The Need and the Response – Samuel W. Seymour

Samuel W. Seymour

President’s Column, October 2011

Like many organizations across the country, our City Bar Justice Center, the pro bono affiliate of the New York City Bar Association, is observing National Pro Bono Week during the last week of October.

Here in New York, and across the country, the pro bono need is evident in the numbers, which are alarming. One in five New Yorkers, including one out of three children, are now living below the poverty line. Nationally, the U.S. poverty rate has increased to 14.3%, the highest in 15 years.

As disturbing as these statistics are, they are not surprising to our staff at the Justice Center, where consumer debt-related matters, including bankruptcy and foreclosure, have for the first time topped its case mix. Among the nearly thousand calls a month fielded by our Legal Hotline, housing issues are a close second, while a great many of the remaining calls relate to long-term unemployment issues, including all forms of government benefits (e.g., veterans benefits and COBRA expirations), and job discrimination.

What this means is that there’s never been a more important time to support the Justice Center’s work, by donating or volunteering. Our projects on consumer bankruptcy, foreclosure, and homelessness work to provide relief to clients without the means to help themselves. And our Neighborhood Entrepreneur Law Project (NELP) helps individuals start and sustain their own small businesses.

No less relevant, as a glance at the headlines will attest, are the Justice Center’s Immigrant Justice projects. This year, the Justice Center marks the 15th Anniversary of its Immigrant Women and Children Project. In the last three years alone, the Project has recruited and trained 28 firms and corporations, assigned 140 cases to volunteer attorneys, and filed over 600 applications for immigration relief. Our renowned Refugee Assistance Project handles cases from around the world, and the Varick Removal Defense Project addresses the growing crisis in lack of counsel for detained immigrants.

The Justice Center’s model of using our highly experienced staff to train volunteer lawyers enables us to scale up to handle a high volume of cases. For the last two years, the Justice Center has closed over 10,000 cases. Including the Legal Hotline, clinics and other outreach, the Justice Center helps over 20,000 people a year. That’s a lot of lives improved and a lot of families stabilized. In many cases, it’s lives saved.

Pro bono work allows lawyers to serve the public interest, act on their values, sharpen their skills, and broaden their network. Some lawyers embrace new areas of the law, while others prefer to apply their transactional skills on projects like NELP or in End-of-Life Planning through our Cancer Advocacy or Elderlaw projects. Often, in-house and outside counsel enjoy working together on pro bono projects.

To mark National Pro Bono Week, the Justice Center’s Jeremy G. Epstein Awards honor outstanding volunteer attorneys in each of the Justice Center’s projects. I am delighted to congratulate this year’s awardees: Kristopher Brown and Sean Porter of Dechert LLP; Rene Kathawala of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP; William Lang of Nixon Peabody LLP; Aviania Iliadis of Latham & Watkins LLP; Hugh Hill of Hogan Lovells LLP; Ben Kusmin of Cooley LLP; Natalie Shimmel Drucker of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP and Goldman Sachs; Jae Kim of Weil Gotshal & Manges LLP; Rich Bernardo of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom LLP & Affiliates; Vasilios Angelos; and Dede Kessler.