Helping Other New Yorkers
What would you do if you could not afford a lawyer and you were:
. Elderly and needing a will;
. A political refugee wanting to apply for asylum;
. Mentally impaired and facing eviction;
. Suffering from cancer with your insurance claim having been denied;
. Homeless and seeking to apply for public assistance?
And if you could afford a lawyer and needed an attorney to advise on a real estate matter or to bring a law suit, who would you call? If you wanted a trained mediator to resolve a housing or child custody dispute, how could you find one? Call this Association.
Each year volunteer attorneys, working through the Association, help thousands of New Yorkers, particularly the indigent. It is crucial, in light of today's needs to encourage still more members to volunteer, that the extraordinary efforts engaged in by so many receive appropriate recognition. Here is a brief synopsis of areas in which we help the community.
The Robert B. McKay Community Outreach Law Program
Ever since its founding more than ten years ago the Association’s Robert B. McKay Community Outreach Law Program (“Community Outreach? has been the means through which we provide pro bono legal services to the less fortunate.
Working with community organizations and the courts to identify and fill gaps in the provision of legal services to needy New Yorkers, Community Outreach recruits and trains volunteer lawyers who undertake cases and assist clients in one of the 15 legal clinics we conduct each month. Volunteers receive resource materials and training (and, where necessary, malpractice insurance) and are supervised by our staff and other experienced attorneys. On any given night, volunteers go to community centers and homeless facilities around the city:
. helping immigrant women and children escape abusive sponsors and regularize their immigration status;
. assisting the homeless with a variety of legal problems;
. enabling elderly clients to write wills, living wills and powers of attorney;
. providing aid to cancer patients with employment or insurance problems.
Two additional programs underscore the special nature of the services we provide. Through the Refugee Assistance Program, hundreds of volunteers undertake the arduous effort to prove that an applicant’s well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country justifies the United States?grant of asylum.
Our guardian ad litem program is unique: volunteers are appointed by Housing Court Judges to serve as guardians for people facing eviction who lack the ability to defend themselves, or even to understand the proceedings. The guardians often not only avert eviction, but find ways to greatly improve the ward’s living situation.
Community Outreach also works closely with the courts to provide information and access to unrepresented litigants. Through our Housing Court programs, summer associates assist over 1,000 tenants each summer to fill out forms they need to defend themselves; videos in each borough explain the Housing Court to landlords and tenants; our “Tenant’s Guide to Housing Court?(in English and Spanish) has been provided to over 100,000 tenants; and parties in the Queens Housing Court can resolve disputes out of court through a new court-sponsored mediation program staffed by volunteers trained and recruited by Community Outreach.
The demand for volunteer legal help is ever changing, and Community Outreach works with Association committees to identify new projects. Our recent programs range from training mediators to handle child custody disputes and matters involving co-ops, to recruiting real estate lawyers to assist purchasers of low-income housing units, to helping staff the Office of the Self-Represented in the New York County Supreme Court. (A similar request for assistance has been received from the Housing Court.)
The foregoing is just a small sampling of what our pro bono programs accomplish!
Project SHIELD and Monday Night LAW
In the past year, the Association started a city-wide hot line to supply indigent callers with detailed information and legal advice from lawyers with poverty law experience. Known as “Project SHIELD,?the service provides nearly 1,000 callers a month with assistance and, where necessary, referrals to any one of several hundred legal services and social services organizations. SHIELD also runs a Matrimonial Law program through which volunteers provide assistance to poor persons seeking a divorce at a time when legal services offices frequently lack the resources to provide such assistance.
In addition, the Association’s Young Lawyers Committee (Shari Fagen, Chair) supplies legal counseling to the indigent at the Association every Monday night, and one Tuesday night per month. At each session volunteer lawyers counsel—but do not undertake direct representation of—persons in need of legal advice in bankruptcy, landlord-tenant, family, employment and consumer law matters.
Legal Referrral Service
Even many persons who can afford a lawyer find the prospect of retaining one daunting. Who should one call for advice? How do you know if the lawyer is competent? Will the price be fair and affordable?
The Association’s Legal Referral Service (“LRS?, co-sponsored by the New York County Lawyers?Association, services over 110,000 New Yorkers every year. Someone needing a lawyer calls LRS, and advice is provided over the telephone without charge—indeed, two thirds of the callers receive appropriate assistance from the LRS counselors, making the retention of a lawyer unnecessary. Callers needing to retain an attorney are referred to a lawyer whom LRS has designated as qualified in the particular legal field involved. Strict requirements are maintained for the attorneys to whom referrals are given, including the maintenance of malpractice insurance, regulated initial consultation fees, and competence in the particular discipline demonstrated to the satisfaction of LRS.
LRS also conducts an ABA-honored Law Day Program, which has volunteer attorneys travel to major population centers in each borough, providing residents with free one-on-one legal assistance.
You Too Can Help
The projects listed above go to the very heart of what this Association is all about and reflect the American lawyer at his or her best. The scope of what we do should make us all proud, but not content. Our success is directly dependent on the numbers of volunteers. Recognizing how busy every one is, the Association tries to tailor its pro bono programs to maximize a volunteer’s time, and to take account of the other professional demands that must be satisfied. We can always use more help, be it to undertake a specific pro bono project, serve as a Monday Night LAW volunteer, or be a mediator. Please call (212) 382- 6629 to let us know you would like to join us in helping other New Yorkers.
With your help we can and do make a difference.