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Pro Bono Digest: In the Service of Children

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

  • By: William Dean
  • Organization: New York Law Journal

this article appeared in the New York Law Journal on July 7th, 2003.

Pro Bono Digest

By William J. Dean

In the Service of Children

In a major pro bono undertaking, lawyers at Cravath, Swaine & Moore are providing assistance on legal issues impacting the medical condition of children. This is being undertaken through the Volunteers of Legal Service Children's Project where lawyers work with doctors and social workers at hospitals to improve health outcomes for poor children through the provision of free civil legal services. The goal of the VOLS Children's Project is to enable the practitioners of three great professions - law, medicine and social work - to work together to serve children and families in need of the valuable services that each can provide.

Last year, Cravath began working at the Children's Hospital at Montefiore Medical Center. This hospital serves some of the poorest families in the Bronx who are among the poorest families in the nation. This past spring, Cravath has expanded its work to the Children's Hospital at New York-Presbyterian. In addition to VOLS staff, the planning team for the expansion of the project to New York-Presbyterian included Dr. John M. Driscoll, Jr., Chairman, Department of Pediatrics; Dr. John T. Truman, Deputy Chairman, Department of Pediatrics; Dr. John N. Schullinger, Professor Emeritus of Clinical Surgery; Cynthia N. Sparer, Executive Director, Children's Hospital; Sharron Madden, Director, Social Work Services; and from Cravath, partners Paul C. Saunders, William V. Fogg and Sarkis Jebejian, along with litigation associate DeWitt A. Sullivan who serves as director of the project at Cravath. Following completion of planning, Dr. Driscoll wrote to Mr. Saunders, "We immediately became a better hospital with this affiliation and will be able to provide even broader services for our children and their families."

Thirty-five Cravath lawyers and six legal assistants are participating in pro bono work at Montefiore and New York-Presbyterian. To date, forty cases have been accepted by the firm. Cases are referred directly to Cravath by social workers at the hospitals. Cravath then determines whether the case is appropriate, and if so, assembles a Cravath legal team of two lawyers to represent the parent/guardian client. The firm takes cases in areas such as housing, public benefits, special education and employment. Cravath has enlisted outside immigration counsel - Marsha Nancy Needleman of Levitt & Needleman - to provide pro bono assistance on immigration matters. The parent or guardian signs a retainer agreement setting forth the work to be undertaken by the Cravath lawyers.

Every few weeks, the Cravath lawyers and legal assistants participating in the project meet at the firm to discuss cases. Each team of attorneys updates the group on the status of their case. Partners and associates provide feedback and advice. Participants benefit from the collective experience of the group.

Mr. Saunders, Mr. Fogg and Mr. Jebejian supervise both the project and each case. "The firm decided as a whole to take on the project and support it fully," says Mr. Saunders, a litigation partner at Cravath. He continues: "Historically, our pro bono work has involved large-scale litigation. One-on-one representation is a departure for us. The associates find this work very rewarding. This is a new pro bono model, the linking by VOLS of law firms and hospitals."

Mr. Jebejian is a partner in the corporate department, working on mergers and acquisitions. He finds his work in the Children's Project "personally gratifying." He continues: "The lawyers love working on these cases. We are having a beneficial impact on the life of a child. The firm treats these cases just like our regular work. The same resources are available as would be available to a major corporate client. We perform at the same level as any other case."

Mr. Fogg is a partner at Cravath who practices in the areas of securities and general corporate law. "This project," he says, "is all positive. People feel they are really doing something good. Because it is such a rousing success, the firm felt comfortable in taking on another hospital."

Mr. Sullivan, with several of his Cravath colleagues, recently made a presentation on case referral procedures and other issues to 63 pediatric social workers at New York-Presbyterian. Calls from social workers at both hospitals are directed to Mr. Sullivan. "The social workers get all their facts before calling me," he says. "They are very compassionate and caring." When it comes to lawyer interest at the firm, Mr. Sullivan says, "I know I can go to anyone who has worked on a case to take on another."

LizabethAnn R. Eisen is a corporate lawyer in the area of mergers and acquisitions. She has worked on a number of cases in this project, including the very first case taken by Cravath at Montefiore involving a teenage patient needing a kidney transplant. His mother was a likely donor, but she lived abroad and was being denied re-entry to the United States by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. At a client session held at the law firm, members of the boy's family already in this country, along with their children, filed into a Cravath conference room. While the children played and ate pizza on the floor, the adults worked on legal papers. As a result of Cravath's work, the mother was granted a temporary visa. She came to New York, but was found not to be a suitable donor. Later the boy's aunt was determined to be a suitable donor and Montefiore performed the transplant surgery. The mother returned to New York , this time on a six-month humanitarian visa, to care for her son while he recovers. "We spent a lot of time on this case and with the family," says Ms. Eisen. "It was wonderful to work on this matter."

