Preserving and making legal history in landmark


By David H. Ellis

In the face of the stock market crash in October of 1929, famed New York attorney William Nelson Cromwell insisted on the December groundbreaking for a limestone facade building in 18th century classical style at 14 Vesey St between Broadway and Church Sts.

The building, which was designed by architect Cass Gilbert, stands less than 200 yards away from the World Trade Center site. With its proximity to ground zero and St. Paul’s Chapel just across the street, it’s not surprising that Cromwell’s monument to the law profession is often overlooked. What Cromwell, a founder of the Wall Street firm Sullivan Cromwell, would not realize is that his commitment to build this structure, which is now home to the New York County Lawyers Association, would help create one of the most historic legal sites in Manhattan while solidifying N.Y.C.L.A.’s role as one of the more progressive law associations in the city.

Boasting a little over 8,000 members today, N.Y.C.L.A. was formed in 1908 to admit minorities, women, Jews and other religious and ethnic groups that were prevented from entering other bar associations across the city at the time. However, in its 96-year history, the organization has managed to amass one of the largest law libraries on the East Coast, provide crucial information about the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster, and become one of the most important legal groups both in New York City and across the country.

“We have that heritage of being dedicated to expanding access to justice and opening opportunities for all people regardless of ethnicity, gender, race or sexual preference,” said Norman L. Reimer, recently elected N.Y.C.L.A. president.

Today, N.Y.C.L.A is comprised of about 2,500 law students, and more than 5,000 attorneys who specialize in fields ranging from securities and exchange, family or tort law. With over 70 different committees that examine every legal field, and by working on such movements as helping New York State attorneys who work for indigent clients secure higher wages, N.Y.C.L.A. has been a champion for improving the legal system.

“The beauty and really the power of this kind of bar association is because you bring different practice areas together. You’re not necessarily perceived as an advocacy group for any particular side,” says Reimer, a criminal defense attorney who has been a member of the organization for 27 years. “That helps us advance our agenda of trying to improve the court system, improve the practice of law and expand access to justice.”

During the course of the organization’s 96-year history, N.Y.C.L.A. has accumulated nearly 200,000 volumes of legal texts, which far exceeds any private law firm’s collection. Several floors below the main library, which is decorated with mahogany wood carels and rows of tan and blue legal books, is a three-story basement full of books dating to the 1600s and covering legislation from places across the world such as Jamaica and New Zealand.

From acting as a research facility for New York lawyers for almost 75 years, N.Y.C.L.A.’s library has even served those who are not in the legal profession. Journalist David Von Drehle was able to utilize the transcripts of the trial following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster, which belonged to former N.Y.C.L.A. member Max D. Steuer, to write his book “Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.” Drehle was alerted to Steuer’s papers, discovered in the basement of the library, which chronicled the Triangle Shirtwaist factory disaster in 1911 that killed 146 New York City immigrant workers.

“The only reason we have all of that was because the attorney who represented the defendant bequeathed his papers to us,” said Nuchine Nobari, director of library services for the association. “This is like a vault of transcripts that no one else has and that is our strength.”

After becoming president of the organization in May, Reimer says he is already eager to expand the organization’s reach. Besides targeting areas that may require pro-bono work, he believes that with N.Y.C.L.A.’s location Downtown and with the Lower Manhattan rebuilding process underway, the organization is a perfect candidate for becoming a think tank for business lawyers.

“We want to improve expertise, ethics and to help lawyers keep up with the lightning-like changes that take place in the world of commerce,” said Reimer. “Even though we are going to be developing this business law center we are not letting go of our commitments to expanding access to justice.”

According to Reimer, plans are also in place to hold several conferences in the near future on making the criminal court system more efficient, while a fall conference is planned to promote discussion of possible legal remedies for eviction and homelessness in New York City.

Like Cromwell’s difficulty of raising money to construct N.Y.C.L.A.’s home in the face of the Great Depression, Reimer believes there are just as many challenges for his organization today.

“I think the overall mission of expanding access to justice and protecting freedom is just as relevant now than it ever was,” explained Reimer, pointing to legislative and regulatory changes that have compromised the position of certain ethnic groups.

“Cromwell had to come up with a lot more money but he somehow he managed right after the crash in the teeth of the depression to get that building up. When you think about it, with all that marble and all that fine detail, what an enormous accomplishment it was. If he could do that, we can prevail and expand our services to the legal community and the community at large in the current difficult times in which we live.”

Norman L. Reimer, president of the New York County Lawyers Association, in the association’s 200,000-volume legal library on Vesey St.

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