N.Y. Chief Judge Boosts Efforts to Tap Retired Lawyers for Pro BonoJohn D. Feerick in The New York Law Journal, May 26, 2010
The New York court system has enlisted more than 120 retired lawyers since January to offer free legal advice and representation to poor New Yorkers in foreclosure, debt collection, housing, family and other civil cases -- the first of what could be "thousands" of attorney volunteers, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said last week.
Lippman announced the appointment of an advisory council of 30 attorneys to develop a blueprint for his "attorney emeritus" program, which aims to achieve a "quantum jump" in pro bono activities by tapping a growing number of baby-boomer attorneys.
The attorney emeritus program is intended as "a permanent piece of the puzzle" of providing adequate legal representation for the poor. It is designed to complement efforts to develop more reliable financial support from Albany for legal assistance organizations.
Participants -- retired lawyers in good standing who are at least 55 years old and have practiced law for at least 10 years -- pledge a minimum of 30 hours of unpaid assistance to low- and moderate-income clients each year.
They are not subject to the state's $350 attorney registration fee or mandatory CLE requirements. They also receive free training and malpractice insurance coverage from the agencies or under the state Public Officers Law.
Most important, Lippman said, they will get "a gold star on their chests" for taking on a role that has "status and meaning."
The advisory council, which will hold its first meeting on June 9, is chaired by Fordham Law professor John D. Feerick and Fern Schair, chair of the school's Feerick Center for Social Justice.
Lippman has asked the group to advise the courts on ways to ensure that volunteers provide high-quality representation; to make their experience as satisfying and desirable as possible; and to develop outreach and recruitment strategies.
The council also will serve as "a bridge" to the bar, the legal services community and the nonprofit sector.
Schair said that many short-staffed nonprofit agencies have had difficulty providing supervision and training to volunteers they took on after many law firms deferred offers to first-year associates and laid off other attorneys. One of the advisory council's priorities will be to help the agencies manage what she anticipates will be a "great upsurge" of experienced volunteers, she said.
So far, 126 retired attorneys have signed up and are being connected to 53 participating legal services and pro bono activities around the state. But Lippman said that "it would not be overly optimistic" to project a corps of volunteers "in the thousands."
The source of that confidence comes from demographics. With the first of the baby boomers reaching 65 next year, New York already counts approximately 11,000 retired attorneys, compared to some 153,000 active practitioners.
RETIREMENT ON THE RISE
Nationwide, the median age of lawyers increased to 45 from 39 in the 20 years between 1980 and 2000, presaging more retirements in coming years. Eighteen percent of current members of the New York State Bar are between 56 and 65 and 10 percent are over 65.
Lippman said that the graying of the bar presents a "window of opportunity" for encouraging pro bono, something he said that the courts previously have attempted only "on the margins." Many retirees "want to do something meaningful," he said, "but they don't know how to do it."
"Never in our history have there been so many lawyers retiring with unmatched skills and ability and in good health," said Schair.
Steven Banks, attorney in charge for the Legal Aid Society and a member of the advisory council, said that retired attorneys offer a "wealth of experience and wisdom" in areas like spotting legal issues, interviewing clients and interacting with adversaries, he said. They are "highly motivated," he added, and bring "a potential to make a difference over a number of years."
There is no shortage of work for volunteers. The recession has confronted many indigent New Yorkers with wrenching legal issues.
The national Legal Services Corp. estimates that for every case taken by the organizations it finances, another eligible client is turned away (See the report "Documenting the Justice Gap in America").
In New York, the courts report that more than two million litigants appeared pro se last year. Others simply default on their legal matters.
Lawyers' pro bono activities increased after 9/11, but Lippman said volunteer contributions have "stalled" or "stabilized" since then.
In addition to increasing the need for pro bono, Lippman said that the recession has made it more difficult for active attorneys, many of whom have faced economic difficulties themselves, to devote more time to what they recognize as an obligation to society.
"They also have an obligation to practice law and support their families," he said.
While lawyers and court officials agree that active attorneys are generous with their time, it is hard to come by accurate statistics on the precise amount of time they donate or whether their efforts are directed where they are most needed. The court system has established an "aspirational" goal for attorneys of 20 hours of pro bono work each year. The definition of pro bono includes work for nonprofit organizations as well as representation of indigent clients.
A court system survey conducted in 2004 estimated that New York lawyers contribute about 2.2 million hours of pro bono activities each year. Lippman said that the courts have "soured" on such surveys and do not intend to update this one.
The collection of "essential data" about the attorney emeritus program is one of the tasks laid out for the new council. Most immediately, Schair said that the council, in addition to finding out how many potential volunteers are available, must determine in what areas they work so that they can be matched with needy clients.
"Ninety-nine percent of what I know is housing," said Howard Malatzky, 63, a former staff member of state and city housing agencies who served as a Housing Court judge from 1986 to 2004.
Malatzky signed up as an attorney emeritus after "my wife told me my brain was getting flabby. Why not give back?"
He has been spending two mornings a week counseling litigants at Bronx and Brooklyn Housing Court.
Virtually all the tenants and many landlords who appear in Housing Court do not have attorneys. Even the simplest matters confuse them, said Malatzky. "Just going to the courthouse is intimidating," he said.
Malatsky does not go into court with the eight to 10 people he counsels at each session. Rather, he does something that he said "the court system cannot do." He tells them, "if I was your lawyer, this is what I would do."
Once a tenant emerges, he said, "he's not sweating bullets, he's not terrified, and he's 99 percent sure, he's not going to lose his home."
Roger Hawke, 74, began volunteering for Legal Aid in Brooklyn the day after he retired as a partner for Sidley Austin, for which he handled litigation worth billions of dollars.
"I just couldn't see myself getting up every day and saying, 'what am I going to do today?'" he said.
Two and sometimes three days a week, he advocates for the elderly in cases where $10,000 can determine a major change in the quality of a person's life.
In one case, someone forged an elderly client's power of attorney, transferred ownership of his house and cleaned out his bank account. Hawke brought successful actions to quiet title and force the bank to restore the funds.
In another, he is fighting the eviction of an 84-year-old tenant from an apartment.
"There is an unlimited need for legal help for poor people," said Hawke, adding that it gives him "a good feeling to help people."