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Interview of the Month

An Interview with Hon. Cynthia K. Dunne

Susan L. Pollet
Chair of the Archive and Historian Committee

Q:  Why did you become a member of the Westchester Women’s Bar Association and how have you participated in the organization over the years?

A: When I was in law school, I worked part-time for a law firm in Westchester and one day attorney Lucille Fontana invited me to attend a luncheon meeting of the WWBA as her guest.  I enjoyed hearing the speaker and was impressed by the collegial discussions which followed the presentation.

      After graduation from law school, I worked in New York City but at times appeared in the White Plains courts and I lived in Westchester.  My decision to join the WWBA was a natural choice.

      For a few years, I Chaired or Co-Chaired the Annual Dinner and I Co-Chaired the Criminal Law Committee for many years.  The Annual Dinner, in particular, was a huge time commitment but I found the role fulfilling and was honored to be trusted with the responsibility.

Q:  Please tell us about your legal career.

A: For 28 years I worked as an Assistant United States Attorney and Senior Trial Counsel in the Office of the United States Attorney (USAO) for the Southern District of New York.  I was first based in the Manhattan Office, and then in the White Plains Division at the Federal Courthouse in White Plains. I served in both the Civil and Criminal Divisions of the USAO.

      In the Civil Division, I handled hundreds of defensive and affirmative civil cases from inception through appeal involving, among other issues, federal taxation, commercial disputes, creditors’ rights, Bivens liability, employment discrimination, regulatory penalties and disputes, constitutional challenges to statutes, injunctions, environmental litigation, personal injury, false claims litigation and prisoner litigation.

      I worked in the Criminal Division for more than two decades and investigated and prosecuted hundreds of cases from the investigative stage through appeal involving among other issues: public corruption, civil rights (hate crimes and abuse of authority), violent gang prosecutions, multi-million dollar frauds, complex tax frauds, RICO, money laundering, narcotics offenses, armed bank robberies, kidnap, weapons offenses, child pornography, Internet crimes, and others.

             On three separate occasions, I received the Director’s Award from the Executive Office of United States Attorneys.  According to Justice Department publications, this award is presented only to select AUSAs and investigators who represent “the best in federal service, through exceptional service and work product benefitting the law enforcement community.”  I also received the United States Department of Labor Secretary’s Exceptional Achievement Award (an equivalent honor to the Director’s Award), and during Mary Jo White’s tenure as United States Attorney, I received the United States Attorney’s Exceptional Achievement Award.  For a few years, I served as the USAO’s Violence Against Women Act Coordinator.

             At the USAO I acquired extensive trial experience: I tried more than 25 multi-week jury trials in federal court to verdict; I handled countless hearings; and I argued more than 20 appeals before the Second Circuit Court of Appeals and one before the NY Appellate Division, First Department.  In addition, I trained new lawyers by serving as second chair or co-counsel through discovery, hearings, motions and trials.

             I took a leave of absence from the USAO in 2012, due to the demands of aging parents. Within minutes, I was swamped by requests from neighbors and friends to participate in local activities.  I assumed several volunteer and board positions with local civic and nonprofit groups, and officially resigned from federal service in 2013.

      I was appointed to the position of Associate Justice in the Village of Scarsdale, in February, 2016.  The Associate Justice position is part time and permits me to maintain a law practice. Aside from the Judgeship, I have been involved in various matters including: federal criminal cases and prisoner matters; Clemency Petitions; corporate matters (regulatory, employment and litigation); Title IX proceedings involving alleged sexual assaults on college campuses and others.

Q:  What do you hope to accomplish professionally in the future?

A: I enjoy working in the Scarsdale Village Court part-time and I hope to continue in that position as long as it remains an option. The Scarsdale Village Court is a wonderful place to work and the courthouse staff is outstanding.

      Since retiring from federal service in 2013, I have not looked for additional legal work, but it has found me.  I am most likely to take on a matter which is challenging and also has the potential to have a positive social impact.

Q:  What advice do you have for women lawyers entering the legal profession?

A: Believe in yourself and never doubt that you are as capable as your male counterparts. Women of my generation thought that we had forged the way for younger women in the workplace, but it is evident from the #MeToo movement that we did not have as much of an impact as we hoped.  Don’t be discouraged by overt or covert discrimination; don’t accept it and don’t be a bystander if you witness improper conduct.

      Develop relationships within your professional network and seek mentors.  There is a fine line between advocating for yourself and coming off like you are entitled; tread carefully and seek advice before presenting a grievance.  Like everything else, our attitudes often affect the outcome, so try to remain confident and positive.

      If you chose to have children, then make sure that you lead by example: encourage your children to be open and accepting of others; make sure that they understand the responsibility of the right to vote; and encourage them to be active citizens.

      Finally, consistent with my commitment to public service I urge young women to consider careers in public service.  Although you won’t make the highest salary in the profession, you will receive more hands-on experience at an earlier age than in the private sector and you will be part of the larger effort to do good.

Q:  Please tell us about your community activities.

A: I serve on the Board of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale, I am the third woman President in the 94 years of the Scarsdale Rotary Club and I am a Director of Lakota Children’s Enrichment (LCE), a nonprofit which amplifies the voices of America’s most at risk youth on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.  For several years I volunteered as the Program Director for LCE and spent months of each year in South Dakota. The last two years, I helped in the organization of TEDxYouth@DinosaurPark, an independently organized TED event which engages American Indian and Non-Native youth in Rapid City, SD.  I remain an active member of my local church and have served on boards and committees throughout the decades.  Finally, I am a frequent speaker at local civic and community clubs and other events.

Q:  How have you balanced your legal career with the rest of your life?

A: When I announced that I was pregnant with my first child in 1988, the next week my office space was reassigned to another AUSA and I was moved into the hallway – my supervisor assumed that I would quit.  There was no maternity leave policy in place, and ultimately I was permitted to take leave without pay for six weeks.

      Over the next few years, the Office experienced a baby boom and developed family-friendly policies. In 1990, I proposed a work schedule which allowed me to take Fridays off without pay - if my schedule permitted, a schedule the office honored until my departure in 2013.

      My work schedule was crazy and I had three small children at home – one with very significant special needs.  Due to my trial schedule, there were months when I did not have a day or weekend off, I worked 16-18 hour days, missed holidays and one year a family vacation was cancelled due to a trial which took weeks longer than expected.

      My husband and I tried to make dependable child care a priority, although we were not always completely successful.  My husband covered at home on evenings and weekends during the periods when I was unavailable.  Because his job often involved international travel, he scheduled trips around my anticipated trial schedule, and I covered at home while he was away.

      Juggling work and children and finding time for other activities was challenging but not impossible.  It took the help of family, friends and neighbors to get through some of the rougher periods; yes, it took a village.

      When my children complained that I was not home for dinner nor meeting them for lunch like other parents, I explained that my job was not about making money and at the end of each and every day the world was a pinch of a better place because of the work that I was doing.

            My children frequently visited the Federal Courthouse in White Plains – they sat in the back of the courtroom and watched my hearings and trials.  Today, my adult children are proud rather than resentful about my periods of extended absences and I am proud to say that for them, too, service and civic engagement are priorities.

PO Box 926, Hartsdale, NY 10530
Phone: (914) 505-6045

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