Reform Target: Rikers

In February, the speaker of the New York City Council named New York State’s former Chief judge Jonathan Lippman ’68 chair of the new Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform. As its name implies, the commission’s mandate is broad, but its highest-profile assignment will involve assessing the city’s long-troubled Rikers Island complex, which a growing number of critics say should close.

“Rikers is clearly a symbol of everything that’s wrong with the criminal justice system,” Lippman told reporters. “The question is: what do you do about it?”

Working for judicial system reform is nothing new for Lippman. During his seven years as chief judge of New York State’s highest court, he increased state funding for civil legal services, set mandatory pro bono requirements for law students, pushed for new approaches to bail, and won adoption of rules to protect individuals in debt-collection proceedings. He stepped down from the court in December 2015, after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70, and is now of counsel at Latham & Watkins. “My prior efforts to improve the legal system play right into my role as chair of the new commission,” Lippman says. “It allows me to continue my work to ensure the scales of Lady Justice are exquisitely balanced and that justice is not determined by how much money you have in your pocket.”

Whatever recommendations the commission makes on Rikers are sure to be controversial. Says Lippman: “We will go where the research, data, and sound public policy take us.”

Balancing Acts

Sarah Brafman ’16 has been selected as a 2016 Skadden Fellow. The prestigious two-year fellowship provides a salary and benefits to enable recipients to pursue public interest work.

Brafman will work for A Better Balance (ABB), a national legal advocacy organization dedicated to promoting better workplace policies to help families, particularly those that are low income. She will support efforts to enforce two workplace protection laws that ABB helped pass in New York City: the Earned Sick Time Act and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act.

A former co-president of NYU Law Students for Reproductive Justice, Brafman was also a Ford Foundation Law School Public Interest Fellow and a student in the Reproductive Justice Clinic.

Have Mercy

As the clock on presidential pardons began running out this year, the Law School emerged as a powerhouse of clemency applications. Led by Rachel Barkow, Segal Family Professor of Regulatory Law and Policy, the Mercy Project and the Clemency Resource Center (CRC) at the Center on the Administration of Criminal Law have helped prisoners who are serving lengthy federal sentences for nonviolent offenses and are ready for reentry into society pursue sentencing reduction or commutation. “I am so proud of what the center and the CRC have achieved. They have transformed lives with their great work, reuniting families and giving people hope for a brighter future,” says Barkow. “The CRC legal team, our center fellows, and our law firm partners represent the legal profession at its very best.”

  • 625 clemency applications screened
  • 150 petitions filed by 10 attorneys and 16 students
  • 16 commutations, including 6 for clients serving life sentences

Doing Good

Members of the NYU Law community won two of five 2016 Skoll Awards for Social Entrepreneurship: Mallika Dutt ’89, founder and executive director of Breakthrough: Building Human Rights Culture, and Bryan Stevenson, professor of clinical law and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI).

The award comes with $1.25 million in support investments to help each organization scale its work. EJI, which Stevenson founded in 1989 in Montgomery, Alabama, provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners, including juvenile offenders and people wrongly convicted.

Dutt’s nonprofit group combats gender-based violence by using popular media, leadership, and advocacy to transform cultural norms in the US and India. Breakthrough will use the new funding to expand its program combating gender-based violence to 500 US college campuses.

“How do you shift culture? Change stories, use the law, and dream big!” said Dutt. “That’s what I learned at NYU Law. That’s why I created Breakthrough.”

How to Protect Election Integrity in 6 Not-So-Easy-Steps

Although half of US states have passed voter registration laws since 2010, many of the new rules address only in-person voter impersonation, which is rare. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the actual danger comes from election fraud committed by candidates, parties, or their supporters. “The right to vote is under siege,” former US attorney general Eric Holder noted at a Brennan Center conference on automatic voter registration. A Brennan Center report proposes the following measures to ensure honest elections and protect voters:

  1. Goodbye to ink and paper registration. Hello to automatic and online registration.
  2. Make sure our voting machines are secure and reliable.
  3. Don’t allow online voting until security is proven.
  4. Adopt only commonsense voter identification proposals.
  5. Increase security of mail-in ballots.
  6. Protect against insider wrongdoing.

Crowded House

If apartment hunting seems like it’s gotten tougher, it may be because you live in one of the 11 largest metropolitan areas in the US. According to the NYU Furman Center report National Affordable Rental Housing Landscape, renter population from 2006 to 2014 grew faster than the number of rental housing units. As a result, vacancy rates have gone down, the number of people in a rental unit has risen, and in most areas, prices have increased. In addition, more renters also struggled to find affordable housing in these regions; “affordable” rent is defined as being less than 30 percent of a household’s income.

