Alan Rothstein ’78
As general counsel to the New York City Bar Association, Alan Rothstein coordinates the extensive law reform and public policy work of this 22,000-member association. Prior to joining the Association 20 years ago, Rothstein was the associate director of Citizens Union, a long-standing civic association in New York City that serves as a watchdog for the public interest and an advocate for good government at City Hall and the State Capitol. He began his legal career as an associate with Weil, Gotshal & Manges after receiving his JD from NYU School of Law in 1978. Prior to this, he worked as an economist in the environmental consulting field and for the New York City Economic Development Administration.
Rothstein earned a BA from the City College of New York and an MA in Economics from Brown University before coming to NYU School of Law. He serves on the boards of directors of Volunteers of Legal Service and Citizens Union, where he is the chair of its State Affairs Committee. He has also served for 15 years on the New York State Bar Association House of Delegates.
Interview with Alumnus/Alumna of the Month
Alan Rothstein ’78
What is the overall mission of the New York City Bar Association? Has this mission evolved over the years that you have been there?
The City Bar Association was founded in 1870 primarily to combat the widespread corruption in the city’s judiciary during the Boss Tweed era. From that time until today, the Association has worked to promote reform of the law and the fair and sound administration of justice, and to uphold high ethical standards. In recent years, the Association has devoted extensive energy to the cause of human rights, both domestically and abroad, and has developed the City Bar Justice Center to provide direct legal assistance to the needy.
As an executive of this mostly volunteer-supported association, you have a unique position. Tell us about your role there and how you have been able to use this position to achieve your goals.
The New York City Bar is a unique institution. It has a long history of involvement in social causes and human rights. Over the years, its leaders have stressed that the Association should be promoting the public good, rather than simply following the usual trade association approach. As the General Counsel, I feel my primary responsibility is to maintain that emphasis. I work with the Association’s over 160 committees, which are charged with making a constructive contribution to society and the profession. I see myself as a stimulator and facilitator of this activity, and I have the opportunity to advocate for change. Among the many issues I have been working on recently are the tension between maintaining civil liberties while preserving national security; making sure the rule of law is being followed in pursuing the “war on terrorism,” and the legislation regarding human trafficking and various policies regarding the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The range of issues we address is enormous and stimulating.
Why should NY attorneys seek to get involved with the New York City Association?
I think the best opportunity at the City Bar is to become involved in the work of our committees, which issue reports, prepare amicus briefs, present programs, undertake public service projects and pursue other activities that serve the profession and the public. It’s a great way to do something productive outside the day-to-day practice of law, to promote real change in the law and judicial administration. We also provide many member benefits; we have the biggest private non-academic law library in the US; we conduct over 300 CLE and public programs, including many on career advancement and management; and we provide opportunities to network and socialize with lawyers outside the workplace. In addition, we provide many pro bono opportunities. We even have an orchestra, chorus and entertainment troop in which to ply your talent! In sum, the Association offers a way to make a real contribution to society, enhance your own professional standing and even enjoy yourself.
What do you believe are the most critical issues facing NYC lawyers today? How does the New York City Bar Association work to resolve those issues?
Rather than start with issues affecting lawyers as lawyers, I want to start with issues affecting us as people. This is a time of major change, when some of our basic societal values and fundamental constitutional concepts are being challenged. Lawyers are particularly well-suited to address these issues, and the City Bar both provides an excellent discussion forum and serves as an advocate for addressing what our committees believe are the most important concerns.
With regard to issues affecting lawyers as lawyers, the topic I hear about most is finding the proper work-life (or perhaps it should be life-work) balance. The tension between personal and professional satisfaction looms over lawyers’ daily lives. The Association has presented many programs designed to show firms best practices on such topics as flex-time and preserving a partner track for persons who have taken time off. We have also studied lawyer quality-of-life issues. The pressures of the professional world, particularly in the private sector, seem to make meaningful change hard to achieve; however, I think the problem is increasingly drawing the attention of the leaders of major legal institutions, who realize its effect on their workforce and their bottom line.
Another key area of focus is diversity in the profession—providing meaningful opportunities for lawyers in groups traditionally underrepresented in the legal profession, particularly in the higher rungs of the profession. The City Bar now has a fully staffed program in the area, conducts monthly workshops and annual diversity surveys, and otherwise works to educate the Bar and stimulate change.
A third set of issues facing many lawyers is the struggle to make a living as a lawyer and to find career satisfaction. A substantial number of lawyers are not making a go of their chosen profession. Others may appear successful but are deeply dissatisfied. The City Bar’s career-related programs are always popular, and hopefully are valuable.
What is the most rewarding aspect of your job?
I get to work on important public policy issues, and in areas in which I have long had an interest. In addition to what I mentioned above, I have had an interest in reform of government processes, and in my time at the Association I have worked with a number of committees that have made substantial contributions on a local, state and national level. To some extent, I can help focus the City Bar on efforts that can have the most positive impact on social and governmental problems. I have one client—the Association—and it is quite a good one.
How did NYU School of Law prepare you for the career you have had?
NYU gave me a solid foundation of coursework, made more stimulating by the quality of my fellow students. I found the atmosphere supportive of pursuing non-traditional career paths. Although I started out my practice at a large law firm, I had been interested in using law in the public policy realm (I had worked as an economist in City government before law school) and found the Environmental Law Clinic run by Ross Sandler and David Schoenbrod at Natural Resources Defense Council to be very satisfying (I recall their encouragement when I tried to examine the viability of the use of jitneys for public transit in the City—not exactly a standard law project!)
What is your strongest memory of your years at NYU School of Law?
My strongest, most positive impression was how wonderful my classmates were. I expected a competitive environment, but I found all these people who were friendly, supportive and a lot of fun. A number of my classmates have become prominent lawyers in a variety of fields, including many in public interest law (either full time or as devoted volunteers). The depth of their continuing commitment is a source of pride and motivation to me.
What advice would you give to current students?
Recognize that a law degree opens many doors, both within the profession and in other fields. I hope many current students pursue positions in the public and nonprofit sectors, particularly by serving those who cannot afford legal representation. That is the area where there is an acute shortage of lawyers. To make this happen, funding for legal services and loan forgiveness programs must be increased—an important goal for all of us to work to achieve.