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Making a Difference – Thanks to Rutgers Law School

The commitment instilled by Rutgers School of Law–Newark to the use of the law as a positive tool for social justice was praised by the honorees at the Alumni Association Annual Recognition Dinner. The event, held on October 15 at the Hilton Short Hills, attracted more than 400 registrants to celebrate the professional and civic accomplishments of the Honorable Ronald K. Chen ’83, Public Advocate of New Jersey; Ann Berger Lesk ’77, partner of Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP; Neil M. Mullin ’79, principal in Smith Mullin, P.C.; and Nancy Erika Smith ’80, principal in Smith Mullin, P.C.
   
  09 Alumni Dinner honorees 
   From left: Ronald Chen, Ann Lesk, Neil Mullin, and Nancy Erika Smith. 
   

Speaking at his first Alumni Association Annual Recognition Dinner, Dean John J. Farmer, Jr. said that the commitment of the school’s graduates “to make an impact on the world of New Jersey, the world of New York, and the larger world of our country” was the most compelling reason for his taking the deanship job. That commitment, together with the school’s tradition of opportunity and impact, is reflected in the career of the 2009 honorees, “all outstanding lawyers and all dedicated to public service.”

Ronald Chen, who was introduced by Professor Gary Francione, received the Fannie Bear Besser Award for Public Service. Besser graduated first in the Class of 1920 at New Jersey Law School, a predecessor of Rutgers, and was one of the first women admitted to the New Jersey Bar. She practiced law until she was 90 and was a full-time volunteer lawyer for various government agencies and Essex-Newark Legal Services. “We should all strive in our own way to emulate her model,” said Chen.

In 2006, Chen left the law school, where he had held administrative and teaching responsibilities for 18 years, to become New Jersey’s first Public Advocate in 13 years at the newly-restored Department of the Public Advocate. He proudly noted that of the six persons who have been nominated and confirmed as Public Advocate, three have been Rutgers graduates – Emeritus Professor Alfred Slocum, Zulima Farber, and himself. “I suggest to you that is no accident,” he said, “because all of us have been imbued with the call to public service that this law school issues everyday to its students and its alumni.”

Chen, known to many around the state more as Dean Chen or Professor Chen than Public Advocate Chen, was at the time of his appointment Associate Dean for Academic Affairs. He also taught first-year and upper-class courses, provided pro bono representation in a range of civil rights and constitutional law cases, and was an active lay leader of the ACLU. He was named the New Jersey Law Journal’s “Lawyer of the Year” for 2007, largely due to his work in preventing eminent domain abuse. Reflecting on his career, Chen said: “To the extent that I have been able to play some role in making the legal system more receptive to the needs of the public, and particularly those constituencies that have been traditionally underserved by traditional social and civic institutions, I, and all of us in the room who similarly benefited from a Rutgers legal education, owe that ability to make a difference to Rutgers.”
     
   

 “To the extent that I have been able to play some role in making the legal system more receptive to the needs of the public, and particularly those constituencies that have been traditionally underserved by traditional social and civic institutions, I, and all of us in the room who similarly benefited from a Rutgers legal education, owe that ability to make a difference to Rutgers.”
— Honorable Ronald Chen

     

Ann Lesk, who received a Distinguished Alumna Award, was introduced by her classmate Robert Goldsmith who, as did Lesk in her remarks, acknowledged the influence of classmate A.J. Smaldone on the Class of 1977. “A polio survivor with major physical impairments, A.J.’s determination and cheerfulness set the tone for our entire class,” said Lesk. “She made us all better lawyers.”

After law school, Lesk clerked for New Jersey Supreme Court Justice Worrall F. Mountain, Jr., then joined Fried Frank where she now heads the trusts and estates department. “Usually, there is little demand for sophisticated trust and estate lawyering in pro bono matters, but September 11 changed all that,” she said. A Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel, Lesk praised the response of the trust and estates bar to addressing the legal consequences of the attack and, speaking of the thousands who showed up for special training at the New York City Bar, said: “I know that I have rarely felt as much pride in the legal profession as I did when I saw my colleagues waiting patiently in that long line.”