More findings about renting in the 11 largest US metro areas:

WASHINGTON, DC, was the least affordable for the typical American renter in a metro area, followed by the San Francisco, LA, and NYC metro areas.

30% OF NYC RENTERS spent at least half their household income on housing costs.

DALLAS AND HOUSTON metro areas were the most affordable to the median US renter household.

The Proof Is in the Putting

In Stuyvesant Town, the sprawling residential complex a couple of miles north of the NYU Law campus, Bernie Rothenberg ’39 might be the best-known and most beloved graduate of the Law School. The services he provides these days, however, are not legal ones: rather, he is known as the “Golf Pro” of the building complex, and the 99-year-old can often be found teaching his fellow residents how to perfect their strokes.

The New York Times caught wind of Rothenberg’s story last fall and featured a character study of him and what the other residents call “The Rothenberg Golf Club,” a practice range covered with turf where Rothenberg hits balls each morning.

Rothenberg practiced law for just a short time after graduating from the Law School before being drafted into the United States Army during World War II and fighting in the Philippines and Okinawa. He has lived in Stuyvesant Town since he returned to the US. His golf club started only in the past decade or so.

Any fellow alumni looking to improve their games can heed Rothenberg’s advice. “Keep yourself relaxed, don’t tighten up,” he told the Times. “Keep your weight on the front foot, elbows tucked into your body. Take a nice rhythmic swing and don’t muscle it. Let the club do the hitting.”

Game Theory

When Adjunct Professor and Senior Lecturer Alan Rechtschaffen teaches derivatives in his course Financial Instruments and the Capital Markets, he uses an unexpected tool: his backgammon prowess.

A past Princeton Club backgammon champion, Rechtschaffen employs that knowledge to convey key concepts. While backgammon requires strategic skill, it also involves rolling dice and opportunities to double the stakes of a game, introducing the kind of unpredictability found in the financial markets.

“You can analyze a market, understand the risks in a portfolio, do the right thing based on all the data you have, and at the end of the day lose money,” Rechtschaffen says.

“That’s like backgammon, because you could do everything right and then the dice go against you. Similar to derivatives, there are ways of, over time, increasing the reward of being right. It’s the leverage of that particular transaction or roll of the dice.”

This spring, Rechtschaffen led a two-week crash course in derivatives for judges from the New York State Supreme Court’s Appellate and Commercial Divisions. Interest in the class stemmed from legal cases involving the misuse of financial instruments in the 2008 global financial crisis.

“You can’t apply correct law unless you understand the transaction really well,” says Rechtschaffen. “These things, if you boil them down, are not so complex.”

Why So Blue?

All graduates of law school are familiar—whether they like it or not—with The Bluebook, the exhaustive guide to legal citation created and published by the Harvard Law Review. “It is a comically elaborate thicket of random and counterintuitive rules about how to cite judicial decisions, law review articles, and the like,” wrote Adam Liptak in the New York Times last December, further describing it as “both grotesque and indispensable.”

Professor Christopher Jon Sprigman, alongside Carl Malamud of Public.Resource.Org and more than a dozen NYU Law students, is working to make the legal citation process easier for all lawyers. Together, they have created The Indigo Book: A Manual of Legal Citation, a copyright-free guide to the same Uniform System of Citation contained in The Bluebook.

The Indigo Book contains the same rules as The Bluebook, but expressed more simply and clearly. “Now that those rules are set free of copyright, others can work to improve them. It’s a chance for all of us to think about what our legal citation system should look like, because there’s a lot of dissatisfaction,” Sprigman says. “The Bluebook also costs money, and there are people who need access to legal citation but don’t have a lot of extra money—people in jail, for example, or solo practitioners.”

Sprigman changed the name of the project from Baby Blue to The Indigo Book after the Harvard Law Review Association contested the original title, arguing that people would be confused and believe that Baby Blue was affiliated with The Bluebook. “They never had any substantial copyright or trademark claims,” Sprigman says. “But rather than litigate for two years, we just decided to change the name.”

The Indigo Book is now available online, released under Creative Commons “CC0,” a public domain dedication that essentially means “no rights reserved,” thus enabling users to copy, distribute, and improve on this expression of the citation system. “A system is not copyrightable. It can be reexpressed,” Sprigman says. “So we expressed the system in different words. We think The Indigo Book does that more efficiently and understandably. And now that this has been done, innovation can happen. Anyone can take our work, modify it, and make it better.”

