The New Jersey State Bar Association Looking Out for the Law

The New Jersey State Bar Association (NJSBA) has been the central organization for the law profession in New Jersey since 1899. Continuing a tradition of self-regulation, continuing education and community services, the NJSBA is instrumental in shaping the image of the law and in helping citizens realize their access to the legal system in New Jersey.

The NJSBA's mission statement includes several key goals that the association strives to uphold among them: To serve, protect, foster and promote the personal and professional interests of its members; to serve as the voice of New Jersey attorneys to other organizations, governmental entities and the public with regard to the law, legal profession and legal system; to promote access to the justice system and fairness in its administration; to foster professionalism and pride in the profession and the NJSBA; to provide educational opportunities to New Jersey attorneys to enhance the quality of legal services and the practice of law; and to provide education to the New Jersey public to enhance awareness of the legal profession and legal system.

The NJSBA is currently led by Lynn Fontaine Newsome, a partner with Donahue, Hagan, Klein, Newsome & O'Donnell, PC of Morristown. Recently The New Jersey Cooperator sat down with Wayne J. Positan, the immediate past president and a partner with the Roseland-based law firm Lum Drasco & Positan LLC, to find out more about how his organization carries out its mission.

What are the origins of the NJSBA?

Early on, he said, the NJSBA was concerned that the reputation of the law professional was in jeopardy. Drawn-out lawsuits and negative press led to an overhaul of the Court of Errors and Appeals and the adoption of a Code of Ethics. Meanwhile, a Committee on Law Reform aimed its efforts at improving the practice of law.

How does the NJSBA interact with other organizations within the state?

The NJSBA relates to other organizations in several ways. Committees, or sections, specialize in specific areas of interest, and their interaction can take the form of individual lobbyists or of group meetings, such as interstate and interagency summit conferences.

"We have a whole procedure, including three people who are lobbying for the state bar. Our staff monitors legislation as it goes through. If a section has a piece of legislation that they have a particular interest in, they will bring it before the board of trustees," says Positan.

"All of the sections report into the board of trustees, and sometimes come into conflict with each other," he continues. "Ultimately, the board will decide whether to support or oppose the legislation with a category of urgency: high, moderate or low priority. If the various sections are in conflict, often the board will decide to take no position, and let it play out by itself."

One important function of the NJSBA is the overseeing of judicial appointments. "A committee called JPAC, in conjunction with the governors office, monitors judicial appointments and provides a system to check out whether people are qualified or not qualified to serve," says Positan.

What are some of the NJSBA's current goals?

Access to the system is high on the list of continuing priorities, says Positan, who is also a member of the American Bar Association's Board of Governors. "We have recently looked at a collaborative effort with the other mid-Atlantic states to talk about two things. One, to ask our courts to adopt measures that deal with a displacement of a population, like what happened in New Orleans, so that we can help support the area in need, in the way of legal services. The measure would allow attorneys to cross state lines to assist in the impaired legal abilities of a declared disaster area. In New Orleans, the system ground to a halt for almost a year, and people who were being held in jail, whether they were innocent, guilty or awaiting trial or decision were unable to have their cases processed.

"Two, we want to develop ways of communicating with each other in the event of some kind of mass disaster, which can include terrorism or bird flu or anything that can affect large groups of people."

What accomplishments is the NJSBA most proud of?

Positan cites the recent Irreconcilable Differences Law as one of the NJSBA's recent successes: "The statute was basically changed to say that you don't have to make a lot of personal, scurrilous allegations in order to get a divorce. You can just say that the differences are irreconcilable, and that can help with the pain that families have to endure when divorces occur. In other words, we said, let's change the law to make this easier to deal with instead of having to go into all the dirty laundry and allegations—true or untrue—that often get made in these situations. That's just a good example of how you can take a common sense approach to an issue to make it better for everybody."

Unscrupulous lawyers are a plague on not just the people they swindle, but on the profession itself. According to Positan, the NJSBA has measures in place to monitor complaints and issues as they arise.

"There is a whole system set up to deal with ethics complaints within the Office of Administrative Law (OAL)," he says. "The bar association provides volunteers who step forward and provide pro bono time, working with the OAL in investigating these complaints. Ethics complaints were actually down last year, and we think we do a good job of policing ourselves. We certainly want to make sure that our attorneys are acting in accordance with the rules and serving the clients' interests."

What resources are available to NJSBA members to help them develop as attorneys?

The NJSBA provides a forum for interaction and a platform from which members are encouraged to pursue continuing education. "The bar has an annual meeting in May and a mid-year meeting in early November," says Positan. "It's a combination of business meetings, continuing education and social gatherings—an opportunity to catch up on the status of the law from people who do a significant practice in each area. We get a lot of judges to come, people from the prosecutor's office presenting programs, the Attorney General's office, justices of the supreme court and a lot of other judges in particular areas of practice."

There are a couple of issues at the top of the list for the NJSBA, Positan continues. "Right now, the supreme court has asked us to look at what kind of training should be given, from a continuing legal education standpoint, to people who have just graduated from law schools, as well as determining whether there ought to be mandatory continuing education for attorneys in New Jersey."

What about the general community? How does the NJSBA reach out to them?

The NJSBA provides a great deal of educational opportunities to the general community, says Positan. "We have a considerable effort that is made by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, which is the charitable arm of the bar. Their mission is to support educational programs to the public. For example, next week there is a mock trial competition, which they are running with lawsuits from around the country, to hone trial skills. They have also done significant work in the area of bullying.

"Among other things, an initiative called the Pipeline Task Force, which culminated in a report in 2005 that said that 30 percent of the population is diverse, but only 15 percent of the profession on the bench is diverse. So this is an effort to go into communities, to educate, to teach about how the system of justice works. It tries to get kids as far back as grade school interested in what the justice system is all about, to interest them in becoming a lawyer someday, and to nurture them through high school and law school. It is also designed to address concerns about getting more minorities on the bench. We have three law programs working in conjunction with Seton Hall, Rutgers and Rutgers Newark, and we are getting great feedback about that."

Their public efforts are not limited to schools, however. "We also are working on a button for our website to educate the public, a disaster planning project," says Positan. "It will tell people how to personally prepare for a disaster, what to have in a 'grab bag' to grab before leaving the house so that they have important information like insurance policy numbers and other items that will be crucial for dealing with the aftermath."

"We also have military assistance programs in place," continues Positan, "where lawyers have volunteered pro bono time to help service men and women who are returning from Afghanistan and Iraq. We have already helped 12 families in the area of family law and employment law to make sure that these people are given the respect that they deserve when they return."

The NJSBA seems set to continue its role in the legal system of New Jersey, and is ready to handle the future challenges that are likely to arise.

"I think because of technology and because of the regionalization, nationalization and globalization of business, the profession will continue to have to adapt to those challenges and to the whole change in technological culture," says Positan. "The whole concept of how one deals with this information—when you balance free speech and privacy against the capabilities of technology—that area is going to be under intense debate and scrutiny. If you hark back to George Orwell's 1984, well, guess what: we are there. So I think the biggest challenge is going to be dealing with that information and the considerable changes in how our lives and our businesses have changed so dramatically as a result of the world getting smaller from a communications standpoint. You have to balance all of that against the need to keep the absolute core values of our democracy and our Constitution, and maintain the kinds of freedom that we are all so proud of."

Denton Tarver is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New Jersey Cooperator.

 

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