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The Association of Pro Bono Counsel (APBCo) weighs in to support state funding for legal aid in New York

Thursday, February 26, 2009

  • Organization: APBCo
  • Source: National

February 23, 2009

Before the New York Assembly
- Standing Committee on Codes
- Standing Committee on Judiciary
- Standing Committee on Governmental Operations
- Standing Committee on Correction

The Association of Pro Bono Counsel's Statement to the Assembly
Public Hearing Regarding Impact of the State Budget on Access to Justice, February 24, 2009

The Association of Pro Bono Counsel ("APBCo") welcomes the opportunity to address the New York State Assembly as to the importance of restoring funding for civil legal services programs. This is an issue of great importance to the legal community generally and to our membership. APBCo is comprised of over 100 professionals who direct a pro bono practice at a large commercial law firm on a full time or nearly full time basis. More than half of our members work for firms that are based in New York or that employ a substantial number of lawyers practicing in New York. While our members cannot speak for their law firms directly, they can provide a unique perspective on the catastrophic effects of the proposed reduction in funding for civil legal services programs in New York.

APBCo Strongly Supports State Funding of Legal Services Programs
Governmental funding at a level sufficient to enable civil legal services programs to serve their communities is vital not only to the functioning of the legal system and, indeed, society at large, but is also vital to the functioning of our members' firms' pro bono practices. During the current economic crisis, the number of people who require legal representation through publicly funded lawyers and their pro bono colleagues to keep themselves and their families fed and housed at a minimal standard has grown and is expected to continue to grow. While pro bono volunteers from private law firms can and should complement public programs, for the reasons stated below, they cannot replace them. In these difficult economic times, it is an essential governmental responsibility to maintain funding for civil legal services at levels at least equal to historical levels, if not greater.

Legal Services Lawyers Have Expertise in Poverty Law; Law Firm Lawyers Do Not
The pro bono practice at large law firms relies on legal services organizations to train pro bono volunteer attorneys and to mentor them throughout pro bono representations. This is for good reason. Lawyers at civil legal services programs have for decades developed deep expertise in, and indeed have shaped, poverty law in New York. In their everyday practice, legal services lawyers consider policy objectives in connection with a wide range of practice areas that do not touch ordinary commercial law firm clients, such as housing (including residential foreclosure), disability, education, state and federal benefits, family law, immigration, civil forfeiture and a host of other areas in which low-income people have a need for representation that they cannot afford. Often, these disputes are with governmental entities and are governed by a thicket of complex local, state and federal laws, the details of which are unfamiliar to law firm lawyers. While legal services lawyers have efficiently and effectively leveraged their expertise in poverty law through the use of pro bono volunteers, pro bono attorneys would be unable to take their place. To cut the modest funding that these programs receive would create a gap that cannot be filled by commercial lawyers.

Law Firms' Pro Bono Efforts Depend on Legal Services Organizations
The vast majority of pro bono clients represented by law firm lawyers on a pro bono basis are referred to firms from civil legal services programs. APBCo's members rely on these legal services organizations to handle the administrative tasks associated with identifying appropriate pro bono clients with meritorious claims. This administrative support is critical to the continued operation of law firm pro bono programs.

The screening process, in particular, is an essential component of the pro bono (and direct service) delivery model that serves to identify the legal issues facing a prospective low-income client, and winnows out those persons who are not eligible for services based on their income levels, substantive legal needs, or otherwise. This process is time-consuming and requires the participation of professionals experienced in communicating directly with low-income persons. Law firms do not have in place the necessary infrastructure and staff to perform this function and are generally ill-equipped to screen the large volumes of prospective clients who seek free legal assistance. But for the legal services organizations that provide this service, law firms would not be able to connect their lawyers to deserving and eligible clients.

Conflicts of Interest Often Prevent Law Firms From Accepting Certain Matters
Finally, the Assembly should keep in mind that there are many types of cases in which law firms cannot provide pro bono representation because of conflicts of interest. For example, law firms are often unable to represent clients who are facing residential foreclosure by the banks who are their clients, and are also often conflicted from representing tenants against developers, and employees against employers. It is crucial to keep legal services programs in place to serve clients facing these situations; without them those clients would be utterly unable to assert their legal rights to keep their homes, their jobs or their communities intact.

Conclusion
In sum, an effective level of funding for civil legal services programs is vital to the poor. While lawyers at commercial law firms can supplement legal services lawyers, without their training, screening, guidance and expertise, commercial lawyers will not be willing or able to take on pro bono cases. The net result of cutting drastically funding for civil legal services programs will not increase the volume of law firm lawyers accepting cases pro bono. Rather, the opposite is true --scores, if not hundreds, of clients will go unrepresented. APBCo urges the Assembly to reconsider the drastic cuts proposed.


Sincerely,
Leadership Council of the
Association of Pro Bono Counsel

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