Pro Bono Net Volunteer Spotlight - Jellisa Joseph, Esq.
Chief Diversity Officer for the City of Albany, and Volunteer with Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York (LASNNY)
Interview with Jellisa Joseph, Esq., Chief Diversity Officer for the City of Albany
By: Melody Harkness, Pro Bono Paralegal, Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York
Harkness: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you became interested in pro bono legal work.
Joseph: My name is Jellisa Joseph and I am currently the Chief Diversity Officer for the City of Albany, New York. Prior to my current position, I practiced as a criminal prosecutor and then I worked for the City doing Civil Defense and Labor Law. When I moved into the realm of diversity and inclusion, I wasn't doing nearly as much legal work as I was before. Don't get me wrong, my work is extremely meaningful and enjoyable but it is not always particularly legal. So when I started the position, it was important for me to continue flexing that part of my brain, “Use it or lose it”! Pro bono was an opportunity to exercise those legal muscles while assisting those in need.
Harkness: What kind of pro bono work are you involved in?
Joseph: The kind of cases that I've done are primarily consumer finance through Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York’s, Closing the Gap program, essentially assisting individuals who may have borrowed from a bank then fallen on hard times, eventually getting to the point where they are ultimately sued by the lender.
Harkness: Can you share a highlight from a memorable case?
Joseph: It would be difficult to pin point a specific case. What I find more memorable is the immense appreciation from individuals when I am assisting them. Sometimes as an attorney, you get a case and you think "Oh, this isn't a big deal. Just a simple XX case. It will just take a little bit." and the individual on the other side, the one who doesn't understand the ins and outs of our system, is so appreciative of something that you don't think is a big deal. In those moments, I am reminded of how much good attorneys can do and how much we can help others.
Harkness: Why do you feel it’s important for you to do pro bono work? What motivates you?
Joseph: Despite all of the lawyer jokes, there are a lot of people who are navigating our legal system themselves without lawyers. Far too many people, who are often facing a whole team of lawyers on the other side of the table. It is patently and clearly unfair. I, and every other lawyer in the country, spent three years in law school learning all about the complexity of our legal system. The idea that our legal system allows people who haven't studied the system to go up against attorneys who have, blows my mind. I didn't grow up in the best neighborhood and I've seen from firsthand experience, how that uneven playing field can affect people's lives. So I would say that the idea of that level of unfairness and inequity is what motivates me to do pro bono.
Harkness: Did you learn any new skills during your experience?
Joseph: Every case that I work on gives me the opportunity to work on my advocacy skills, listening and writing. I feel like I'm always learning.
Harkness: What would your advice be to someone who is thinking about volunteering?
Joseph: Do it! All the time, whenever you can.
Harkness: Will you continue to do pro bono work? Would you recommend it to others?
Joseph: Absolutely! In addition to the assistance that you can provide to people who need the help, it is personally rewarding no matter how small the case.
Harkness: How has your pro bono service impacted you? Do you feel like you make a difference?
Joseph: I appreciate the opportunity to assist the individuals whose cases I work on and I really hope that I make a difference.
Harkness: So it is obvious that the need is overwhelming, but so is a busy work day: how do you find the time?
Joseph: Just like anything else, it's all about prioritizing. I set aside the time in advance and make sure my calendar is clear. I try not to take on more than I can handle.
The Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York provides effective, free civil legal services and education to and advocacy for people with low income or other barriers to accessing the legal system. We secure basic needs, protect and preserve legal rights, provide equal access to justice and seek fairness and dignity for our clients.
Closing the Gap builds legal assistance capacity in rural communities by facilitating limited scope assistance from pro bono volunteers based in Albany and Rochester. Combining real-time web video chat with client collaboration tools, remote review of documents and generation of pleadings through LawHelp Interactive, Closing the Gap increases the quantity and scope of pro bono service delivery in housing and consumer cases in rural upstate New York.