Pro Bono Digest: Legal Services for New York City -- Pro Bono Opportunities

Thursday, November 13, 2003

  • Volunteers of Legal Service

Pro Bono Digest

By William J. Dean

(this article originally appeared in the New York Law Journal)

Legal Services for New York City: Pro Bono Opportunities

These are difficult times for many poor New Yorkers. One in five New York City residents live below the federal poverty line. ($9,359 for an individual, $18,244 for a family of four.) This means that almost 1.7 million New Yorkers live in poverty. "If they resided in their own municipality," writes Mark Levitan, Senior Policy Analyst at the Community Service Society, "New York's poor would constitute the fifth largest city in the United States; only Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and the rest of New York would have a larger population."

Lawyers at Legal Services for New York City (LSNY) provide free civil legal services to poor people at community-based offices throughout the city. (LSNY is the New York City grantee of the federally funded Legal Services Corporation.) As a general rule, to be eligible for legal services at a LSNY office, a client must have an income not exceeding 125 percent of the poverty level set for households by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

LSNY very much welcomes private bar participation in its public service work. Pro bono opportunities abound at each of the LSNY neighborhood law offices. "LSNY has a strong and growing partnership with the private bar that enables us to greatly expand our reach," states Andrew Scherer, LSNY Executive Director and President. "Through pro bono clinics, attorney-in-residence programs, internships, co-counseling major litigation and many other joint projects, LSNY's offices have forged powerful and lasting alliances with many firms. We highly value the contributions of our pro bono partners and look forward to building on existing relationships and developing new pro bono partnerships."

LSNY offices offer an opportunity for lawyers in private practice to provide an important public service. The clients are poor, their legal needs great:

Mothers who need child support to provide for their children. Families whose Food Stamps have been improperly terminated. Families who face eviction as a result of improper benefit reductions and who, if evicted, have no alternative except a homeless shelter. Parents who are accused of child neglect because their landlords have failed to repair housing code violations. Elderly people faced with foreclosure who must choose between medical care and food to eat. Terminally ill people who need help to plan for their children's future. Children with physical or mental disabilities who need special services through their schools to have hope for a decent future. Victims of domestic violence for whom protective orders may be a matter of life or death. Organizations struggling to improve the quality of life in their communities.

The LSNY Legal Support Unit conducts training programs for pro bono lawyers on poverty law issues and LSNY lawyers at community-based offices serve as mentors to assist pro bono lawyers taking cases.

LSNY offices provide legal representation in these areas: Housing - Assisting poor people to preserve their homes and avert homelessness by defending clients in nonpayment and other eviction proceedings, and pursuing rent overcharge claims and actions to improve housing conditions. Income Maintenance/Government Benefits - Providing legal representation to help people access and retain government benefits so they can maintain enough income to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads; assisting clients whose government benefits are wrongfully denied, inaccurately calculated, or improperly terminated; representing families and individuals for whom unemployment insurance, Food Stamps and Medicaid are a critical lifeline. Family Law - Obtaining orders of protection and other relief for victims of domestic violence; providing representation on adoption matters, matrimonial matters, and child custody and child support claims; representing parents in abuse and neglect cases and at termination of parental rights proceedings. Community Economic Development - Providing legal representation to non-profit organizations seeking to improve the quality of life in their communities. Consumer Law - Providing representation to obtain bankruptcy protection, where appropriate; stopping unlawful debt collection practices. Disability - Providing representation to disabled people by assisting them in obtaining and retaining disability benefits and by helping them assert their right to be free from discrimination. Education Law - Here the clients are children and their families. Lawyers work to ensure that students with special education needs have their needs addressed by the city and ensure that students' rights are protected in disciplinary proceedings. Elder Law - Providing representation to elderly clients to secure and retain rent subsidies, social security, public benefits and private retirement benefits, and helping them fight discrimination. HIV Advocacy - Helping clients gain access to government benefits and programs to which they are eligible.

LSNY welcomes pro bono lawyers to provide representation on individual cases, and also invites law firms to participate in the externship program. Pursuant to the latter, several law firms each loan three associates in the course of a year, each of whom works full-time for a four-month period at a neighborhood LSNY law office on housing, family law or other legal matters. Both law firm litigators and transactional lawyers participate in these externships. Lawyers who work as externs speak glowingly about the professional richness of the experience. They have a chance to assume responsibility on the firing line for a full docket of cases and deal with clients, witnesses and opposing counsel. This can include significant courtroom time and involve the sort of direct client counseling and decision-making responsibility that can powerfully assist professional development.

Here are pro bono opportunities available at each of the LSNY community-based offices. Additional law firms are urged to establish externships at LSNY offices.

LSNY - Bronx - This office provides legal services to poor families in the Bronx who are among the poorest families in the nation. Pro Bono Opportunities: (1) The Public Benefits Unit assists people whose public assistance, Food Stamps, or medical assistance benefits have been reduced, terminated, or denied altogether , often due to bureaucratic errors or inaction. Pro bono attorneys have the opportunity for extensive client contact; advocate on their clients' behalf with city and state agencies; represent clients at fair hearings and commence Article 78 proceedings in Supreme Court to challenge final agency determinations. (2) The Education Law Unit provides representation to disabled students in special education hearings at school administrative hearings and in federal court. Students are represented at school suspension hearings. Legal services are provided on other issues, including privacy of records and involuntary school transfers. Contact: Jill Siegel, Director of Litigation : 718-928-3744;

