Ithaca, N.Y. — As the city’s attorney, Aaron Lavine has negotiated school district issues with his ninth grade social studies teacher. He saw a high school classmate for the first time, not for a reunion, but to discuss Gadabout transportation services for the elderly and disabled.
Lavine once exited his office and found his first grade teacher sitting there, waiting to meet with the mayor, whose office is adjacent to Lavine’s.
These are just part and parcel of what Lavine calls the “coincidences and complexities” of becoming a city official in the place you grew up and went to undergraduate and law school.
“I love it,” Lavine said of returning to live in his hometown. “I always knew I wanted to end up in Ithaca again, though I did leave for quite a while.”
It was only four years ago that Lavine traded a job at a top law firm in New York City to come back home to Ithaca. At Sullivan and Cromwell, one of the most prestigious firms in the world, he was doing commercial litigation – working on matters like securities, banking and antitrust suits.
Today, for less than half the salary, he heads the city attorney’s office. The position, which became full-time position once Lavine took it on, involves advising the city on legal issues on all the projects it takes on, dealing with everything from city legislation to litigation.
Becoming city attorney was a development Lavine might not have foreseen when he first moved back: He applied and was rejected for the position of assistant city attorney.
Sidewalk policy, stormwater regulation
Lavine has worked on issues like revamping the city’s sidewalk and stormwater regulation policies.
“I think in some sense, to the average person — and for good reason — their eyes glaze over when you start talking about financing mechanisms for municipal infrastructure,” Lavine said. “But when you look at the real, tangible, physical changes that can result from the innovations in those financing mechanisms, I think it’s an exciting topic.”
Common Council member Seph Murtagh said Lavine is particularly good at “setting the legal parameters of the path forward” — giving lawmakers legal, rather than political or policy, advice.
“He’s very, very good at not entering into the policy realm but leaving the decisions to us,” Murtagh said.
The journey to becoming city attorney
Lavine was born in Ithaca and has only ever attended school in the city. As a policy analysis and management major at Cornell, Lavine knew he wanted to work in government.
“I can’t claim I actually knew or hoped I would end up particularly in this spot,” he said, illustrating the point with a poke at the hardwood table in his office.
After graduating in 2001, Lavine went straight to Cornell law school. It was finishing up his seven years at Cornell that he met his wife, Lindsay, who also spent much of her childhood in Ithaca and attended Cornell.
After law school, he got a “bird’s eye view” of the judicial process while clerking for a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the second circuit, advising on decision-making and writing judicial opinions. When Lavine started a pro bono fellowship at Sullivan and Cromwell, he found himself in the second circuit court of appeals, this time arguing cases, albeit in front of different judges.
For several years, Lavine worked for Sullivan and Cromwell, doing both pro bono and commercial work. When he’s in New York City, he still visits a Nepali family who he spent years securing asylum for. But despite his passion for assisting asylum seekers, preventing tenants from losing their rent-controlled apartments and fighting for religious and first amendment rights, Lavine didn’t have as much personal drive for the other kinds of litigation he was responsible for.
Lavine and his wife had talked about moving back to Ithaca for some time. They decided to do so in late 2009.
This upcoming year will be a full one. Lavine hopes to work to share services like office space with Tompkins County and the town of Ithaca, as well as increasing financial contributions from Cornell to the city. That’s in addition to managing lawsuits, making regular amendments to city code, and negotiating contracts with unions.
Turns out the “grueling pace” of life at a top NYC firm isn’t so different than working as a city attorney in charge of what Lavine called a perennially understaffed office.
“I wouldn’t tell you I have much short of a grueling pace now,” Lavine said. “Albeit one I get to set myself.”