HistoryBergen Bar

By Charles J.X. Kahwaty

The Bergen County Bar Association, now one of the country’s largest county bar Associations with over 2,000 members, was formed on December 28, 1898 in the offices of Demarest & DeBaum in Hackensack, New Jersey. Milton Demarest chaired the first meeting of the Association, which elected George R. Dutton its first President. From James M. Van Halen’s humble offices at the northwest corner of Church Street and Washington Place, the Association has grown to encompass offices at 61 Hudson Street, and soon its new headquarters at 15 Bergen Street in Hackensack, New Jersey. During this time, the Bergen County Courthouse also expanded from land donated by a prominent attorney, Robert Campbell, to its present (and extensively renovated over the years) facility completed at the end of 1912, which was joined by a new Bergen County Administration Building in the latter part of 2000.

Over its first 100 years, the Association was active in safeguarding the legal rights of the general public, and the interests of its members. In addition the Association was instrumental in the promotion and elevation of qualified members of the judiciary; to this day, a cooperative and mutually beneficial spirit exists between the bench and bar, epitomized by regular meeting with the Bergen County Assignment Judge, and the members of the various judicial departments, to address concerns and improve communications. Many presidents of the Association have also been elevated to the bench, including Francis V.D. Lloyd, Sr., John B. Zabriskie, John J. Breslin, Jr., Wallace Leyden and Kevin M. O’Halloran. The Association also took a leadership role with respect to the promotion of women attorneys. The number of women practitioners in Bergen County has grown from approximately 100 in 1923 (99 of which were members of the Association) to the point where they are in significant positions of leadership in all segments of the bar, serving as chairpersons of its substantive committees and as members of its Board of Trustees. This heritage of accomplishment culminated in the installation of Lois Lipton as the Association’s first woman president in 2001.

Members of the Association have achieved political distinction with four members of the legislature serving as acting New Jersey Governors. These included Senators William M. Johnson (1900), Edmund Wakelle (1904), William B. McKay (1922) and Assemblyman Walter H. Jones (1946). Drawing from this tradition, the Association has acted aggressively on behalf of the citizens of Bergen County, and the interests of its membership, when major concerns of the day merited response. In confronting issues such as the unauthorized practice of law, no fault insurance, tort reform and the public hearing of ethics grievances, the Association has always asserted a vigorous defense of the profession’s prerogatives, utilizing both its educational and political resources. Prominent members, such as Englewood practitioner George Whitefield Betts, Jr. have also been involved in litigation which has captured the public’s imagination (in Bett’s case, the Titanic and Lusitania disasters). And in the course of the century, certain families have been privileged to witness successive generations succeed and distinguish themselves as prominent members of the legal community. These include such luminaries as the Bantas, Lloyds, Breslins, Selsers, Liebowitzs, Pashmans, Preziosis, DeLorenzos, Reeves, Aronsohns and Chases among many others.

Overall the progress of the Association can be measured by the these simple statistics: on July 31, 1900 an entry in the minutes of the Board of Trustees reflected annual dues of $1.00, a $5.00 initiation fee, and total cash on hand of approximately $300.00. Today, with a budget approaching $500,000.00 (despite dues among the lowest of any county bar Association in the state), and through the Bergen County Lawyer Referral Program, seminars and the Association’s nonprofit educational and philanthropic adjunct, the Bergen County Bar Foundation, the Association serves the profession and the general public in ways its founders could never have envisioned – or hoped for.

Charles J.X. Kahwaty served as the
104th President of the Bergen County Bar Association during the 2002 -
2003 term.