Brooklyn Boro

Michelle Stern wanted to be a lawyer without clients but got 2,800 of them instead

July 31, 2019 Rob Abruzzese

After Michelle Stern graduated from Brooklyn Law School, she used to joke that she wanted to be a lawyer with no clients. Instead, she wanted to focus on advocacy work and lobbying for good government programs.

About a year removed from school, though, Stern took a job as executive director of the New York State Academy of Trial Lawyers. It was a small bar association at the time with barely more than 100 members, but now 13 years later that membership is over 2,800 and Stern’s post-law school joke is no longer funny.

“I went to law school not to practice law, but with the intention that it would help me work with nonprofits and advocacy organizing and other political things,” Stern said. “I would joke all the time that I wanted to figure out how to be a lawyer with no clients. Now I realize that I have 2,800 clients. They’re just members.

Michelle Stern (second from left) with Brooklyn Bar Association Member Services Director Jen Bryan (left) and CLE presenters Michael Ross and Kaylin Whittingham at a CLE co-sponsored by the academy that was held last year at the Brooklyn Bar Association.

“I fell into this really unique spot where I get to do advocacy work and event planning and membership recruitment. It’s a really beautiful mix,” she said.

Stern, who was born in the Bronx and raised in Peekskill, graduated from Walter Panas High School before she went to the University at Albany and then Brooklyn Law School.

At Albany, she got involved in state politics working for a nonprofit in school. After she graduated, she worked as a lobbyist who promoted progressive issues such as health care and higher education reforms. She is most proud of her work to get smoking banned from bars and restaurants, even if the actual bill was passed after she left the firm.

Michelle Stern with her daughter Stella and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor at the Brooklyn Bar Association in February.

She explained that she felt limited in this role, with no strong voice, which is why law school appealed to her. A year out of Brooklyn Law, Stern was recommended for a position with the Academy of Trial Lawyers by Jay Halfon, the academy’s current treasurer, whom she knew from her time in Albany.

“The academy had just been founded,” Stern explained. “It was just over a year old and had a small membership. They were having trouble getting going and they needed a person who went to law school but didn’t want to be a lawyer and wanted to be an activist and an organizer.”

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She might have thought that she was getting away without representing clients, but the task that she took on instead was not easy and she described it as “starting a bar association from scratch.”

She and other bar leaders went to work on a bar association that they wanted to be different from other local bars. The focus would be on being a resource and providing services for its members.

“We want to be a resource for our members, a place where they don’t feel drained either financially or in any other way,” Stern said. “We’re there for them. We’re there to advocate for them, for their clients, to provide educational resources. We’re open — what else do you need?”

Stern said one of the big things that the academy did was to implement free continuing legal education courses. The academy now offers anywhere from 60 to 70 CLEs each year that are all free to members. More recently, the academy has launched a new website with a job bank because members were looking for both jobs and employees.

“It’s easy things like those that make everyone happy,” said Stern. “The free CLEs we’ve done since day one because they’re already paying dues, they don’t want to feel nickel-and-dimed as well.”

To do her job effectively, Stern works closely with the organization’s presidents to run the many CLEs as well as other social events hosted by the Academy.

“It’s like every year I get to collect a new amazing trial lawyer,” she said. “I get these one-on-one working relationships with someone who in all likelihood I would not otherwise get to interact with. It’s interesting because they’re all such different people from different regions with different problems.”

The job of the academy’s executive director is multifaceted. Stern is responsible for advocacy work, event-planning and membership recruitment. It’s a bit of sales when dealing with members, sponsors and other organizations. It’s also fundraising for political causes the academy backs, and also for the academy itself. She says that providing member services is most important of all.

Part of the job includes meeting the various trial lawyers from all over the state, which means Stern not only puts a ton of miles on her car, but also is a frequent flyer between New York City and places like Rochester and Buffalo.

“I’m all over the place,” she explained. “Two days a week in Brooklyn, two days a week in White Plains and the other day I kind of float. CLE season is different. I’m at most of the CLEs. In the fall, we do our annual update series. There are nine of them in nine different cities and I go to all of them.”

Academy President Angelicque Moreno explains that it is no coincidence that the bar association has thrived in the 13 years under Stern’s leadership.

“Her passion for the academy in general is outstanding,” Moreno said. “She is dedicated, and she is committed to all of her members. You can call her at any time and she will say, I will take care of it. I’ve met a lot of different people in my life and there is only one Michelle.”

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