Free Of Federal Restrictions, MFY Can Fully Represent The Poor In New York City
Wednesday, August 27, 2003
- Organization: The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel
Editor: Please describe your respective roles at MFY.
Kelly: I am the Executive Director of MFY Legal Services, and I am also a lawyer. It is my responsibility to provide guidance and overall leadership to an organization that consists of twenty-seven people most of whom are lawyers and paralegals who provide civil legal services to low-income people. We have a number of volunteers as well, and we are always anxious to increase that number. MFY is really part of New York City's social safety net for low-income people, and as lawyers we focus on the complex legal problems that other service providers within that safety net cannot solve.
Keyko: I am the Chairman of the Board of Directors of MFY Legal Services. The governing board oversees fund-raising and development, engages in recruiting activities for the organization and, most importantly, sets overall policy. One of the most significant decisions we made during the past year was to forego federal funding in order to avoid restrictions that, we believe, interfered with the carrying out of our mission. Restrictions on our ability to fully represent poor people were central to the board's decision on this. It was a difficult decision for us to make, but in the long run it will enable us to expand our services and better represent the people we serve.
Editor: I believe you are referring to restrictions under the Legal Services Corporation (LSC) Act. Can you give us some examples?
Keyko: Yes. We are involved in an action challenging a policy of the
Metropolitan Transit Authority that denies persons with mental disabilities the right to half-price fare cards. The MTA only recognizes such a right for persons with physical disabilities. The federal rules which mandate the fare reduction make no distinction between mental and physical disabilities. Because of the limitation of the LSC Act concerning class actions, we were only able to challenge the MTA on behalf of an individual plaintiff, and the MTA was quick to accord that person his rights while carrying on with the overall policy of denying such right. We are now challenging that policy in a class action, with David Dobbins of Patterson, Belknap, Webb & Tyler as co-counsel, something we were unable to do in the past.
Kelly: Under the LSC Act we were unable to provide assistance to undocumented aliens. At the moment, we represent a Mexican woman with several children born in this country, although she herself is an undocumented alien. We could not have provided her with representation had we continued to accept federal LSC funding. There is a large undocumented population in New York's Chinatown. We have been able to help tenant groups on a variety of health and housing issues where half of the group had legal papers and the other half did not. That would not have been permitted under the LSC regime.
Another aspect of the federal rules to which we objected was the requirement that we turn over to the government the names of our clients identified by a problem code. We represent the victims of domestic violence, and we deal with a host of sensitive personal issues. Information with respect to these matters is not something we willingly disclose to anyone, including the government. We have also freed ourselves from very burdensome and costly federal paperwork requirements. The simplest telephone inquiry had to be documented, and the expense of compliance was considerable. Since our board decided to forego federal LSC funding, we spend less on administration and are able to concentrate on the delivery of services, as opposed to reporting to the government.
Editor: Can you describe MFY's relationship with Legal Services of New York?
Keyko: So long as we were receiving federal funding we were part of Legal Services of New York, LSNY, an umbrella organization providing accounting and other back-office support for a number of organizations like ours. That led to some duplication of work, but the more important drawback to the relationship was the fact that a portion of what was generated by our fund-raising efforts went to support LSNY's overhead. That was money that we had raised but which was not available to serve our clients.
Kelly: MFY has chosen to become a smaller organization that can respond to the needs of low income people as they arise. We are committed to direct services and to finding solutions that assist clients in stabilizing their lives and their communities. MFY's services revolve around projects that are focused, that have identifiable goals and that very often involve partnering with other organizations to enhance the legal services we provide. By moving out from under the LSC funding stream we can use the full range of tools that lawyers can use to help clients.
Keyko: In our field, serving the poor has two aspects: representing
individual clients and working toward changes in the law to benefit all of the persons we serve. Under the LSC regime, we were able to do the former but were restricted in doing the latter. Now we are able to bring cases for the purpose of establishing precedent of benefit to all of our clients; we are able to work with legislative bodies to create laws which impact everyone. Yet it remains the individual case, the individual client which very often provides us with the means of entering the larger arena, and I think it is the individual client case that gives the organization its distinctive personality.
An example of our broader mission concerns a challenge to New York's
reinstitutionalization of mentally ill people in large-scale adult homes, which we have just undertaken with the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law in Washington, D.C., together with a number of other organizations. This case is going to address a number of United States Supreme Court precedents as well as the Americans With Disabilities Act. It is a good example of the very important work MFY is engaged in and the caliber of organizations with which it can expect to partner. We continue to provide direct service to poor people in need, but we will also be involved in those landmark cases that must be brought if our society is going to resolve some of its most intractable and long-embedded problems, including those in which we could not have been involved if we received federal funding.
