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A History of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association: 2005 - 2018

by Barbara H. Grcevic

A century ago, on April 11, 2018, nine dynamic women lawyers united to form the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association (BWBA) for the purpose of achieving equality, diversity, fairness and opportunity for women lawyers and all women.[i]  Since then, the Association has grown to include over 400 members and, through its affiliation with the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York (WBASNY), has spearheaded advances for women lawyers and for all women.  This article is a continued history of the BWBA and covers the years from 2005 to the Association’s centennial in 2018.[ii] 

From 2005 onward, the Brooklyn Women’s Bar focused on expanding its impact on the greater community in Brooklyn, New York State and beyond.  As an example, our year-end holiday party had become a tradition where, for well over a decade, we donated hundreds of toys to the children who live at a domestic violence shelter, the Park Slope Safe Home for Women.  In 2006, during Meredith Lusthaus’s presidency, the Association also started raising funds by means of a silent auction to benefit that same shelter.  A BWBA cell phone drive collected more than 45 donated cell phones that were then refurbished by Verizon and benefitted victims of domestic violence.  During these years, Association members raised thousands of dollars for the fight against breast cancer by participating in the annual “Making Strides Against Breast Cancer Walk” in Prospect Park.  And in 2017, President Sara Gozo led our first heart-healthy event to promote awareness of heart disease as the leading cause of death of women in the United States and to donate funds to the American Heart Association.

National and international events shaped the Brooklyn Women’s Bar’s programs and activities.  The 2007- 2008 global financial crisis was the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Law firms laid off thousands of associates and governments slashed budgets, reduced their workforce, and froze salaries.  Pamela Elisofon, who served as President during the financial crisis, responded to the dire economic situation by offering members a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar dealing with employment loss.  Members networked during our monthly membership meetings to ensure that lawyers had work to sustain them through this difficult period.  Later, in 2010, as the economy slowly began to improve, the Association presented a seminar series entitled “The Savvy Female Investor” to help members make wise financial choices during this still-uncertain economic period.

When Haiti was struck by a 7.0 earthquake in January 2010 and hundreds of thousands of people died or were injured, the BWBA teamed with the Brooklyn Bar Association (BBA) and the Metropolitan Black Bar Association to host a fundraising reception benefiting the victims. That February 2010 event raised over $10,000, which was donated to Doctors Without Borders USA, the Red Cross Haiti Relief Fund and the Salvation Army Earthquake Relief Fund.  Additionally, the BWBA, together with the BBA, the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, and Brooklyn Defenders Services, co-sponsored a special CLE program entitled “Haitian Immigration Legal Assistance Program Volunteer Attorney Legal Clinic,” that trained lawyers on immigration law and temporary protected status (TPS) so that attorneys could assist members of the Haitian community in applying for TPS status. 

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy (unofficially referred to as “Superstorm Sandy”) became the second costliest hurricane in US history, affecting 24 states, including the entire eastern seaboard from Florida to Maine.   BWBA President, Justice Sylvia Hinds-Radix, recalls “New York City streets, tunnels and subway lines were flooded and power was cut in and around the city.  People lost their homes, their cars, and some lost their businesses.”  The Brooklyn Women’s Bar again joined the BBA’s Volunteer Lawyers Project and the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, this time in providing legal assistance to those who sustained property damage and other losses.

The BWBA, ever-mindful of the importance of educating the next generation on the significance of the rule of law, developed relationships with various local educational institutions.  Association members visited local elementary and high schools on Law Day in 2007 and addressed students about the practice of law and substantive legal issues.  In February 2009, the BWBA’s first Asian President, Hemalee Patel, conducted a mentoring program at Brooklyn Law School during which our members discussed career paths, job searches and networking with law school students.   A BWBA Scholarship Committee invited second-year law students from six local law schools to apply for the BWBA Law School Recognition Award and a $500 scholarship.  The first recipient of the BWBA Scholarship, awarded in June 2010, was Andrea Puleo from Brooklyn Law School’s class of 2011.  In March 2014, the BWBA, at WBASNY’s urging, started participating annually in the National Education Association’s program, “Read Across America.”  This inspiring nationwide reading-motivation event celebrates Dr. Seuss’s birthday.  BWBA members, including judges, donned tall, striped Dr. Seuss hats, contributed funds for goodies for each child, including their own book, a tote bag, bookmarks, stickers and more and read to a first grade class at a Brooklyn elementary school in Bushwick.

The dozen years leading to 2018 marked a number of firsts for the BWBA.  In June 2010, the Association’s first male board member, John F. K. Coffey, was installed as our Treasurer.  John became the BWBA’s first male delegate to WBASNY in 2017, thereby serving as BWBA’s first male WBASNY board member.  In view of the continued growth in membership and the increased efforts involved in managing our finances, the BWBA hired its first, and so far only Executive Director, Jennifer Fiorentino.  The Association, led by President Lisa Schreibersdorf, also amended its bylaws in 2012 to add to the position of President-Elect in order streamline the transition between BWBA Presidents.[iii]  And, under the stewardship of BWBA President, Justice Marsha Steinhardt, the Association started our annual “Lunch with the Ladies of the Appellate Division” program at 25 Monroe Place in 2014, enabling our members to network with the women (and attending male) justices on the Second Department bench. 

