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LAS Volunteer Rebecca Berlow: Making the Law Accessible to People that Have Been Shut Out of Its Reach

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

  • Organization: The Legal Aid Society

Rebecca Berlow has spent the bulk of her professional life in the private sector focusing on securities and corporate law—servicing the needs of clients such as investment banks and asset managers. In August 2012 she began volunteering with The Legal Aid Society’s Immigration Unit Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (“DACA”) clinics. The clinics assisted more than 1,000 “Dreamers”—young people brought to the United States as children with no legal status—apply for Deferred Action and Employment Authorization.

From the DACA clinics Rebecca went on to assist the Society with disaster relief, focusing her efforts on the Society’s Access to Benefits (“A2B”) Helpline which was converted to a disaster relief helpline in an effort to connect New Yorkers adversely impacted by Sandy with information and assistance. While volunteering on the helpline, Rebecca worked with Jean Marie Miranda, Supervisor of the Helpline, to develop a new intake system that has streamlined the process, making it more efficient for staff and easier for inexperienced volunteers to assist clients of the Society.

The volunteer contributions made by Rebecca have allowed the Society to place additional volunteers and expanded the number of clients we serve. Currently, Rebecca is assisting the Society’s Government Benefits Practice in the Bronx.

Rebecca Berlow
LAS Volunteer Rebecca Berlow

LAS: How did you become involved with The Legal Aid Society?

Rebecca Berlow: In June 2012, I read an article by Julia Preston of the New York Times about Obama’s executive order to defer deportation action against young Dreamers, provided they register and provide documentation to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). I decided to get involved, and volunteered with several organizations that were helping Dreamers process their documents. At Legal Aid, I was very impressed by the swift organization, efficient procedures and, most importantly, the flexibility of the LAS Immigration attorneys and staff to modify the procedures, as feedback from DHS filtered back. That ability to act, under conditions of uncertainty, was even more evident when Sandy hit a few months later and LAS attorneys, paralegals, and staff from the Employment, Health, and Public Benefits departments set up a hotline to help victims.

LAS: How long have you volunteered with the Society?

RB: I have volunteered, on and off, since August 2012 and am currently working in the Bronx office, helping people get Public Assistance, especially SNAP or food stamp benefits.

LAS: What type of pro bono work have you participated in while at the Society?

RB: As mentioned above, I was part of the ‘volunteer army’ that helped Dreamers fill out their forms for DHS. Then, I spent 2013 on The Legal Aid Society hotline, a relatively new service that serves as an intake system for the LAS local NYC offices, as well as provides limited legal advice about Medicaid, Employment Law, and Public Assistance. On the hotline, I got a sense of the legal challenges facing recipients in each of those areas. From that exposure, I decided to do a ‘deep dive’ into the public benefits area, which is how I got to the Bronx office of LAS, focusing on SNAP and other benefits.

LAS: How does your pro bono work differ from private client work?

RB: The legal skills are not that different. There are statutes and cases, and client situations that arise to which such law is applied. The respect and responsiveness to clients is also not different between the two practices. How the work differs is that clients are often unable to penetrate the maze of rules, documentation, and inefficiency that stands between them and their goals. Clients in corporate America believe that the law works for them, or at least not against their reasonable requests; clients of LAS’s Civil Division with whom I have worked often feel the law frustrates their reasonable requests. So, helping a pro bono client has a two-fold reward: first, you can solve a legal problem, but second, you can make the law accessible to people that have been shut out of its reach.

LAS: What do you enjoy most about providing pro bono services to the clients of The Legal Aid Society?

RB: Every case is a little different and expands my knowledge, either of the relevant law or of its unwieldy implementation; there is nothing boring about the work. There is also a sense that by helping clients navigate the system, I am providing a scarce service.

LAS: What was it like working alongside LAS staff?

RB: I was hardly surprised at the high caliber of attorneys and paralegals at LAS. Its reputation is well-deserved. I continue to be impressed with the innovative and pro/reactive capability. As its clients face hardship or obstacles, LAS learns of these, the legal issues are quickly communicated to decision-makers who, in turn, fashion responses to them. I saw this first with the Dreamers, but it happens continually, for example in the recent Richard C v. Proud case.

LAS: Would you recommend volunteering with the Society?

RB: Absolutely. There are numerous levels of engagement, from the hotline to working on class action briefs at participating law firms. Providing legal services to people who are effectively shut out of access gives you an interesting, if not sobering, perspective on the profession.

LAS: What, if anything, is unique about volunteering with The Legal Aid Society?

RB: As I said above, there is remarkable communication within The Legal Aid Society, and responsiveness to the community it serves. While I would guess that the staff at other legal services providers are intelligent, committed, and effective, I know that for sure about those at Legal Aid.

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