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New York Lawyers Try to Give Justice to Everyone

Giving back is important to the legal profession.

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Many students enter law school with the idealistic ambition of using their legal education to help people and change the world. After they graduate, many lawyers find that their jobs are more about transactions and contracts, and that they’re not working directly with the people they wanted to help. That’s why so many lawyers find the best way to make their altruistic dreams come true is by doing volunteer work.

At the City Bar Justice Center, more than 3,000 lawyers are involved in pro bono work—services they provide free of charge to meet the legal needs of the city’s poor, elderly, and disabled. In 2005, the last year for which data was available, volunteer lawyers in the City Bar Justice Center provided direct civil representation to 14,534 people, and they helped another 27,000 through community education and assistance with pro se claims, or cases people brought themselves. What was the dollar value of all that work you might ask? At least $9.86 million dollars.

“More and more these days—particularly since 9/11—law firms are making pro bono a huge part of their practice,” says Carol Bockner, director of Pro Bono Initiatives at the City Bar Justice Center. “Attorneys get a wonderful sense of satisfaction when they’ve made a difference in someone’s lives and they can see that one-on-one. It’s different that putting a deal together. When you’ve helped someone get political asylum and protected them from going back to a country where they were tortured—or when you’ve helped an elderly person get benefits they didn’t know they were entitled to—you give someone a second lease of life.”

With more than 21,000 members, the City Bar Justice Center, a division of The Association of the Bar of the City of New York, is the largest bar association in the city. Their volunteer lawyer programs are so varied that lawyers are able to use all of their areas of legal specialization for a greater good.

“More and more these days–particularly since 9/11–law firms are making pro bono a huge part of their practice.”
—Carol Bockner

The bar runs an Immigrant Women and Children’s Project that helps immigrants who are victims of domestic violence, but dependent on their abuser for their legal status. The program also trains law enforcement officers about issues surrounding human trafficking and the legal remedies available to its victims, and it helps refugees seeking asylum. The Family Justice Center aids low-income people with uncontested and contested divorces, as well as domestic violence and housing issues, while the Consumer Bankruptcy Project helps debt-burdened, low-income residents with legal issues surrounding their financial problems and outstanding debts. The bar also runs a Legal Clinic for the Homeless to advise on public benefits for housing and food stamps.

The Elder Law Project assists low-income and frail elderly New Yorkers maintain their independence and dignity. Lawyers also provide assistance to them by writing simple wills and preparing living wills, healthcare proxies, and powers of attorney.

The Cancer Advocacy Project gives legal information and free assistance to low-income cancer survivors and their families. Lawyers help people appeal to their insurance companies if they have been wrongly denied benefits, and they assist in claims if a person’s diagnosis has resulted in workplace discrimination.

In the Neighborhood Entrepreneur Project, lawyers help people start small businesses and advise on business issues such as tax law, employment law, commercial lease negotiations, and copyright issues.

In addition to volunteering through bar associates, many law firms run their own pro bono programs. Greenberg Traurig, a national law firm with 1,600 lawyers in 29 locations, funds the Greenberg Traurig Fellowship Foundation, which aids lawyers and law students working with public interest groups. The foundation has provided legal services to 43 nonprofit organizations, working on issues ranging from community development and disability rights to domestic violence and immigrant populations. At Blank Rome, the firm encourages all of its lawyers—as well as its paralegals—to complete at least 60 hours of pro bono services each year.

Gibbons, a top firm in the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia area, sponsors the John J. Gibbons Fellowship in Public Interest and Constitutional Law. Gibbons Fellows work in areas of public interest law, as well as constitutional projects and litigation. The program has become nationally know as a voice for the underprivileged and underrepresented.

“People come to us in states of great need, and they don’t have the resources to get help in any other way,” says Ms. Bockner of the City Bar. “Justice is the business of lawyers. Everybody should be entitled to justice, and we’re trying to help that happen.”

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