Eric Schneiderman, the attorney general of New York State, delivered the 17th annual Attorney General Robert Abrams Public Service Lecture to a full house at NYU Law on September 30, despite having lost his voice earlier that day. His perseverance was emblematic of the determination he has shown in tackling myriad daunting challenges as the Empire State’s top law enforcement officer.

Attorney General Eric Schneiderman with Robert Abrams '63Schneiderman, who served six terms as a state senator before running for attorney general in 2010, has addressed a broad swath of problems during his career, including the environment, human and civil rights, marriage equality, financial sector abuses, Medicaid fraud, and consumer issues. His background is equally wide ranging: he studied Chinese, music, and biology in college before spending two years as a deputy sheriff in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The latter experience steered Schneiderman toward a legal education: “It focused me on the real challenges we face if we want to live up to our national commitment of equal justice under law.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Schneiderman spent 15 years at the firm Kirkpatrick & Lockhart, eventually becoming a partner. His practice included white-collar criminal work as well as the representation of major financial services firms and commodities and stock exchanges. Taking on more and more pro bono cases, including a successful lawsuit against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on behalf of the Straphangers Campaign, he left practice to join the state senate in 1999. As a senator, he sponsored the successful reform of the Rockefeller Drug Laws, passed extensive ethics reforms, and chaired the first committee in modern history to expel a New York State senator.

Schneiderman enumerated his three goals when he became attorney general: to have the best public law firm in the country, to ensure New York State’s maximal competitiveness in the global economy, and to focus his office’s affirmative work on the idea of equal justice under the law. With a staff of more than 1,800, oversight of some 30 bureaus, and 13 regional offices around the state, Schneiderman has defended state agencies and laws, including New York’s gun and same-sex marriage laws; hired a trained management professional to run his office; and stepped up the work of dozens of affirmative litigation bureaus, including ones dedicated to issues of consumer fraud, labor, civil rights, investor protection, antitrust action, and health care.

The attorney general described a number of his office’s accomplishments to date, such as winning passage of the first comprehensive nonprofit law reform in state history; establishing a statewide database for doctors and pharmacists to track controlled substances like opioids; making New York the only state where attendees can’t leave a gun show without a background check for their purchases; creating a new taxpayer protection bureau; and placing public integrity officers in the attorney general’s regional offices so whistleblowers can confidentially report local corruption.

Schneiderman, who represented financial services firms in his private practice, said he wants them to remain strong and vibrant, but within the bounds of the law. “I do not come to this set of issues from the point of view of wanting to put people out of business in the financial sector,” he said. “I want to restore public confidence in the financial services sector, and you can only do that when people understand that bad actors will be held accountable for their actions. You can’t allow people who abuse the system to have a competitive advantage over the good actors who refuse to abuse the system.” Accordingly, his office is cracking down on high-frequency trading, which Schneiderman referred to as “Insider Trading 2.0.”

Deeming the position of New York State attorney general “the best lawyer job in the United States,” Schneiderman made a distinction between pragmatic transactional work and transformational work that, over time, changes the framing of how people think about a particular problem.

“What are you doing to change the way people see an issue and think about an issue that opens us up to new possibilities?” he said. “That’s a part of our job also, for all lawyers and all of us who seek to do public service.... All of us should commit ourselves to the transformational work of making our legal system better, of making our country more true to the idea of equal justice under law.”

Watch the full video of the event (1 hr, 9 min):

Posted on October 4, 2013