By Christina Couto
Sharon Stern Gerstman went to law school to “change the world.”
Yet many people who became lawyers for the same reason have gotten away from that idealism, said Gerstman of Buffalo (Magavern Magavern Grimm LLP), who will become State Bar president June 1. “I want to rekindle that.”
The timing couldn’t be better. The aftermath of the 2016 presidential election has motivated people—to protect the environment, fight for public schools, champion the media—Gerstman said.
“It’s not enough to like something on Facebook,” she said. “Instead, do something.”
The State Bar has the structure to help attorneys around the state do that “something,” Gerstman explained, saying that attorneys should ask themselves what kinds of causes and issues they want to champion.
Younger attorneys, particularly, have a social conscience, but may not know exactly what they can do to help, she said. “They want to know how and I certainly want to help them.”
Twenty-five sections—from the Antitrust Section to the Young Lawyers Section—as well as a variety of committees—offer ample opportunity for those looking to do something meaningful.
The groups are often called on to serve as a source of solutions to advocacy issues surrounding current events. The Committee on Immigration Representation, for example, is currently assessing how to best handle the increased need for immigrant representation following the January, 2017 executive orders regarding immigration.
“I’m hoping I will energize the sections to do more advocacy,” Gerstman said.
Many State Bar policies and positions originate from the sections, committees and task forces, Gerstman said. As members identify issues to address or laws that should be changed, their reports and recommendations are often adopted by the Executive Committee and/or the House of Delegates and become State Bar policy. In turn, that policy can be used for advocacy and lobbying efforts.
“The State Bar has the collective voices to go to Washington or Albany,” she said.
Motivation for change
Gerstman, motivated by the “profound need for prison reform,” plans a number of initiatives to reduce the prison population and to reduce the “skewed” demographics of those in prison.
The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population, including a disproportionate number of people of color, Gerstman explained.
“There are ways we can work to counteract these things,” she said. “How laws are administered have a disparate impact on the minority population.”
One way is through a task force to examine the school to prison pipeline, she said.
Suspensions and expulsions of juveniles take away the opportunity to have a life that is productive, Gerstman said. “If they can’t go to school, what are the chances they will have a productive life?”
There are ways to deal with the issue, she said, such as utilizing resources such as restorative justice—youth courts and other solutions to discipline. And the impact of zero-tolerance policies “have—despite the best intentions—helped increase the school to prison pipeline and I’d like to break that.”
With respect to other aspects of prison reform, Gerstman plans to work together with the Criminal Justice Section.
Encouraging participation in the State Bar through social media is another way Gerstman plans to engage attorneys. “I am going to try to heighten awareness of some of the things we do to make a difference,” she said, explaining that, for example, she may post snippets of State Bar reports—such as an environmental report—and encourage followers to share and retweet. “I want to encourage people to be more interactive.”
Gerstman said she will also use social media to get the word out about State Bar policies and advocate for attorneys. “My number-one priority is being the voice of the lawyers in the state.”
Having spent the better part of her year as president-elect visiting as many of the city and county bar associations in the state’s 62 counties, Gerstman heard firsthand about the types of issues facing lawyers in their practices around the state.
“I got a variety of answers, but there were a lot of recurring themes,” she said, explaining that many of the issues dealt with town and village courts, judges who are not attorneys, geographical issues and even how the lack of cellular service in remote areas can create challenges.
Gerstman said that the State Bar needs to be taking tools such as free continuing legal education programs and LawHubSM demonstrations to attorneys where they are, as opposed to waiting for them to come to the Bar.
“In Niagara County, the largest law firm consists of six lawyers. That’s a county where LawhubSM would help,” she said. “Let’s make it as easy as we can for them.”
Gerstman also said she plans to examine joint memberships between county bars and the State Bar, adding that members need both their county bar and state bar, because they help in different ways.
“I want to emphasize importance of county bars to the State Bar and emphasize that we need to work in tandem, and that we are a partnership,” Gerstman said.
Road to the presidency
Prior to becoming president-elect, Gerstman served as treasurer since 2013 and as an Eighth Judicial District vice-president on the Executive Committee. She is a member of the House of Delegates, Finance Committee, Civil Practice Law and Rules (CPLR) Committee, Dispute Resolution Section, and Torts, Insurance and Compensation Law Section.
She is a Life Fellow of The Bar Foundation and was a board member from 2008 to 2016. Gerstman is past chair of the Committee on CPLR and the Special Committee on Lawyer Advertising and Referral Service Regulation. She also co-chaired the Task Force on E-Filing and the special committees on Lawyer Advertising and Strategic Planning.
Gerstman also is active in the American Bar Association, where she has been a member of the House of Delegates since 1990. She has served on its Board of Governors and the Councils of two sections and as a member of multiple committees.
At Magavern Magavern Grimm LLP, Gerstman concentrates her practice in mediation and arbitration and appellate practice. She joined the firm in December 2010. She previously spent nearly 30 years with the New York Supreme Court in the Eighth Judicial District.
Couto is NYSBA’s State Bar News editor.