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November 22, 2017

A Decades-Old Call to Pro Bono
by Samuel Newhouse (sam@brooklyneagle.net), published online 06-20-2011
 
How the Volunteer Lawyers Project Began in Brooklyn

By Samuel Newhouse
Brooklyn Daily Eagle

REMSEN STREET — Pro bono service is relatively strong in Brooklyn thanks to programs like the Volunteer Lawyers Project, but a group of young lawyers faced an uphill battle when it was first getting started.

Tuesday night, the Brooklyn Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP), a crown jewel of the Brooklyn Bar Association, will be celebrated by the local legal community at its 21st Anniversary Annual Gala.

Well known around Brooklyn is how attorneys and law students fill up VLP clinics designed to meet the needs of struggling litigants entangled in the high-volume caseloads of the Brooklyn courts. This sometimes included urgent and unexpected causes, such as handling Haitian immigration issues in the wake of last year’s earthquake.

But what is less well known is how the program was birthed two decades ago on Remsen Street in the office of Brooklyn Bar Association Executive Director Avery Eli Okin. Okin and Marty Needelman, project director at Brooklyn Legal Services Corporation A, which is another pro bono legal service for indigent ligants, came up with the concept for the VLP one summer night in 1990.

Okin and Needelman spread out paperwork on a conference table for a few hours and drew up a grant request to start a volunteer network linking needy clients with local attorneys.

From that moment came Brooklyn successes like CLARO (Civil Legal Assistance and Resources Office), a program that has since been duplicated in courts across the city. And in the midst of the housing crisis, they designed the Foreclosure Intervention Project, which now takes on an estimated 50 percent of the foreclosure cases coming out of Kings County Supreme Court.

But in the beginning, there was doubt about whether such a project was feasible, as well as some resistance to making the Brooklyn Bar Association the first city bar association to start such an expansive pro bono group.

“It was uncertain in the early stages … [but now] there is absolutely no one I’m aware of that would espouse that this was not a good idea,” said James P. Slattery, president of the VLP’s board of directors and until his recent retirement, senior partner with Cullen & Dykman.

Okin and Needelman originally got the ball rolling in response to a call from the Court of Appeals in Albany that had resonated throughout the legal community in New York state.

Then-Chief Judge of the New York Court of Appeals, Hon. Sol Wachtler, had issued lawyers an ultimatum earlier that year: devote more time to pro bono or face a mandatory pro bono requirement of 40 hours per two years.

Wachtler’s ultimatum was based on findings by a commission, led by current Manhattan federal court Judge Victor Marrero, that less than half of the state’s lawyers were doing pro bono work, and that only about 14 percent of the legal needs of the poor were being met. Cuts to the national Legal Services Corporation by the Reagan administration were also part of a growing problem that Wachtler said members of the bar should step up to handle.

“While mandatory service is not the ideal answer,” Judge Wachtler stated at a 1990 American Bar Association Pro Bono Conference in Snowbird, Utah, “insufficient service is no answer.”

But some lawyers were a bit suspicious of the chief judge’s push for more pro bono work. The attitude of some older attorneys was, ‘If you go to your dentist, do you ask them to give you a root canal for free?’” Others thought that enough pro bono work was already being done, and that to enforce or formalize it would be an unseemly insult to the legal profession.

“The people had not yet come forward,” Needelman said of the early days.

100s of Index Cards, 1,000s of Cases

Terri Letica was 28 years old and living in Park Slope when she got involved with the VLP. She was three years out of University of Maryland law school and looking for a position in public service. So, she approached Okin at the Brooklyn Bar Association (BBA) and asked if there was anything she could do.

“Well, we have this stack of surveys here,” Letica, now a VLP board member, recalled Okin telling her. Coincidentally, the BBA had just gotten back surveys sent to its more than 2,000 members inquiring about their interest in pro bono work, as one of the first steps toward starting the VLP. Letica took the several hundred surveys home and converted the information into an index-card database on her kitchen table.

After many hours of sorting, she ended up with names of many attorneys who were interested and about 50 of whom were ready to volunteer at a moment’s notice. These lawyers got the first cases ever handled by the VLP. They were overflow from South Brooklyn Legal Services on Court Street, led by Project Director Chip Gray, and Needelman’s Brooklyn A office in Williamsburg, which are both part of Legal Services NYC and the federal Legal Services Corporation.

“We basically had cases waiting for us as soon as we started,” Letica said.

Ellen Mishkin, the first executive director of the VLP and currently law clerk to Brooklyn Supreme Court Justice Gustin Reichbach, said Gray and Needelman’s offices had the “person power” to train volunteers, provide training materials and screen clients for eligibility for the VLP, which all eased the process.