The Association’s continuing legal education (CLE) programs tracked the most recent developments in the law and also in technology.  Among the programs was a seminar instructing attorneys on how to use newly popular social media to further their law practice.  Ethics CLEs also addressed ethical challenges created by misusing the new technologies.  In addition to CLEs, the Association arranged other opportunities for members to exchange information and advice.  In 2014, BWBA President Holly Peck revitalized an important membership networking opportunity, the “Lunch with a Judge” program.  According to Holly, “these lunches provided an ‘up close and personal’ interaction with the judge, both as a jurist and as a person.  Attorneys, particularly newer attorneys, got a better understanding of the judge and were then more at ease when dealing with him or her professionally.” Those lunch meetings with Brooklyn judges were initiated by Past President Elaine Avery in 2000 and grew to be a monthly event under Pamela Elisofon’s leadership in 2008 - but later became dormant.            

The Brooklyn Women’s Bar recognized some of its outstanding members by creating several new awards.  In 2015, the BWBA, led by President Helene Blank, created the Amy Wren Award.  This new award was named for the Association’s first President who was also a founder of the Association, a suffragette and one of the nation’s first female federal commissioners.  The Amy Wren Award recognizes a BWBA board member who is dedicated to the practice of law and who makes significant service contributions to the Brooklyn community at large.  Board member Angelicque Moreno, an accomplished trial attorney who is committed to supporting children’s rights and the Brooklyn community was its first recipient.  In 2016, the BWBA established the Joanne Minsky Cohen Award to honor a BWBA board member who has made extraordinary contributions to the Brooklyn legal community.  This award is named after board member Joanne Minsky Cohen, a longstanding pillar of the Association, who has devoted her life both to public service in her job in the court system and to the fight against breast cancer.  Its first recipient was the Hon. William C. Thompson, who has served as a state senator, a City Council member and an Appellate Division judge.  He is also a founder and past President of Judges and Lawyers Breast Cancer Alert (JALBCA) and the spouse of the late Appellate Division Justice, the Hon. Sybil Hart Kooper, whose 2002 death from breast cancer inspired the creation of JALBCA. 

Membership increased dramatically during the years leading to our centennial, necessitating that additional BWBA delegates be placed on WBASNY’s Board.  This larger WBASNY representation gave the BWBA a greater voice on legislative matters and other issues of statewide and national significance.  During Helene Blank’s tenure as President in 2015 - 2016, when Association membership increased to 440 members, the BWBA became WBASY’s third largest chapter, and the BWBA was able to send seven WBASNY delegates to serve on the WBASNY Board of Directors.[iv]  In 2016, the Association’s increased membership demanded that we relocate our Annual Dinner, which had been held for decades at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, to Red Hook at the Liberty Warehouse Restaurant.  This new venue easily accommodated a large number of attendees and offered magnificent views of the Manhattan skyline and the New York harbor.          

As the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association enters its 100th year, dynamic Centennial President Michele Mirman has orchestrated a series of celebratory events and programs to propel the Association into its next century.  Anyone who joins the BWBA, simply by paying membership dues, exerts a profound impact on women lawyers and on the Brooklyn community and participates in improving the rights of women in New York State and beyond.  The Brooklyn Women’s Bar founders, Past Presidents and members have made great strides in the fight for equality while collaborating in the Association over the past century.  Yet, despite the enormous progress made, women still confront violence, discrimination, and institutional roadblocks to equal participation in society.  The goals of our founders, as articulated in our Certificate of Incorporation, still resonate.  For, as was expressed by the Hon. Sandra Day O’Connor, first woman Justice on the US Supreme Court bench: “Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability.”  The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association welcomes the challenges of its next century. 

[i].  The BWBA’s Certificate of Incorporation was executed by BWBA’s founders and is witnessed by David Millman, Commissioner of Deeds on April 11, 1918.  It was approved by Justice Aspinall on April 15, 1918 and was filed with the New York Secretary of State on April 20, 1918.  The nine founders were: Jeanette Brill, Fannie C. Brothers, Rose Gottlieb, Julie V. Grilli, Helen P. McCormick, Leah Neuer, Ida P. Schleider, Hilda L. Weinstein and Amy Wren. 

[ii].  “A History of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association,” covering the Association’s history from 1918 to 1993, the Association’s 75th anniversary, was published in The Brooklyn Barrister, vol. 44, No. 3; republished in the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association 75th Anniversary Annual Dinner Journal, April 1993.  The continued history, “A History of the Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association: 1993 - 2005" was published in The Brooklyn Women’s Bar Association News, Summer 2005, at p. 3.  In 2006, both articles were given by the author for archiving to Deborah Schwartz, President of the Brooklyn Historical Society.

[iii].  Judge Sylvia Hinds-Radix, Justice of the Appellate Division, Second Department, became President in 2012, when Holly Peck became our first President-Elect.  The bylaws change adding the position of President-Elect was voted on in January 2012.  The new slate of officers for 2012 - 2013 was proposed in the spring of 2012 and included, for the first time, the office of President-Elect.

[iv].  Although BWBA membership increased to 440 members in 2015 - 2016, not all of those 440 members qualify for consideration towards the number of WBASNY delegates to which the BWBA is entitled.  Law students, attorneys admitted to practice in states other than New York, and BWBA members who are also members of another WBASNY chapter that is their primary chapter are among the categories of members that do not count towards consideration when determining the number of delegates to which the BWBA is entitled.

The terms of office for the BWBA Presidents from 2006 to 2018 are as follows:

Meredith Lusthaus: 2002 - 2007

Pamela Elisofon: 2007 - 2008

Hemalee Patel: 2008 - 2009

Hon. Joanne Quiñones: 2009 - 2011

Lisa Schreibersdorf: 2011 - 2012

Hon. Sylvia Hinds-Radix: 2012 - 2013

Holly Peck: 2013 - 2014

Hon. Marsha Steinhardt: 2014 - 2015

Helene Blank: 2015 - 2016

Sara Gozo: 2016 - 2017

Michele Mirman: 2017 - Present

President-Elect: Carrie Anne Cavallo.

Certificate of Incorporation

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