Commenting on the recession, Lesk stated that “the need for pro bono service has never been greater.” Some 90 percent of respondents in mortgage foreclosure cases do not have legal representation “and a frighteningly high percentage do not even appear, forfeiting possible defenses.” The New York County Lawyers’ Association, which she heads as president, has seen an explosion in the number of individuals seeking assistance at its pro bono programs on consumer debt, bankruptcy, landlord-tenant, and employment law issues.

The recession has caused “carnage” in the profession and, said Lesk, there are troubling signs that firms under economic pressure will come to consider pro bono work “as a luxury that they cannot afford.” Observing that lawyers of her generation routinely deplore what they see as a change from law as a profession to law as a business, she concluded: “All of us can help to tip the balance more to the side of the ‘profession’ by making time for pro bono service. It’s also a way to honor the ideals that Rutgers has fostered, which I am sure will continue under Dean Farmer’s leadership.”

Neil Mullin, recipient of a Distinguished Alumnus Award, expressed his appreciation to Rutgers for giving him the chance to become a lawyer. A Fellow of both the American College of Trial Lawyers and the American College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, Mullin has had extensive trial experience, including numerous large verdicts, in the service of civil and employee rights. “From Professors Frank Askin, Paul Tractenberg, Annamay Sheppard, Alan Hyde, and Eric Neisser, I learned that the law can be a vehicle for social change,” he said.

For having helped shape his career, Mullin thanked his mother, a woman raised by factory workers who brought up four children under modest circumstances in the Bronx while working full time and earning an M.A. He thanked Nancy Erika Smith, his wife and partner in the firm Smith Mullin, and his children. He also paid tribute to the woman who introduced him at the Alumni Dinner, Appellate Court Judge Marie Simonelli, for being “brave enough before she had tenure as a judge” to testify for the plaintiff in a suit by a sheriff’s officer who was subjected to years of abuse by homophobic sheriff’s officers. “Obviously, I have a thing for brilliant, powerful women,” he added.

'09 Honorees text boxMullin spoke of the abuse of corporate power and government power and his work on behalf of working people, women, minorities, gay and transgender people. With increasing numbers of people being thrown out of their homes and losing their jobs, he urged that lawyers take up their cause. Senior U.S. District Judge Harold Ackerman, he noted, has said that judges decide cases not causes. “But lawyers are allowed to be partisan advocates,” a role Mullin clearly relishes.

For Distinguished Alumna Award winner Nancy Erika Smith, the definition of “alma mater” best defines what Rutgers School of Law–Newark has meant to her career as an employment and civil rights lawyer for plaintiffs. “‘Alma mater’ means ‘nourishing mother’ and Rutgers nourished my mind and soul,” said Smith. Noting that she was not entitled to attend law school by birth or wealth, Smith signed up for the LSATs “thinking it was a date with a cute guy” who was spending his Saturday doing the same thing. When she arrived at the law school she thought they must have admitted the wrong “Nancy Smith” since every one else seemed to know what a “plaintiff” was.

“Rutgers Law School changed my life,” declared Smith, who was introduced by Superior Court Judge Margaret Hayden. She spoke of the excitement and inspiration of attending law school where many fellow students and professors like Frank Askin, Alan Hyde, Arthur Kinoy, Eric Neisser, Annamay Sheppard, Al Slocum, and Paul Tractenberg were committed to using the law “to make a difference in the world.” She also recalled the tremendous learning experience of the clinics.

A Fellow of the College of Labor and Employment Lawyers, Smith is especially proud of successful cases that established the right of siblings of children who are HIV positive to attend public school, and cases that confirmed the State’s commitment to ending discrimination based on pregnancy, disability, age, race, marital status, gender, and sexual orientation. She has received numerous honors for her achievements in the law and child advocacy. She has been chair of the board of Wynona’s House, a child advocacy center, since its inception as a non-profit in 2002.