Fordham Law

City, Courts Kick Off Campaign to Encourage Lawyers to Volunteer

The Feerick Center in New York Law Journal, May 26, 2009

Media Source

The first of five meetings to recruit, motivate and inform attorneys for the new NYC Legal Outreach initiative will be held tonight in Brooklyn.

The campaign is an "unprecedented" joint effort by the judicial and executive branches to expand pro bono legal assistance, Corporation Counsel Michael A. Cardozo said in an interview.

The joint program is an attempt to address the growing number of unrepresented consumers with financial and immigration problems brought on by the weak economy.

"In particular, we need lawyers who can harness NYC Legal Outreach's spirit of service, and direct their energies outside of Manhattan to residents of neighborhoods where the problems are the most pressing - and the needs the greatest," Mr. Cardozo said.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman agreed that a commitment to volunteerism is "more critical then ever" in difficult financial times.

And he predicted that the campaign will have no shortage of recruits.

"Everywhere you go, lawyers will pull you aside - young, old and in between - and say we want to contribute. We saw it so visibly in 9/11," Judge Lippman said. When there is a crisis, "lawyers want to be part of the solution," he added.

At a press conference last month, Mr. Cardozo said New York City does not intend to "reinvent the wheel," but hopes to use the "mayor's bully pulpit" to boost existing volunteerism.

In a May 12 letter to bar groups, law schools and the 100 largest law firms, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Judge Lippman said that NYC Legal Outreach will target four key areas: foreclosure, eviction, immigration and consumer credit.

Read the Mayor and Chief Judge's letter.

"Whether you are fully employed, retired, recently laid off or deferring employment, there is a place for you at this 'table,'" the letter said.

At the press conference in April, Judge Fern A. Fisher, deputy chief administrative judge for courts in New York City, said there were some 600,000 filings last year in consumer credit and housing cases.

Upward of 90 percent to 95 percent of litigants in housing cases are unrepresented, and as many as 99 percent of litigants in consumer credit cases appear pro se.

Although many lawyers have volunteered their time in such cases, "it's simply not enough," Judge Fisher said.

Daniel Greenberg, a special counsel to Schulte Roth & Zabel who oversees the firm's pro bono program, praised NYC Legal Outreach.

"[A]ny initiative, and certainly [one] headed by the mayor and the chief judge, designed to get more firms and more lawyers involved in pro bono is a terrific initiative," said Mr. Greenberg, who served as attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society for 10 years.

However, Mr. Greenberg was not sure what impact the program would have on many larger firms, Schulte Roth included, which already have well-developed pro bono programs, in some cases administered by a dedicated pro bono attorney.

"I'm not sure that for us a kind of a prodding or . . . saying it's important to be done" will necessarily bring out more attorneys for pro bono, Mr. Greenberg said.

But Ronald J. Tabak, special counsel in charge of pro bono and general litigation matters at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said while Skadden attorneys already engage in a wide range of pro bono work, "if there are more opportunities that don't involve conflicts of interest that we can get involved [in], we would certainly be interested."

Mr. Tabak said Skadden, which represents financial institutions, is less likely to be conflicted out of working on eviction and immigration matters, as opposed to foreclosure and consumer credit issues.

Mr. Tabak stressed that each of Skadden's 100-plus summer associates will handle at least one, if not two, pro bono matters. And he said he believes that even "busy" attorneys will commit to pro bono work if they find an opportunity that grabs their attention.

It is "always useful to have different options available to people, because you never know what will strike someone as interesting," he said.

As to whether attorneys have more time on their hands to devote to pro bono initiatives, Mr. Tabak said many firms like Skadden have adopted programs that allow lawyers to take a year off in return for reduced compensation.

"That means if there was excess capacity, it's not clear to what extent" it still exists, he said.

Mr. Cardozo, Judge Fisher and representatives of a number of pro bono groups and bar associations, including the City Bar Justice Center, the Brooklyn Bar Association, the Legal Aid Society and the Fordham University School of Law Feerick Center for Social Justice and Dispute Resolution, will be on hand at tonight's meeting to answer questions and discuss potential pro bono opportunities.

Tonight's meeting will be held at Brooklyn Borough Hall, 209 Joralemon St. at 6:00 p.m.

Additional meetings will be held on June 8 in the Bronx, June 17 on Staten Island, June 22 in Manhattan and June 25 in Queens.