaluate the viability of a statewide pro bono system as a means for increasing participation and to examine existing barriers to participation. A report on our findings will be issued shortly. Additionally, I am working with the State Bar's Pro Bono Coordinator's Network to develop an action plan for increasing participation and improving the experience for those attorneys who do pro bono work.
How has 9/11 affected pro bono efforts in New York?
I think 9/11 showed those who usually make excuses for not doing pro bono work that it was something not only easy to do, but extremely important and meaningful. The turnout of attorneys looking for ways to help the 9/11 victims' families was phenomenal. But, as large as that effort has been, the overwhelming majority of attorneys still do no pro bono work.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I am constantly reenergized when I meet with civil legal service attorneys who, despite shrinking budgets for their programs and attacks on who they can legally represent, are committed to providing legal assistance to their clients. Their commitment reinforces my conviction to achieve the Center's goals.
Who are your role models in the legal profession?
Justice Thurgood Marshall, who I was honored to meet, and Barbara Jordan are two giants whose courage and conviction for equal justice never wavered, even in the face of personal danger. They are role models for everyone, not just those in the legal profession.
What was your first job out of law school?
I was a staff attorney in the civil division's Harlem office of the Legal Aid Society. I feel as though I have come full circle. I started by working for a civil legal service office that represents the poor and now I'm working to strengthen these kinds of programs statewide.
How do you balance work and life?
I don't know if anyone ever truly "balances" work and life. There are times when I am focused more on my work and other times when I am focused more on my family or the other parts of my life. By giving priority at the appropriate times to all aspects of my life, no one gets cheated, including myself. Everyone knows that I will pay attention when they really need me to and they realize that they don't need that attention all the time. That's the best balance I can provide.
If you could chose another profession to be in, what would it be?
I would be a writer. Literature has the ability to attack injustice in society in a way that the practice of law simply does not. It can capture the mind and heart on a personal level and motivate people in ways that litigation cannot. The power of literature probably is why so many people attempt to write books. Of course, not everyone has the skill to create that type of literature.
What advice would you give to current students?
I would advise them to think long and hard about the type of attorney they want to be. By this I mean determining whether they will be an attorney whose legacy includes honoring her ethical obligation to do the public good. As members of the bar they will have a duty to make sure that meaningful access to justice is available to everyone irrespective of income, race, or some other inappropriate barrier. The time to begin acknowledging that duty and fulfilling it is now. Even as students, there are many programs they can volunteer for regardless of the area of law they want to pursue. One thing the 9/11 pro bono effort has demonstrated is that a broad array of expertise is critical to address the unmet need for free legal services. Another lesson learned is that the benefit runs both ways; to the client and to the lawyer.