Robert MacCrate, former ABA president, dies at age 94

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Updated: Robert MacCrate, a courtly Sullivan & Cromwell lawyer whose many accomplishments included introducing himself in song in 1987 as the American Bar Association’s incoming president, died Wednesday. He was 94 years old.

Backed by four ABA staff members as a professional pianist played, MacCrate brought down the house at the ABA’s annual dinner dance with his hilarious parody of Sir Joseph Porter’s song from the H.M.S. Pinafore operetta, the New York Times (reg. req.) reported at the time, as he recounted his journey from his childhood home in Brooklyn to the helm of the ABA.

MacCrate was president of the ABA from 1987 to 1988 and president of the New York State Bar Association from 1972 to 1973, winning prestigious awards from both groups many years later. In between his decades on the Sullivan & Cromwell roster, he also was involved in high-level government service, a NYSBA news release notes. He started work at the Wall Street firm after graduating from Harvard Law School in 1948, and eventually rose to become not only a partner but a vice chairman.

During his ABA presidency, he spearheaded the so-called MacCrate Report, which incorporated findings of the ABA Task Force on Law Schools and the Profession, which he chaired. He considered the resulting 1992 document—which encouraged practical legal skills training before, during and after law school—one of his biggest accomplishments, the NYSBA release says.

After a national discussion sparked by the report, the ABA House of Delegates incorporated many of its recommendations in 1996 in recodified Standards for the Approval of Law Schools.

“Bob was noted for his leadership skills and ability to deftly build consensus on a range of complicated legal issues,” said ABA President Paulette Brown in a written statement that described the landmark MacCrate Report as a guide that put the nation’s legal education system on its current course.

“Bob was a visionary who not only was keenly interested in legal education but made a substantial contribution to the learning of skills and values,” she wrote, citing the system of legal education programs nationwide.

MacCrate was the son of a storefront lawyer who went on to become a U.S. congressman and a justice on the New York Supreme Court.

From 1943 to 1946, before graduating from Harvard, MacCrate served with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific during World War II.

After leaving Sullivan & Cromwell in 1951 to work as a legal secretary for the presiding justice of the Manhattan Supreme Court’s Appellate Division, MacCrate went on to spend 1959 through 1962 as general counsel to New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller. In this role, he was considered the governor’s top assistant in drafting legislation and winning approval from lawmakers, the Times article reports.

He also was special counsel to the Department of the Army during its investigation of the 1968 My Lai Massacre in South Vietnam. While MacCrate had advocated for charges against those responsible that largely weren’t pursued, the probe did lead to constructive reforms in the Army, he told the Times, adding: ”It is imperative that we do explore such matters and try to learn from them.”

MacCrate was preceded in death earlier this year by his wife of nearly 70 years, Constance Trapp MacCrate. He is survived by three children, their spouses, 10 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

A memorial service for both MacCrate and his wife will be held at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 30 at the Congregational Church of Manhasset, 1845 Northern Blvd., in Manhasset, New York. Instead of flowers, the family suggests donations to The MacCrate Fund to Preserve the Core Values of the Legal Profession. A New York Bar Foundation page (scroll down) provides details about the endowed fund.

Updated on April 11 to include information about service.

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