Ms. Eisen also works with Dr. Morri Markowitz who heads the Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at Montefiore. The program holds a weekly clinic for children with lead poisoning, seeing about 400 children each year. Most of the children get lead poisoning from old paint in their homes. Cynthia Martinez, a social worker in the program, considers the availability of lawyers to be a "fantastic resource." "Landlords," she says, "pay attention when lawyers step into the picture."

Case referrals also come from the South Bronx Health Center for Children and Families, a part of the Montefiore system where medical teams operating out of mobile units provide health care to poor people in the Bronx.

"Social workers are wonderful to work with," says Ms. Eisen. "They are very much in touch with the family. They bridge the gap between our world in mid-town and the family at the hospital. They play a huge role in getting families on their feet."

Doctors also play a critical role in the project , such as preparing health priority letters when apartment conditions pose a danger to a child's health, or in the immigration area. Doctors are an important part of the advocacy process, working with lawyers and social workers.

Ms. Eisen and other Cravath colleagues are assisting Montefiore on an intranet website project. Pediatric patients have access to the intranet website in their hospital rooms. Montefiore doctors and social workers have asked Cravath to create law-related information - for example, "How a lawyer can help you" - for use on the website to benefit pediatric patients and their families.

Marisa L. Waldman, a corporate associate, assisted a family with a child suffering from lead poisoning. She visited the child's apartment, took photographs and attended a tenants' meeting in the lobby of the building. She spoke to the landlord and arranged for a city inspector to visit the apartment. Holes in the ceiling were closed. Ms. Waldman found the case both challenging and rewarding. "I really enjoyed seeing results," she says.

Christine Strumpen-Darrie, a corporate associate, worked with a family that she described as "exhibiting an amazing display of love and sacrifice on behalf of their five year-old son. They sold everything at home in Latin America to come here on a life-saving mission." They arrived in New York via Utah and the father took a night job in the city to be available for testing at the hospital during the day. These tests indicated that the father was able to donate a kidney to his son. Doctors, social workers and lawyers worked with the family on medical, social work and legal issues. Forty-eight hours after the transplant surgery, Ms. Strumpen-Darrie visited the Intensive Care Unit. She brought coloring books and magic markers. The young patient was delighted to make immediate use of them.

She is also representing a six year-old girl who needs to use a respirator because she has a disease that interferes with her brain communicating to her lungs when to breathe. Since the girl is so small, she is confined to a wheelchair that is designed to house the respirator. Cravath lawyers are negotiating with Medicare in an effort to cover the cost of the medical procedure to implant a pacemaker that would allow the girl to breathe without the respirator.

Ms. Strumpen-Darrie says of her work in the Children's Project, "It's hard to get a bad case, since your client is a sick child."

Rezart Spahia may be the only trained archeologist who is practicing law at Cravath. Albanian born, he worked as an archeologist in Tirana, the country's capital, and in the United States before attending law school. Now a corporate lawyer at Cravath, he was the perfect person to assist a thirteen year-old boy and the child's non-English speaking Albanian father. The child suffered from lead poisoning and problems related to severe burns incurred at an early age.

Since doctors recommended that the child's medical condition be closely followed by Montefiore specialists, Cravath undertook to help the father with an asylum application, which if granted, would enable the child to remain in the United States for treatment. After Cravath agreed to the representation, the firm learned that the father's asylum application had already been denied by the INS. Cravath lawyers were able to convince an INS officer that the case should be considered de novo. Upon hearing the new evidence presented at a second interview, the same INS officer who had recommended denial the first time, recommended approval of the asylum application. Mr. Spahia says of this case, "I see now how lawyers can really make a difference in a person's life."

Sheila Warren is a tax attorney at Cravath. Her cases have included representing a nineteen year-old patient, who lives with her mother and is getting a college degree on- line, in obtaining the restoration of income benefits. Also, a young child suffering from lead poisoning, who lives with her mother, grandmother and seven uncles and aunts. The family is facing eviction. Ms. Warren, who had just returned from Bronx Housing Court on this matter when interviewed, says that she finds these cases "most rewarding. These people are trying so hard to make better lives for themselves."

Mr. Sullivan, who has worked on housing and immigration matters in the project, now is assisting a young girl who suffers from pulmonary hypertension. Because oxygen was not getting into her bloodstream, she was rushed from an airplane to New York-Presbyterian which treats this rare disease. Mr. Sullivan and colleagues are providing legal assistance to the family in the areas of medical insurance and immigration.
Each of these cases, and many others handled by Cravath lawyers in this project, are intense human dramas presenting difficult legal challenges. Dr. John Truman at the Children's Hospital at New York-Presbyterian reflects the feelings of the doctors and social workers at both his hospital and Montefiore when he says, "We are delighted that Cravath is putting its world-class resources to help those who cannot speak for themselves. Children are so often the tragic innocent victims of nature's inhumanity to man as well as man's inhumanity to man. Bringing to bear the talents at Cravath helps to right the scales of justice."
William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.

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