Courts Seek More Lawyers to Help the Poor

The Feerick Center's Fern Schair in The New York Times, January 07, 2010

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By WILLIAM GLABERSON

The recession has swelled the number of people showing up in New York State courts who cannot afford lawyers to 2.1 million annually, often turning eviction, foreclosure, debt collection and other civil cases into lopsided battles that raise questions about the fairness of the legal system.

In response, the state court system is beginning an unusual new program this week to try to fill the gap with volunteer retired lawyers, hoping partly to attract Baby Boomer lawyers who may be ready to slow down but are not keen on full-time golf.

New York’s chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, said in an interview that officials changed the state’s rules this week to add a new category of lawyer, attorney emeritus, that will free lawyers of some burdens of full-time practice, like paying for malpractice insurance, while channeling them to dozens of legal programs around the state that represent low-income people without charge. Until now, lawyers were required to register with the state as either active or retired.

Judge Lippman said that the program could sharply increase the number of lawyers volunteering for such public interest work, after decades of efforts that have not come close to meeting the demand. “This is putting a gold star on their chest, saying, ‘You are doing something important,’ ” Judge Lippman said.

Although such work is often described as an ethical obligation of law practice, some studies have shown that more than half of the state’s 250,000 lawyers provide no free services.

In interviews, judges described the growing ranks of people who say they cannot afford lawyers as a crisis in the courts. They said that unrepresented people sometimes blundered into errors that could lead to destitution and homelessness. Court officials said the number of people who say they cannot afford lawyers statewide has grown by 300,000 since 2005, to 2.1 million annually by 2009.

Nationally, court officials and bar associations have begun to talk about the potential for volunteer work from some 400,000 of the country’s 1.1 million lawyers in the Baby Boom generation who are moving toward retirement.

In the New York program, lawyers over 55 who register in the attorney emeritus category will be trained and supervised in the work for low-income clients. Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society in New York City, said the program could be a breakthrough in efforts to draw more volunteer lawyers. “It is an innovative idea to tap into untapped resources,” Mr. Banks said.

He said that because of limited resources, the society was turning away eight of every nine people who come to it seeking legal help in civil cases.

Bar associations and other groups around the country have worked for decades to increase lawyers’ volunteer efforts. Court officials said that at least six states, including Florida, Illinois and Nevada, have attorney emeritus programs like the one New York is adopting.

At many large corporate law firms there is now an established culture of regularly handling public-interest cases without charging fees.

But there has also been resistance to participation in volunteer programs by some lawyers. A statewide study in 2002 said only about a quarter of all lawyers worked more than 20 hours a year on such voluntary efforts.

Many of the organizations that provide free legal services in the state are facing their own fund-raising and other financial challenges because of the economy, at a time when more people need lawyers, said Fern Schair, the chairwoman of the board of the Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law School, which works to expand representation for people who cannot afford lawyers.

Judge Lippman said that Ms. Schair proposed the attorney emeritus program to him last summer as a way that New York might try to cope with the challenge of the growing number of unrepresented people in the courts.

“I immediately said to her, ‘We’re going to do it,’ ” Judge Lippman said on Wednesday. “This struck me as a unique opportunity to kind of seize the day.”