Innovative Criminal Defense Project Begins Its Second Year In New York County and Expands to the Bronx Trial Office

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

  • The Legal Aid Society

The Legal Aid Society, the primary public defender in New York City, handles some 232,000 cases annually. The Criminal Defense Pro Bono Project, in which volunteer lawyers allocate a third of their time over a nine-month period or serve as full-time externs for up to a year, provides legal resources to assist with this enormous caseload. Under the mentorship of senior Legal Aid Society trial counsel, participating attorneys work arraignments, handle misdemeanor cases, are responsible for engaging in research, conducting criminal investigations, drafting motions and memoranda, preparing witnesses and conducting hearings and trials on cases to which they are assigned with their mentors. They also serve as part of litigation teams on complex felony matters.

The Project is in its second year at the Manhattan trial office, with participation from five leading law firms: Cooley Godward Kronish LLP; Davis Polk & Wardwell LLP; Debevoise & Plimpton LLP; Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP; and White & Case LLP. Under the leadership of Irwin Shaw, Attorney-in-Charge of the Manhattan office, seven mid-level associates are devoting 30% of their time over a nine-month period to the Society’s Criminal Defense Practice and one associate is a full time six-month extern. Each of the law firms has a litigation partner and/or senior counsel who oversees the project.

This unique pro bono program was expanded in October to the Bronx office and is overseen by Supervising Attorney Eric Scott. O’Melveny & Myers LLP, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP, and Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP are the participating law firms. Similar to the Manhattan project, the Bronx program is a mixture of some associates devoting 30% of their time over a nine-month period and others participating as full time six-month externs. Both the Manhattan and Bronx offices conducted a six-day training and the associate externs attended the Criminal Practice’s intensive six week training for new lawyers.

The special training program and meticulous supervision by dedicated staff permit the associates to handle matters with their mentors and provide much needed resources to assist attorneys in the Criminal Defense Practice. This recently was exemplified by Cooley Godward associate Jeffrey Lang’s representation of a woman charged with aggravated harassment by her children’s father who had not been paying child support. Under the supervision of Legal Aid Society Criminal Defense Staff Attorney Rosemary Vassallo, Mr. Lang wrote and successfully argued a motion calling for the complaint to be dismissed as facially insufficient. The Legal Aid Society anticipates many similar opportunities for the participating pro bono associates and litigation successes for our clients.