In June, Kathleen M. Sweet became president of the Bar Association of Erie County – a rare accomplishment for a woman. The partner with the Buffalo law firm Gibson, MacAskill & Crosby is the fourth woman to head the organization.
Sweet, 47, has practiced law for 20 years and has been an active member of the Women’s Bar Association of the State of New York, along with other legal organizations. She was recently honored by Best Lawyers in America as Buffalo’s “Lawyer of the Year – 2012” in the malpractice defense area.
As president of the bar association – a yearlong position – Sweet’s agenda includes educating lawyers about disaster preparedness and business contingency planning and engaging younger members to increase their participation in the organization.
Q: It’s only been a few months, but what’s it been like to lead the local legal community?
A: It’s definitely broadened and widened my perspective on being a lawyer. You can get kind of narrow in your own area of practice, and it’s very of good for me to step outside my comfort zone and look at things from the perspective of other lawyers who do all types of different legal work and charitable work.
Q: Can you give me some examples?
A: As the president, you are the spokesperson for the association and the board of directors, so when issues that affect the community at large that concern lawyers – whether they are heavy or light issues – if the calls from the public or media agencies, the president is the one who responds.
I get asked to think about and respond to issues that would never cross my desk in my own practice. The first media call I got was to respond to a bill that was pending or being offered with regards to equine law. That’s not the kind of thing that someone who defends doctors in malpractice cases is often asked to think about or comment upon. That’s an extreme example, but as my first one, I thought, “Oh my God, what have I done?”
Q: What are some of the issues currently facing the legal profession?
A: Public education about the role of lawyers, the role of the justice system and the importance of access to justice in our system of government. It’s a long-standing challenge but it’s more threatened now because of budgetary cuts.
So that’s always the kind of thing you’d hear from the president of a bar association because it sounds like something that would encourage full employment of lawyers, but this is more about community access. There are a lot of people in need of lawyers who can’t afford them, and there are so many cuts to our court system. It’s not just in our state, it’s all over the country, and that’s something our bar association cares a lot about. It’s pretty critical at this point.
Q: What are your goals as president? What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
A: It’s a paid, staffed organization, and so it would certainly survive without any pet projects on behalf of the president. But things that matter to me – and I’d like to see advanced, if not completed – would be some manner of education for our members and the firms we serve with the regards to disaster planning and business continuity. These lawyers are very good at advocating and counseling their clients for such contingencies but often don’t look inwardly and design a plan for themselves and their businesses.
Q: Are lawyers too busy to craft succession plans?
A: Succession planning would be a part of it. But also planning for emergencies – if there was a fire in your building and you couldn’t get in your office, or your computer was hacked and clients files became unavailable. Or God forbid, it’s a small firm and the solo practitioner suffers an injury or an illness, what happens to that practice and clients?
Q: What are your thoughts on becoming the fourth female president ?
A: I’m the fourth woman in 125 years. It’s definitely humbling. I do feel, and it sounds corny, a responsibility to, if not highlight, then raise the profile for not just women attorneys but women in the community. Who knows? It could be a while before there is another woman president who has this platform.
Q: Have you encountered any challenges in your role due to your gender?
A: Personally, I have rarely ever felt discriminated against. I don’t know if I’m clueless or obtuse about it. But I feel very fortunate; I have a lot of excellent mentors.
I feel the challenges are to raise the profile and talk about issues relating to women without turning off a large of segment of our membership. I’m not just president of 47 percent of the Bar Association. I’m president of the whole Bar Association.