by Sam Anderson
Avery Eli Okin, ’79
Antony Lamberti, ’78
Armena Gayle, ’88
A Triple Play in Brooklyn
The Brooklyn Bar Association is among the oldest organizations of its kind, established in 1872, 26 years before Brooklyn became part of New York City. Since then, it has been a home to some of Brooklyn’s—and the city’s—most prominent attorneys, and it continues to provide a variety of essential services to the profession, such as Continuing Legal Education, networking opportunities, and an indispensable lawyer referral service.
Serendipitously, three of the association’s executive officers are John Jay alumni. Avery Eli Okin, ’79, has been the executive director for more than 30 years. Anthony Lamberti, ’78, is secretary and chair of the Elder Law Committee. The treasurer is Armena Gayle, ’88, a former prosecutor for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office.
Speaking to these successful alumni paints a portrait of John Jay in its early years, and shows just how much has changed both on campus and in their own lives.
When Okin and Lamberti first entered John Jay, the campus consisted of North Hall on 57th Street and South Hall on 56th. Haaren Hall and the New Building were no more than a dream. The College, barely 10 years old at the time, was experiencing growing pains—and facing a serious threat to its very existence.
“In ’76, the school was on the verge of being closed because of budget cuts,” said Lamberti, who majored in Criminal Justice and is a member of the John Jay Athletics Hall of Fame for his exploits as a four-year member of the baseball team. “I remember participating in marches and demonstrations where students and faculty got together and marched on CUNY headquarters.”
“What was amazing about that was the protesters were police officers,” added Okin. “They were uniformed officers and pre-service students. I remember one spontaneous demonstration without permits, when offocers blocked off traffic crosstown and uptown, and walked to the Board of Higher Education to hand the CUNY Chancellor a petition to keep our school open.”
These were tough times for New York City. Crime was spiking, public safety agencies were laying off personnel, and federal funding to bail out the fiscally troubled city was not forthcoming. But students, staff, and faculty prevailed, and the College stayed open.
Okin, who commuted from Flatbush to pursue a B.A./M.A. in Government and Public Administration, was one of the most active students on campus at that time. As a freshman, he ran for a seat on the Student Council, and even campaigned at the women’s detention center on Riker’s Island, where inmates were taking classes. After winning election, he soon became the student government parliamentarian due to his encyclopedic knowledge of rules and procedures. He covered the U.S. Supreme Court for the John Jay publication Law Enforcement News, became a representative on the University Student Senate, and was CUNY’s first student representative on the New York State Higher Education Services Corporation, where he helped administer $2 billion in student loans and financial aid. He was just 22 at the time.
“I remember visiting John Jay one afternoon, and seeing the police officers who came to class with ties and jackets after a full day’s work. I wanted to go here because of that respect for education,” he said.
As a student athlete, Lamberti, a Gravesend native, had a different experience. But he shared the same respect for the officers who took morning and night classes while also working on the job. “A lot of the professors I had were attorneys, and some had been in law enforcement. The idea of becoming a lawyer always piqued my interest, but I never looked at it as a path I would go down. I wanted to become the next great Yankee centerfielder,” he laughed. As fate would have it, Lamberti became a court officer, and then a clerk in the New York State court system. He spent a number of years working in Brooklyn courts and hanging out with lawyers and judges, which eventually inspired him to attend Brooklyn Law School, graduating in 1990. He now has a successful and respected private practice specializing in elder law.
By the time Armena Gayle transferred from Brooklyn College in 1985, John Jay was a much different place. Gayle, who majored in Government and Public Administration, was raised in Crown Heights and Miami by working-class parents. She, too, was struck by the level of professionalism she witnessed at John Jay. “Students who were firemen and police officers were attending classes specific to their work,” she said. “We looked up to them. Their professionalism gave us drive.”
That drive eventually brought Gayle to southern Texas, where she studied at the Thurgood Marshall School of Law. Returning to New York after graduation, Gayle had few legal connections in the city. That changed when she became involved in the BBA. Gayle worked with the association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project, where she offered pro bono services in exchange for Continuing Legal Education classes. She then got a job with the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, but eventually returned to the Volunteer Lawyers Project and developed a family law practice, where she believed her services could have a greater impact.
“I’m very blessed to be an attorney,” said Gayle. “Not many people where I come from get this far, and some don’t feel like they can do it because of the color of their skin, their financial situation, they think they’re not smart enough, so I want to pay it forward.”
Lamberti and Okin agreed that “paying it forward” is a big part of why they do what they do, and they also stressed the importance of ethnic, gender, and religious diversity in the organization. BBA appointed its first female president in 1986, and 10 years later a woman of color held that position. “You’re always getting a mixture of ideas, values, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and it adds to the experience of being a member,” said Lamberti, “and that makes sense in a place like Brooklyn, where you encounter myriad people from diverse backgrounds”—very much like John Jay.
“To have the executive director, secretary, and treasurer all graduate from the same school—that’s serendipity,” said Okin. “We each found our way of coming to a good place and continuing to do the public good.”