Susan Feeney: Linking Legal Services Providers With Pro Bono Counsel

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

  • Al Driver
  • The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel

The Editor interviews Susan A. Feeney, Partner of McCarter & English, LLP.

Editor: How did you become involved with pro bono work?

Feeney: I concentrate my practice in the area of state and local taxation.
This includes all types of New Jersey taxes, such as sales, use and property taxes. I have considerable experience in litigating tax appeal cases involving office complexes, hotels, data centers, golf course properties and manufacturing facilities. I also represent local governments in defending their tax assessments. Pro bono work has been an integral part of my practice since I began my career in the early 1980's.

I have been secretary, and now I am vice chair, of an organization called
Legal Services Foundation of Essex County. The organization raises funds among the Essex County law firms to support pro bono projects, primarily in Newark and surrounding cities in Essex County. Historically our funding has supported Essex Newark Legal Services and Legal Aid. Through the years, we have entertained funding requests from other pro bono groups. Recently we began funding the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.

Editor: Please tell us about the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.

Feeney: Several of us on the Board of the Legal Services Foundation felt that it was great that we raised funds every year, but we wondered if we could do a little bit more. We began to look into how we could mobilize the private bar to actually provide pro bono services to help the agencies to which we provided funding. We formed the Pro Bono Task Force to try to figure out why many private bar attorneys did not volunteer to take cases on a pro bono basis and to see if we could do anything to improve the climate.

The Task Force worked very hard for a year. We decided to form an
organization called the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice. It is now a committee of Legal Services Foundation. The new organization mobilizes the private bar to take on pro bono assignments.

The organization provides training in the areas in which pro bono services
are needed. When the Task Force asked attorneys why they did not volunteer for cases, we found that they did not feel that they had the required expertise. For example, a tax lawyer being asked to take a landlord-tenant case knows that he or she does not have experience in that area. In addition to training the pro bono attorneys, the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice staff follows through with the attorney to see if they need further help and, if so, links them with attorneys who have the needed expertise.

Most importantly, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice provides quality control
monitoring so that the pro bono experience is a good one for the attorneys.

Editor: How do cases come to the attention of Volunteer Lawyers for Justice?

Feeney: Our cases come from a variety of sources, predominantly within
Newark. The judges periodically call us to say that a pro bono attorney is
needed in a particular case. We also take cases from Legal Aid. We work with the various clinics at the Seton Hall and Rutgers Law Schools. When the attorneys at Essex Newark Legal Services have conflicts, experience an overflow or need certain expertise for particular cases, they call us. We also handle cases from the Education Law Center.

Editor: Please give us some examples of the kinds of cases that are handled by the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice.

Feeney: We initially focused on landlord-tenant cases because people need help immediately if they are threatened with eviction from their homes or apartments. In addition, landlord-tenant cases usually have a beginning and end, which is helpful if an attorney says that he or she only has 10-12 hours for a matter. Landlord-tenant cases had another attraction. A law firm in Essex County, which had taken a number of landlord-tenant cases on a pro bono basis in the past, made their attorneys available to give training.

The second type of initial cases were matrimonial, particularly divorce cases - not so much disputed cases, but rather cases that involved people who had been waiting for years for a divorce, but just did not know how to file the paperwork. We knew that we could provide the training for handling these cases easily, and the attorneys could file the paperwork with the likelihood that the case would be concluded relatively quickly.

The other two areas of our initial concentration were education law cases and commercial litigation. Further, when the events of 9/11 occurred, we had an immediate need to assist the living victims and the families of deceased victims. We coordinated with the state bar to give training and mobilize attorneys for the needed pro bono work.

Editor: Please tell us about the training for pro bono attorneys handling 9/11 cases.

Feeney: In conjunction with the state bar, we gave a training session that lasted about four hours or so at Rutgers Law School, which made its facilities available for our use. Trainers included experts from the various law firms. For example, I spoke on tax issues. Other attorneys spoke on the legal issues related to their wide range of specialties, including landlord-tenant, immigration and consumer transactions.

