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History of the City Bar Justice Center

Pro bono work at the City Bar spans over four decades, as successive presidents have provided leadership in stressing the special obligation of the profession, as guardians of the legal system, to ensure access to justice for all. Indeed, the very first organizations dedicated to pro bono work came out of the City Bar.

In the 1980s, the City Bar's interest and commitment to pro bono work accelerated, putting in motion the organizations and events that would eventually lead to the formation of the City Bar Justice Center. The first project, the Community Outreach Law Program (COLP) provided legal information, referral services and direct representation to the city's homeless. Through the early 1990's COLP expanded to include such projects as Monday Night Law, Domestic Violence Summer Associates, AIDS Counseling, Hostos Center for Women's and Immigrants' Rights, as well as bankruptcy, homeless, cancer and elder law projects. By 1993, more than 100 summer associates were volunteering in COLP programs. As it won several awards, COLP became a model for bar association legal clinics across the nation seeking to aid urban communities with pro bono legal services.

While the COLP pilot was successful in showing that pro bono counsel was effective in emerging issues such as homelessness and immigration, the City Bar Fund wanted to create a program that would serve a larger percentage of low-income New Yorkers in need of legal services. Thus, in 1997, the Self-Help Information, Education and Legal Defense (SHIELD) Hotline was formed. The Hotline was meant to function as a low-income parallel to the City Bar's Legal Referral Service.

Still, it was not until the tragic events of September 11, 2001 that the City Bar Fund was able to prove it could successfully fill New York's need for a centralized means of mobilizing mass pro bono response within the city's legal profession and deliver direct services. The urgent challenge and diverse scope of legal problems that 9/11 presented meant that the City Bar had to reevaluate the pro bono model that tended to specialize in a single issue and forge a new, coordinated mass legal response model. No part of the low-income civil justice sector in New York City had ever experienced such a large-scale mobilizing of volunteer resources. In its coordinated relief effort, the City Bar trained approximately 3,000 attorneys, developed a "facilitator model" to identify all of a client's legal needs and match them with an appropriate attorney, provided a three-hour facilitator course to over 800 attorneys and served more than 4,000 New Yorkers affected by 9/11 through pro bono representation. It was the City Bar Fund's enormous disaster relief response to 9/11 that allowed the Fund's two overarching pro bono programs at the time, COLP and SHIELD, to merge into the Justice Center we know today.

In 2005, the City Bar Fund changed its name to the City Bar Justice Center, clarifying the driving force behind the Center's efforts. This change in name was coupled with two substantive changes in work and policy. First, the Center became a central meeting place for members of the legal community to enhance each other's efforts. This change ensured that the unified response from the legal community in 2001 would continue. Second, the Justice Center recognized and took the opportunity to capitalize on its relationships with the City Bar committees and Legislative Affairs Department in order to help shape public policy that would benefit low-income New Yorkers.

Today, the City Bar Justice Center has grown to 30 fulltime staff members, including more than 20 attorneys. The Center's projects are organized into three areas: Economic Justice, Immigrant Justice and Family Justice, complemented by a high-volume legal hotline and a pro bono program development clearinghouse. The Justice Center continues to adapt dynamically to the city's evolving legal landscape, evidenced by the recent creation of a Foreclosure Project in the face of the nationwide mortgage crisis. Such challenges become opportunities for lawyers to expand their experience and give back to the community. In this way, pro bono work at the Justice Center often transforms the lives of both our clients and our attorneys.