Seymour James quietly makes big impact
Career civil legal services advocate becomes president on June 1
By Patricia Sears DohertyDuring a summer spent interning at the New York City Board of Correction and listening to prisoners’ stories, Boston University School of Law student Seymour W. James, Jr. was alarmed by the lack of quality legal representation many of the detainees described.
That paper—"A Day in Court is a Day in the Pens"—and the desire to help former prisoners become better citizens still resonates with him today. James, now attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Practice at The Legal Aid Society in New York, takes the State Bar’s reins as president on June 1.
One of his first actions will be to charge a task force with finding a better way to assist prisoners with their re-entry into society after incarceration.
"It is not just the right thing morally to do," it will help to ensure the public’s safety, he said recently. Appropriate vocational training and educational programs during incarceration and after release will assist former prisoners better fit into their communities after leaving prison, he added.
Brooklyn resident James will be formally inaugurated during the House of Delegates meeting in Cooperstown on June 23.
James has spent his entire legal career at The Legal Aid Society in New York City, which he joined in 1974 because "I thought I could make a difference." He was the first attorney of color to head a borough trial office in the Criminal Practice and the first appointed attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Practice.
Raised in Queens, James played football at Manhattan’s Stuyvesant High School. He graduated from Brown University with a degree in economics. He earned his law degree from Boston University School of Law.
A soft-spoken, thoughtful man, James learned early how actions speak louder than words in helping the less fortunate. He had some excellent role models within his family. His grandmother was a school principal and political activist who worked with the underprivileged in Jamaica, West Indies. His father, a librarian for the United Nations, worked for several years with the Economic Commission for Africa in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Joining his family for a year, James attended Haile Selassie University (now Addis Ababa University), where his fellow students included Ethiopians, other Africans, Europeans and Iranians.
That experience "made me recognize the value of interacting with people from different backgrounds," said James recently.
The direction of his career was
paved during his college years. He became a student leader in the black
students organization at Brown, and served on the University Council on
Student Affairs, which adjudicated
Before attending law school, he took a year off and worked as a math teacher and counselor in a jobs training program for the poor in New York City.
James’ quiet, but effective advocacy for the indigent caught up in the criminal justice system, combined with his penchant for research and hard work, was noticed early by fellow attorneys. Susan B. Lindenauer, who worked with him at The Legal Aid Society, said "his breadth of interests" led him to bar activity. Lindenauer retired as counsel to the president and attorney-in-chief of The Legal Aid Society.
"His leadership at The Legal Aid Society and his involvement in nonprofit work has helped him play a thoughtful role in in the criminal justice profession," said Lindenauer.
With encouragement from Lindenauer, chair of the senior Lawyers Section and co-chair of the Task Force on Family Court, and past State Bar President Archibald Murray, James became active in bar association work. He is a past president of the Queens County Bar Association, a member of the Board of Directors of the New York State Defenders Association and the American Council of Chief Defenders of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association.
He was the State Bar’s treasurer from 2008-2011, a former vice president of the 11th Judicial District from 2004-2008, and has been a member of the Executive Committee since 2004. He co-chairs the President’s Committee on Access to Justice. He has been active on numerous committees, including the Committee on Diversity and Leadership Development, and the committees on Finance, Membership, Legal Aid, Attorneys in Public Service and the Jury System.
While engaging in State Bar activities, he saw demonstrations of the powerful change that bar associations can facilitate in the profession and for defendants.
Presidential prioritiesThe next president admits to being "generally reserved" by nature. However, the principles that led him to the law—"trying to improve the quality" of indigent defense and wanting "to improve society"—are still his goals. "I see that being president of the State Bar offers me that opportunity," he said.
Besides helping prisoners re-entering society, James also intends to appoint a special committee that will study the problem of human trafficking. "I want the State Bar to recommend legislation and develop protocols that can be used by attorneys, prosecutors and courts across the state to stop the trafficking of women and girls and help those who have been victims of trafficking," he said.
James has been instrumental in teaching the profession the importance of diversity and is a strong advocate for increasing diversity in the State Bar. As president, he wants to build on President Doyle’s Section Diversity Challenge to ensure that there is more diversity in the sections and among the section leadership.
"We have done great work with the association leadership, but now that we have a sense of what works, the sections must rededicate themselves to improve their diversity," he said. "The organization benefits greatly when we have various perspectives" on any issue.
In keeping with those views on diversity in the profession and to engage young lawyers, he will seek "to develop a coordinated mentoring effort bar-wide." He called the effort an important aspect of the State Bar’s strategic planning for the future.
James’ successful advocacy for improving the justice system has benefited the state beyond his daily work at The Legal Aid Society and the State Bar. He serves on the Departmental Disciplinary Committee for the First Judicial Department and the Committee on Character and Fitness for the Second Judicial Department. He also is a member of the state Permanent Sentencing Commission, the Independent Judicial Election Qualification Commission for the 11th Judicial District and the Justice Task Force.
Previously, he was a member of the Task Force on the Future of Probation in New York State and the Judicial Hearing Officer Selection Advisory Committee, Second Department.
James is married to Justice Cheryl E. Chambers, associate justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department. Like her husband, she is very active in the State Bar’s leadership. She is a member of the House of Delegates and chair of the Committee on Bylaws.
They have three adult children: Cheryl, an attorney; Carole, a law student; and Christopher, who plans to attend business school.
Sears Doherty is State Bar News editor.