The breadth of issues arising out of the 9/11 events was tremendous because each of the victims had different circumstances. In cases where a spouse was left behind, the spouse often could handle most matters with guidance. In other situations, the victims were adults in their early 20's who had been out on their own for only a couple of years, and their parents suddenly had to deal with the young adult's financial and other matters.

When attorneys took cases, they did not know upfront what issues they would be confronting. In conjunction with the state bar, we provided training for issue spotting. In addition, some attorneys volunteered to be experts in the field, so to speak, so that when attorneys took a 9/11 case and discovered down the road that they needed a specialist - for example, on estate tax issues - they would have an expert to consult, who could give them an answer or point them in a right direction. Luckily, we were working closely with the state bar. This enabled volunteers to reach out to experts available through the state bar's specialized sections and committees, too.

Editor: Has the number of pro bono attorneys working through the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice grown?

Feeney: Originally, we had around 200 lawyers involved. This year, we are up to around 400 lawyers taking pro bono cases.

Editor: Do corporate counsel serve as pro bono attorneys for projects
supported by the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice?

Feeney: Yes, they do. We have made the New Jersey Corporate Counsel Association aware of the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and have let them know that, if any of their members would like to volunteer, we have projects for them.

Editor: Where are the Volunteer Lawyers for Justice offices?

Feeney: From the beginning, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice was given space within the offices of the Essex County Bar Association. The association is moving its offices to Roseland, NJ. We felt strongly that we wanted to keep Volunteer Lawyers for Justice in Newark because the people we serve are predominantly Newark residents. Equally important, our executive director, Karen Sacks, interacts with so many groups in Newark that send people to us for legal help, it does not make much sense for her to be outside Newark. In addition, Newark is a "hot place" to be right now. We're seeing more and more developers are coming to buy properties, rehabilitate properties and outfit office space in Newark - even more than in New York City or other Metropolitan areas. The
organization should be where the action is.

We asked the Board Members of Legal Services Foundation, who are
predominantly partners of the law firms in Newark, if any had space available for the organization. We were very grateful that McCarter & English made two full offices and cubicles, complete with furniture, available at 90 Mulberry Street, which is where our litigation support for some of our major cases is housed. Our principal firm offices are at Four Gateway, which is right across the street. Having Volunteer Lawyers for Justice in their own space separate from our principal offices helps to alleviate issues of confidentiality, conflicts and security issues.

Editor: How does Volunteer Lawyers for Justice differ from other pro bono organizations?

Feeney: We provide training and mentoring, which has made the biggest difference in getting the organization off the ground and making it a success. At a recent meeting, the Legal Services Foundation entertained requests for funding from Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, Legal Aid and the Education Law Center. The Foundation's board felt that all the organizations are doing wonderful work and that it is important to fund the pro bono work.

Editor: In addition to volunteering for pro bono projects, how can corporate counsel help Volunteer Lawyers for Justice?

Feeney: They can encourage their corporations to make financial
contributions. Several corporate counsel serve on the Board of the Legal
Services Foundation, and some of them have been instrumental in securing their companies' donations.

Editor: How can senior attorneys in law firms and corporate practice
encourage younger lawyers to do pro bono work?

Feeney: Associates at McCarter & English are encouraged by the partners to do pro bono work. The hours of pro bono work are counted when calculating billable hours.

Senior attorneys act as role models in performing pro bono work themselves. With 9/11 training, for example, I was very happy when I looked at the audience and saw at least 20 of my own partners being trained. If an associate knows that a partner has taken on a case, the associate will be comfortable taking on a case.

Our corporate clients ask about our pro bono work. They want to give work to firms that support pro bono.

Editor: What are the benefits of doing pro bono work?

Feeney: I was taught years ago that a lawyer is supposed to give some time back to the community. Most people would also agree that doing pro bono work improves your qualities as a lawyer. When you take on a pro bono case in an area in which you have not worked before, you can learn something about that area of law and something about yourself, too. You often are dealing with the type of client that you generally do not run across if you just work with the corporate clientele who come into your office. You will find professional and personal satisfaction in helping a person who really needs the help.