The Glory Days of
PUBLIC SERVICE

(as published by the Westchester Lawyer Magazine in May 2018)
By V. Jonas Urba, Esq.

When we hear “public service,” many of us might envision a career in government. It might be federal, state or local. All serve the constituents to whom they believe they are accountable. But I think that term encompasses more. Much more.

I fondly recall serving in state government back in the early 90s. As a young lawyer I truly loved my job. It paid nowhere near private sector earnings, but I genuinely felt duty bound. I thought of myself as doing good. I recall colleagues in the legal field reminding me that I was working among the most honest attorneys. They implied that private sector lawyers were not. Every once in a while I ran into the manipulative, deceitful, active or former public servant, but those instances were rare. Overwhelmingly, everyone I worked with and for were honest. My former colleagues describe it as our “glory days.”


Then, as years passed, something happened. Maybe it was advanced technology. Maybe the pace of change accelerated. I might have gained a bit of wisdom. Not sure. Probably a perfect storm of sorts. I was sensing that some public servants no longer valued what I and my colleagues seemed to value. It was as if cost containment or dollar savings were the end game regardless of who would suffer the consequences. My MBA certainly instills an appreciation of such motives.

Most of us are cost conscious. Seventeen years of private practice demands it. But my colleagues who remained “public servants” officially may have been too invested in serving as opposed to saving. Having been charged to eliminate many “general counsel’s office” tasks, I learned the meaning of reduction and containment. I understood the economics. I disagreed with the public policy impact. But my job was to follow the directives of non-lawyers within the law.

Technology and the pace of change have accelerated alongside cuts, cuts and more cuts over the past two decades. The private sector is no different. Reductions, reorganizations, and mergers are alive and well. Which sector is more adaptable is yet to be seen. Language is certainly playing a role. What I recalled termed rules are called policies. Policies seem more like suggestions. Business necessity and good cause are almost defined by whose eyes they behold. Such changes concern me considerably.


Although the “process” appears due, sometimes I wonder. Probably half of my potential clients are civil servants. I sometimes wonder why they call me since they have unions? But I assure them that due process will occur. I explain the concepts of the l4th Amendment and vested property rights.
I talk about the history of Section 1983 actions and Title VII.

But I also wonder whether they will be among the many who will be handled “conveniently” as opposed to procedurally correct? And who
will challenge any union if a contract is breached? Who will insist on the
timely exhaustion of administrative remedies? And will there be any chance of prevailing with a plausible theory of discrimination? Or how much might that cost?

Time and money define much of our lives. If any process takes too much
time or costs too much money it might not last. I saw that first hand decades
ago. And I see few attempting to stop it now. The expedient thing to do with
such processes is to gut or discard them.

I enjoyed drafting rules and what we called regulations. We were always
thinking of the “little guy,” which might have included an impaired physician who was wrongly accused of practicing impaired for political gain. I got the rhyme and reason for the rules we proposed and implemented. Most of us felt we were serving many. Not just ourselves, or immediate supervisors, even though we did cut costs and programs as requested. Not that any of us were anointed with a supernatural moral code, we simply believed we did good and knew right from wrong.

How might I explain “public service” to someone considering formal entry
today? Maybe I would tell them what I once thought was true. Or possibly just what I hoped would be true. Or maybe I would just make something up. I have absolutely no clue what I might say to a young person were I asked about “public service” today.

I’ll never regret my state public service. Some of the best mentoring and
experience any lawyer could get. The freedom of information laws are possibly among the most important features of public service. It’s the ultimate check and balance although access to such information continues to be scaled back each year. I’ll never forget the positives of serving state government and still have a very high regard for those who serve our state, even though I served another. Good people in both. And I will continue screening clients as I learned from my early days of civil service. The truth is golden.

Does anyone else wish they could sit down with George Washington or
Abraham Lincoln and ask them the tough questions I ask potential clients
when conducting telephone screenings? Their vision made us who we are today. I would like to think that if I pressed them for difficult answers they would be candid and forthright such that I would have no reservations about legal representation. Fewer employees represented by other lawyers would call me for second opinions if all of us asked our potential clients the really tough questions.

Even we in the private sector can provide “public service” in our own
ways. I began making short video clips which I call Employment Law Reality Check on YouTube last year. It’s my own public service message that employment law is challenging, all about the facts, and very much about the truth. I think the present is an exceptional time for us in the legal profession to step up and let the public know that we do good and are
all about “the truth” even after some of our official “public service” has ended.

V. Jonas Urba, Esq., founded Urba Law PLLC (aka the Urba Law Firm) with offices in Tarrytown and Manhattan. His practice is limited to labor and employment matters including disability, sex, race and pregnancy discrimination, wage and hour, trade secrets, severance agreements, and federal court mediation and litigation.

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