Bedford - Stuyvesant Community Legal Services - This office serves residents of Bedford - Stuyvesant and Crown Heights. Pro Bono Opportunities: The Housing Unit seeks attorneys to assist in providing homelessness prevention services. The Income Maintenance Unit seeks assistance in these areas: public benefits ( welfare, Food Stamps, Medicaid) and unemployment benefits. Other areas are disability advocacy and family law. Volunteer lawyers conduct intake interviews with clients, and assist in case evaluation and research and client preparation for administrative hearings and appearances in federal and state court. They draft pleadings, briefs and other legal documents. Contact: Camille Cooke, Project Director, at 718-636-1155;

Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation "A". (1) The Community & Economic Development Unit provides legal assistance to non-profit community-based organizations in Oceanhill - Brownsville, Williamsburg, Greenpoint, East New York, Cypress Hills, Bushwick and Bedford - Stuyvesant neighborhoods. Pro bono lawyers can assist in the representation of community development corporations - the unit has move than 100 community partners - that provide a broad range of programs and services to low-income people, and representation in major development projects in which these corporations are involved. Also, representation of tenants associations seeking to address serious housing conditions, frequently through tenant self-management and/or ownership. (2) Other pro bono opportunities are in the housing field, public benefits, and assisting elderly clients with life planning issues and foreclosure litigation. Contact: Martin S. Needelman, Project Director, at 718-487-2300;

LSNY Brooklyn Branch - Among the neighborhoods served by this office are Brighton Beach, East Flatbush, Borough Park and Bensonhurst. Pro Bono Opportunities: (1) Volunteer lawyers are needed to assist on bankruptcy issues facing families, some of whom were affected by the World Trade Center calamity. Participating lawyers need not be bankruptcy law practitioners. (2) The office seeks a law firm extern to work on family law matters. Contact: Steven M. Bernstein, Project Director, 718-852-8888;

South Brooklyn Legal Services - Among the neighborhoods served by this project are downtown Brooklyn, Red Hook, Sunset Park, Coney Island, Flatbush and Fort Greene. Pro Bono Opportunities: This office would like to explore with law firms establishing externships in these areas: (1) Foreclosure prevention where legal representation is provided to retirees and hard-working people with small incomes, who are the victims of predatory lending. The legal work involves litigation in Supreme and federal courts. (2) Working in the office's low-income tax clinic. (3) Family law, involving foster care and domestic violence issues. (4) SSI representation on behalf of disabled persons. Contact: John C. Gray, Project Director, at 718-237-5500;

Harlem Legal Services. This office serves residents of Harlem and northern Manhattan. Pro Bono Opportunities:(1) The Income Maintenance Unit is seeking the assistance of attorneys to represent clients needing help in the areas of unemployment insurance, workers' compensation and social security. (2) Providing information to senior citizens groups and tenant organizations on tenant legal rights. (3) Working on health law related matters. Contact: Shirley Traylor, Project Director, at 212-348-7449;

LSNY - Manhattan. This offices serves low-income people on the East Side of Manhattan, including East Harlem, the Lower East Side and Chinatown, and West Side residents below 110th Street. Pro Bono Opportunities: The Housing Unit provides representation to clients in Manhattan Housing Court. The contribution and responsibility of pro bono lawyers includes interviewing clients, appearing in Housing Court; motion practice, trials and appeals. Contact: Peggy Earisman, Interim Project Director, at 646-442-3100;

Queens Legal Services. The offices of Queens Legal Services serve residents of the entire borough. Pro Bono Opportunities: Preparation and execution of life planning documents (Wills, medical directives and powers of attorney) for elderly residents and those with life-threatening illnesses; representing victims of predatory lending; litigation in the areas of education and discrimination; real estate closings; providing legal services to community development organizations; bankruptcy assistance; and conducting immigration law seminars in this most ethnically diverse locality in the United States. Contact: Carl O. Callender, Project Director, 718-392-5646;

Legal Services for the Elderly. This office provides legal assistance to senior citizens throughout the city. Pro Bono Opportunities: Representing vulnerable widows and retirees in pension matters to recover retirement income they would not otherwise receive in the absence of legal representation. The practice is in federal and state courts. Also, establishing Medicaid eligibility, and providing legal services to obtain home health aides. Contact: Gary Stone, senior attorney at 212-391-0120;

LSNY Legal Support Unit. This unit provides training, educational materials and technical assistance to LSNY's community-based offices, pro bono lawyers and other public interest legal providers. Pro Bono Opportunities: (1) Having private sector attorneys conduct training programs, particularly in the area of trial practice (depositions, direct and cross-examination, etc.) (2) Foreclosure, family law and SSI trainings, to name just a few, are attended by private attorneys, many of whom take on pro bono cases after the trainings. The schedule of LSNY training programs can be found on (3) LSNY has arranged with the Office of Court Administration to be an accredited CLE pro bono provider for private attorneys who do pro bono work for any of the neighborhood law offices. For each six hours of pro bono work, the private attorney can earn one hour of CLE credit, up to a maximum of six hours of CLE credit (i.e. a private attorney can get CLE credit for up to 36 hours of pro bono work). (4) Participate in the Overpayment Project, coordinated through New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, to assist clients on Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) who are charged with benefit overpayments. These proceedings can have devastating consequences on poor people who are elderly, blind or disabled, who are living on fixed incomes and who were not at fault in causing the overpayment to occur. The work involves administrative advocacy at Social Security neighborhood offices, at administrative hearings and on appeals in federal court. Contact: Raun Rasmussen, Chief of Litigation and Advocacy, 212-431-7200;

William J. Dean is executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.