Pro Bono Pioneers
Third-year law student Joseph Schofield finished his coursework at CUNY School of Law in December and took the New York State Bar exam in February. He came to NYLAG on March 2nd to devote his final semester to working full time as a New York State Pro Bono Scholar. Three days later, he was shadowing an attorney in Queens Housing Court, observing as she explained NYLAG’s retainer agreement to a client, negotiated with opposing counsel, and made arguments to judges. By his second week, Joseph was conducting client intakes, advising clients after consultation with a supervisor, obtaining court documents, and requesting documents from various state agencies. But that first visit to Housing Court remains vivid:
“From the moment you arrive, there is a distinct impression that people are being pushed along in the machine of a deeply impersonal bureaucracy. It was the day of one of our last big snow storms. People were waiting outside as the snow fell, then waiting again to get through security where they had to remove their belts and jackets and weren’t allowed to bring in food or water. Their next task was to wait as long as an hour or more for a landlord’s attorney to call their name and begin negotiations. Too often in Housing Court, things happen only at the mercy of the landlord attorney. It is such a privilege to be able to help level that playing field.”
Joseph is one of 13 law students who have made the choice to devote their last semester of study to pro bono service at NYLAG through the State’s Pro Bono Scholars Program, the brainchild of NY State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who launched the program last year. They come from five law schools: CUNY, Fordham, Cornell, St. John’s, and Hofstra. All of them, and the scores of other scholars working at legal service agencies and law firms across the State, have one thing in common — they are pro bono pioneers. They have chosen a different path to becoming a lawyer, one that will get them there more quickly, with more practical lawyering experience, and a deeper understanding of the role pro bono work plays in closing the justice gap.
In addition to housing law, Pro Bono Scholars are working with NYLAG attorneys in the areas of immigration, special education, public benefits, elder law and consumer protection. Each area’s project is structured differently to accommodate the interests of individual students, the preferences of law schools, and the areas of greatest need for expanded resources within NYLAG.
The CUNY program is focused on housing, and because housing law is not always predictable, Ann Cammett, a professor at CUNY, and NYLAG’s Associate Director, Housing Law, Kamilla Sjödin, designed it to be flexible. NYLAG’s four CUNY scholars are supervised by housing attorneys, yet have a degree of flexibility in the work that they do, and manage their own schedules. They understand that they need to be able to respond quickly and reprioritize in order to assist clients who have been locked out, or face imminent eviction or another crisis situation.
According to Sjödin, “While structure and training is important, we wanted students to have their own cases, and have their own clients right away. We support them, but ultimately, jumping in right away is the best way to teach them how to be lawyers. What I hadn’t expected is how their presence has reinvigorated our staff. Their excitement and dedication is contagious.”
NYLAG’s partnership with Fordham Law evolved somewhat differently. Marcella Silverman, Clinical Associate Professor of Law at Fordham, who teaches a Consumer Litigation Clinic and actively practices consumer law, approached Daphne Schlick, Associate Director of NYLAG’s Consumer Protection Project, about setting up a pro bono clinic.
“Marcella is an active consumer law attorney who has deep hands-on experience supervising students who participate in Fordham’s Consumer Litigation Clinic, so this was just such a natural fit for us. Together we have designed a program that balances real-world and academic learning,” says Schlick. “NYLAG’s consumer protection attorneys and the pro bono scholars, working closely with Marcella, have forged a true partnership that is giving our scholars the opportunity to gain practical legal experience and bring legal services to more New Yorkers. We are thrilled to have them and impressed by their commitment.”
There are many synergies: Students in Fordham’s Consumer Litigation Clinic work with legal services and private attorneys to enforce the rights of low-income consumers against merchants, lenders, assignees, and credit reporting agencies. NYLAG’s consumer protection attorneys leverage the support of law students and other volunteers to fight a wide range of consumer fraud, including predatory lending, illegal debt collection practices, and identity theft. The added support of the Pro Bono Scholars means NYLAG staff can take on more cases and litigate cases for which they may have otherwise only been able to provide advice.
“This partnership between Fordham Law School’s Consumer Litigation Clinic and NYLAG is an important and valuable one,” says Professor Silverman. “Educationally, it immerses these full-time Clinic students in a rich range of practice areas and settings, and allows them to work with and learn from a team of clinical faculty and practicing legal services lawyers. In turn, these students contribute their professional training, talent, skill and passion to serve low-income people, and enable both the Clinic and NYLAG to expand their delivery of legal services to protect consumers’ rights.”
New York State leads the way in developing cutting edge initiatives that can improve the delivery of justice for everyone, but especially for the poor and most vulnerable. The Pro Bono Scholars program is just the latest innovation – one that NYLAG is proud to be a part of.
Complete list of NYLAG’s Pro Bono Scholars
Melissa Brumer, Fordham University School of Law, Consumer Protection
Michael Connors, CUNY School of Law, Housing
Scott Davidson, Cornell Law School, Special Education
Austen Ishii, Fordham University School of Law, Consumer Protection
Steven Lee, Hofstra University School of Law, Immigration
Philip Mercadante, Cornell Law School, Elder Law
Sharone Miodovsky, CUNY School of Law, Housing
Grace Nam, Fordham University School of Law, Consumer Protection
Alin Onefater, Fordham University School of Law, Consumer Protection
Walsy Saez, Fordham University School of Law, Consumer Protection
Philippo Salvio, CUNY School of Law, Housing Project
Joseph Schofield, CUNY School of Law, Housing Project
Robert Stanton, St. John’s University School of Law, Public Benefits