Editor: In light of the number of pro bono organizations competing for
contributions and grants, how does MFY seek to distinguish itself in its
Kelly: For one thing MFY is a direct service provider. We work directly with low-income people with specific legal problems. There are situations where another organization might hesitate to take on a particular case. The issues may be too difficult. It may be that only one person's rights are at stake but we believe it will lead to the person stabilizing his or her life so we will do the case. MFY also has established a reputation for expertise in particular areas including housing, employment and mental health law. We have a distinguished record in helping people with diminished capacity, for example, and that record is very helpful in our fund-raising efforts. Standing out in a given practice area is also helpful in our efforts to partner with law firms and corporate law departments. As a result of some of the things we have accomplished, we have been able to bring some of the very finest lawyer volunteers into our cases. We are as anxious to recruit volunteers from corporations and law firms as we are to increase the flow of contributions and grants.
Editor: The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel is doing a series on the good things global companies are doing to help the poor in countries where they have operations. Are there ways in which they can help MFY?
Kelly: New York is a global city. MFY has a long history of representing
immigrant communities. We work with Chinese groups in Manhattan and Queens, Latin American groups throughout the City and West African communities in East Harlem. As the diversity of our city increases, the need for services, and a diversity of services, increases. This is an area where partnering with global companies might enhance the services MFY is able to provide. For example, we are always in need of help with Chinese translations, both written and oral, and it is the global companies which have the resources to provide this help. Spanish translation needs are also a constant. I should mention the wonderful support we have had from Altria, from American Express and from Pfizer. The same companies that are concerned about global poverty also look for ways in
which to help the poor in this country. Because we directly serve the poor, and because we are not subject to federal restrictions on the scope of our services or the diversion of our funds to meet federal paperwork requirements, we are an ideal vehicle for corporate contributions directed to the protection of the legal rights of poor people.
Editor: Can you give our readers some idea of your current projects?
Kelly: We have three citywide projects, the Mental Health Law Project, the Adult Home Project and the Workplace Justice Project. We also have a Neighborhood Preservation Project focused on Manhattan that includes the East Side SRO Law Project that addresses the needs of people living in the lodging houses and single room occupancy hotels. This latter group is mostly elderly and frail. We believe it is particularly important to provide services to SRO residents because they are only one step away from homelessness. MFY also has a Family Violence Prevention Project which works with Mount Sinai Hospital to provide legal assistance to domestic violence victims identified through the hospital emergency room.
Keyko: I should add that while the City has been very generous in extending our grant with respect to the single room occupancy project, there are limits to what we can expect in support from the City and from the State. The economic downturn since September 11 has meant that there are more people without jobs, more people in need of MFY's services and fewer tax dollars to allocate to organizations like ours to enable us to respond.
Editor: What are the types of things you look to the corporate community to provide for your operations?
Kelly: There is really no limit to the types of support we seek. There are always projects in need of people, some very grand, others very modest in scope: moving a law library, distributing public education materials, painting an office, going out into the field to directly serve someone in need. We are always seeking out new funding sources, and a well-connected governing board, one that includes CEO's, general counsel and representatives of major corporations, is essential in providing us with the introductions to such sources. We also welcome volunteers from corporate law departments to assist in the various projects I have mentioned.
Keyko: I should also add that we are always in need of people to serve as guardians ad litem, and one does not have to be an attorney to act in this capacity.
Kelly: Law firms do provide us with very substantial help in the form of
interns. Cleary, Gottlieb, Steen & Hamilton and Willkie Farr & Gallagher have both done this on a rotating basis, and Allen & Overy, Debevoise & Plimpton, and Dewey Ballantine have provided us with some of their summer associates. There is no reason why corporate counsel could not do something similar, and I think it would serve as a real morale booster for their people. The idea would be for corporate counsel to rotate some of their people through MFY Fellows, paying their salaries but permitting them to enjoy all the benefits of pro bono work. In another model, Wachtel, Lipton, Rosen & Katz donates funds to pay for a staff attorney for our office, which gives us the benefit of a fully-trained, full-time attorney. Pillsbury Winthrop, Simpson Thacher & Bartlett and Shearman & Sterling have all given us access to meeting space, which is always needed. Pfizer invites MFY to their Angels' luncheons, where law
firms and corporate law departments are invited to contribute used furniture and equipment to organizations such as ours. We had a lot of fun and came back with badly needed equipment.