Miracle on 23rd Street

As New York State superintendent of insurance, Eric Dinallo ’90 helped throw a lifeline to insurance giant AIG during the 2008 financial crisis. This past December, he made another save, this time lifting a fellow straphanger from the path of an oncoming subway.

Dinallo, a partner at Debevoise & Plimpton who teaches business ethics and professional responsibility at NYU Stern, was waiting on the crowded platform for the M and F trains at 23rd Street and Sixth Avenue in Manhattan when a man appeared to fall onto the subway tracks. According to the attorney’s e-mail to co-workers after the incident, which was published by the American Lawyer, Dinallo lay facedown on the platform, perpendicular to the edge, and shouted for the man to grab his arm as an oncoming M train bore down on the station.

“I heard the subway horn blaring and the brakes screeching and just grabbed his elbows and pulled as hard as I could. The man came up sort of on top and next to me on the platform. The subway then immediately came screeching by and stopped about 40 feet past us,” Dinallo wrote in the e-mail.

It wasn’t until after disaster was averted—and the man caught the next F train—that Dinallo reflected on how dangerous his actions were.

“I did what any of us would have done—I was just in the right place at the right time, with a touch of technical [knowledge] that made me feel confident I was not acting recklessly—at least that was my feeling in the moment!”

Winner’s Circle

Future trial advocates at NYU Law excelled in two major international moot competitions this past year. Students on the Moot Court Board achieved their best performance ever in the Philip C. Jessup International Law Moot Court Competition’s world championships last spring, ranking in the top eight out of more than 550 teams worldwide. The NYU Law competitors included Iqra Zainul Abedin LLM ’16, Daniel Andreeff ’16, Asmaa Awad-Farid ’17, Rajkiran Barhey LLM ’16, Megan Henry ’16, Tim McKenzie ’16, and David Isidore Tan LLM ’16. The team earned seventh place for its written permissions, while Henry was named fourth-best oralist.

In March, Saif Ansari ’16, Céline Braumann LLM ’16, and Maanya Tandon LLM ’16 placed third in the national rounds of the International Criminal Court Moot Competition. Braumann won the top oralist prize and was runnerup for the best written memorial by a prosecutor, while Tandon was runnerup for the best written memorial by a legal representative of the victims. The team is coached by NYU Law’s Center for Human Rights and Global Justice (CHRGJ) former program officer Danny Auron and Bianca Isaias ’15 and supported by the CHRGJ and the Hauser Global Fellows Program.


Oregon Governor Kate Brown tapped Lynn Nakamoto ’85 in December 2015 for the state’s Supreme Court. Nakamoto, the first Asian Pacific American on the state’s highest bench, pursued a public interest career before joining the Portland law firm Markowitz Herbold, specializing in business and employment litigation.

At NYU Law, the justice served as a Note & Comment editor for the Review of Law & Social Change and was also a member of the Asian-Pacific American Law Students Association.

“I appreciated NYU Law’s attention to public interest law,” says Nakamoto, who began her career representing indigent clients in New York after graduation, before moving to the West Coast and joining Marion-Polk Legal Aid Services in Salem, Oregon. Nakamoto was managing shareholder at Markowitz Herbold, where she spent more than two decades, before being appointed to the Court of Appeals in January 2011.

From Big Law to Obstacle Sports

If there is one thing attorneys with Big Law experience excel at, it’s competing at the highest levels. After starting their careers as associates at Cravath, Swaine & Moore, Marc Ackerman ’92 and John Gauch ’96 are now both at obstacle course racing companies that relish team spirit and work ethic—and the occasional barbed wire crawl.

Ackerman serves as general counsel and senior vice president of legal and business affairs at Tough Mudder, an obstacle race company that hosts a variety of 10-to-12-mile courses, complete with electric shocks and ice baths. The attorney, who spent two decades in Big Law, draws parallels between working in a large firm and obstacle racing. “Overcoming the fear of the unknown and throwing oneself into intense experiences is how we grow and learn,” says Ackerman.

Gauch’s career took him to management consulting and IBM before he landed at Spartan Race, a firm with an intense lineup of obstacles throughout races, which include rope climbs and fire jumps and range from three to more than 12 miles. As vice president of Spartan Race, Gauch stresses the importance of remaining agile.

“Attorneys need to be mentally tough and resilient to navigate the profession,” says Gauch.

Posted September 2, 2016