In Conversation with Elena Karabatos ’86, Aimee Richter ’93, and Marie-Eleana First ’98
Bar association presidents discuss the importance of making connections in an increasingly digital world
BROOKLYN LAW SCHOOL graduates have long been
leaders of bar associations
across the country. New York
is a case in point, featuring
Marie-Eleana First ’98,
president-elect of the Queens
County Bar Association (she
will become president in
January); Elena Karabatos
’86, president of the Nassau
County Bar Association;
and Aimee Richter ’93,
who completed her term as
president of the Brooklyn Bar
Association in June.
Brooklyn Law Notes recently spoke with the three bar leaders about the value of bar association membership, the importance of face-to-face conversations rather than virtual connections, and why students should join during law school.
First is an immigration lawyer in private practice at her own firm FirstLawNY. She handles a wide variety of immigration matters including removal/deportation proceedings, familybased immigrant petitions, artist and religious worker visas, employment-based immigrant and non-immigrant petitions, and special immigrant juvenile visas.
Karabatos is a senior partner at Schlissel Ostrow Karabatos and a leading matrimonial lawyer in New York known for her courtroom advocacy as well as her ability to settle complex cases. She is the immediate past-president of the New York Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers. Her daughter Sofia Skarlatos ’16 clerked at the Third Circuit Court of Appeals before joining Arnold & Porter as an associate in New York City.
Richter is a named partner and co-chair of the matrimonial and family law division at Lee Anav Chung White Kim Ruger & Richter, the fourthlargest minority-owned law firm in New York State. She recently was named to Crain’s New York Business 2018 list of Leading Women Lawyers in New York City.
How has bar association
membership shaped your career paths?
Richter: As a 25-year-old, right out of law school, I joined the Brooklyn Bar Association and, ever since, it has helped me develop my professional relationships. It offers so many opportunities to meet leaders of the Brooklyn legal community. Looking back, the people I met through the bar association—when I was just starting out in my career—are now my friends, many of whom have gone on to become judges and politicians. You can’t build those kinds of relationships anywhere else as a young lawyer. You need the face-to-face interaction.
Karabatos: My memberships, in both the New York State
and Nassau County Bar Associations, have absolutely shaped
my career. I’ve met people who encouraged me not only to take
on leadership roles, but to get involved in important legislation
and policy initiatives.
First: I joined the New York City Bar Association right after I graduated, and I participated in the Young Lawyers Committee. I then joined the New York State Bar Association where I served as co-chair of the Young Lawyers Committee of the Intellectual Property Section. After that, I got busy and I lost touch with the bar associations. But several years later, I met a colleague in immigration court and he invited me to join the Queens County Bar Association (QCBA), and I’ve had an incredible experience ever since.
Membership in local bar associations has declined in recent years. How are you addressing that?
Richter: Many young people who have grown up on their cell phones and on social media don’t understand that an in-person meeting is so much more valuable than a text. We are thinking hard about how to make that case to the generation of lawyers who are digital natives.
Karabatos: I agree, and I do see younger attorneys are starting
to recognize the limitations of what they can do online and why
it’s important to get together with their colleagues in person. It is
incumbent upon us to encourage the next generation to join us,
and to help them understand and take advantage of the unique
benefits of membership.
First: All organizations have been affected by the internet because attorneys are now going online to seek knowledge and to market themselves. People feel that social media is the preferred mode of communication for legal research, learning, and self-promotion. However, nothing is as effective as an interpersonal face-to-face meeting. It fosters camaraderie among seasoned attorneys and mentorship for young attorneys. Bar associations also provide a way to meet your adversary in a non-confrontational way, and to build solidarity and empathy among adversaries. It raises the level of the quality and integrity of lawyering.
Why should law students get involved in their local bar association?
First: Young lawyers are the future of the bar association, and it’s a great idea to start building your professional relationships as a student—especially because membership is free to law students. We started a student ambassadorship program, in which we have two student representatives from each law school act as liaisons between the law school and the bar association. Our student ambassadors share information about our bar to the law students and also help our bar to coordinate its networking events, panels, and mentorship program. In this way, lawyers and law students can better engage with each other, fostering goodwill and deeper connections. We also have writing opportunities for students, including contests that recognize articles and law notes.
Karabatos: Students are welcomed in bar associations—
and they can join for free. They are mentored and invited to
join committees, so they can meet lawyers in a very accessible,
approachable environment. We have networking and social
events for our law students. We also welcome new lawyers in
leadership because they bring a different perspective.
Richter: I sit on the Character and Fitness Committee for the Second Department, and when I am doing interviews with the students I stress the importance and value of joining. There are lots of benefits for new lawyers like free CLE, networking, and mentoring.
How are your associations serving your communities?
First: In 1991, QCBA created the Queens Volunteer Lawyers Project, which has grown and flourished since that time. Over the years, our members in conjunction with the project have provided free legal assistance to low-income Queens residents facing civil law matters involving basic human needs, such as eviction proceedings, foreclosure, family law matters, bankruptcy, and problems with insurers. When President Trump announced changes to DACA, we wrote a public service announcement for the bar that we aired on Queens public television about what the changes meant because we thought the policy was very confusing. The former president, Gregory Newman ’88, delivered the PSA in English, and I delivered it Spanish.
Karabatos: Local bar associations are in the best position to
initiate and coordinate pro bono programs and opportunities,
as well as do charitable work, to meet the legal needs of the
community. Access to justice is one of my passions and a priority
for my term as Nassau County Bar Association’s president. My
goal is to encourage members of the community, especially
those who may have been underserved in the past, to use and
rely on my association when they have legal problems. We
offer a mortgage foreclosure program, family law clinics, and
immigration legal services, which are all great ways to give back
and get involved on a community level. We Care, the charitable
arm of the Association, provides a way for attorneys to give back
to their local communities.
Richter: The role of the bar association is to respond to its community’s needs. We have a volunteer lawyer network and a referral system to get representation where it is needed. We have been setting up many foreclosure clinics. We responded with legal help after Hurricane Sandy in New York and Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Recently, we have been working to protect children and families from being separated. We also have our Foundation Law Programs for the Public committee, which provides legal information and help with many issues, such as housing rights, foreclosure, divorce, and immigration.
Younger lawyers today are more interested in social justice issues, and being a part of the bar association gives them a way to galvanize and work with a larger group of lawyers committed to those same causes. Whether it’s getting out to the airport after the first travel ban in 2017 or helping with parents who have been separated from their children, lawyers are being seen as the good guys, as saviors of the rule of law.
How did Brooklyn Law School inspire your commitment to volunteering as a bar association leader?
Richter: Brooklyn Law School showed me the importance of building a strong community and personal relationships. Even during the admissions process, a partner at a big law firm invited me to lunch to share his positive experiences at the school with me. That meant so much.
Karabatos: The Law School taught me the importance of
community engagement through its clinics and internships.
Those programs were a wonderful experience.
First: My professors, especially Professor Joseph Crea, inspired me to keep on persevering and go forward. I’ll always be grateful for my Law School experience.
This interview was conducted and edited by Andrea Strong ’94.