Since then, the VLP has quadrupled its budget and staff and now can handle its own training and intake in-house.

“The way it works is that anyone who calls us, no matter what their area of need is, someone talks to them on the phone, hopefully immediately. If not, they call them back,” said current VLP Executive Director Jeannie Costello, who has led the project for six years.

Costello also mentioned the VLP’s recent accreditation as a CLE-course (Continuing Legal Education) provider in June 2009.

“We can do all of our own training; we don’t have to charge for them,” Costello said. (Most attorneys take pro bono referrals in lieu of paying for VLP CLE courses). “That’s a wonderful gift to the legal profession; it’s also a way we make certain that people who are going to work with clients have a way to reach out to a mentor or a supervisor.”

Not bad for a one-room office, located in Brooklyn Heights. But overall, the number of volunteer attorneys hasn’t changed very much over the years; the average number fluctuates at around 500 attorneys.

“I think that’s probably about the magic number in Brooklyn, to tell you the truth,” Mishkin said. “Some come in, some go out, some become judges, some become other things, some leave. It’s mostly a place, I think, for new lawyers to gain some new skills — working with clients, interviewing them, representing them.”

Brooklyn (Bar Association) Volunteer Lawyers Project

On July 14, 1992, the VLP was incorporated as a 501(c )(3) nonprofit organization, with its own board of directors and staff, and a mission “to ensure that the legal system is accessible to those who, because of special needs or the overwhelming burdens of poverty, would not otherwise have their rights protected or their voices heard.”

“They change lives for the better,” said BBA immediate past-President Andrea E. Bonina, who has for years been a supporter and dedicated fundraiser for the VLP.

“The VLP recognizes that the true measure of success is the positive impact you have on others,” Bonina said. “What continues to amaze and inspire me is the altruistic way that the volunteers and employees at the VLP approach the legal problems facing Brooklyn’s indigent population.”

Some confusion exists over the relationship between the BBA and VLP, which Bonina characterized as “mutually beneficial.” The VLP’s full name on its founding documents is the “Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project” — but that’s somewhat of a misnomer.

The BBA provides free office space to the VLP on the second floor of its Remsen Street headquarters. But for the most part, the groups have operated separately since 1991, when the VLP broke off from its progenitor, the BBA’s Pro Bono Committee and hired two staffers with the foundational grant of $120,000 from the IOLA (Interest on Lawyers Accounts) Fund that Okin and Needelman had sought on that fateful day in Okin’s office.

The VLP was officially incorporated as an independent organization in 1992 for fundraising purposes, after the following year’s grant from IOLA was reduced in half to $60,000.

Stalwarts like Letica, who recalled the early days of fundraising for the VLP as a “trial by fire,” have spent countless hours keeping the project funded. Letica was president of the VLP’s board of directors for several years and said she had a double life as stay-at-home mom and full-time volunteer.

“We’ve had very difficult years, times when we thought that we’d have to close the project,” Letica said. “Brooklyn has such an enormous indigent population that the need is always pressing. It doesn’t go away, it just grows. In terms of having clients find us more and more, the need just became more pressing to keep it open.”

Chainmail Fist in Velvet Glove

The initial call or threat that pro bono could be made mandatory by former Chief Judge Wachtler was a controversial one, but it seems that with a little pressure, lawyers were able to come up with creative solutions to funding and service shortfalls that were more successful than anyone could have imagined.

“Nothing clarifies the mind like the sight of the gallows,” Wachtler, now a professor of constitutional law at Touro Law Center, told the Eagle. “Our present chief judge [Jonathan Lippman] is also very concerned with increasing pro bono services. There is always that mail fist in a velvet glove; there always could be mandatory pro bono service.”

Although Chief Judge Lippman has advocated for budgeting court funds towards legal services rather than support the notion of mandatory pro bono, it is the bar that has avoided such a strict decree.

What came out of Judge Wachtler’s call was that mandated service was never needed, because “the bar responded magnificently,” Wachtler said.

“Attorneys jumped up and into the void there. They don’t want more requirements imposed on them,” as Mishkin put it. “The call itself, in terms of people who believe in pro bono — it was certainly important for me to hear it from the chief judge.”

Wachtler acknowledged that the “pendulum swing” of the economy has again led to drops in funding for legal services and pro bono groups in 2011, but predicted that the situation will improve.

He also credited a “large infusion of talent” from schools like Brooklyn Law School, who can regularly send students to the VLP and other pro bono clinics thanks to legislation passed during his tenure that allows supervised law students to provide legal advice and practice law.

“Getting a law student under close supervision is better than someone being unrepresented,” he said.

And Justice For All

Part of the VLP’s success, some sources said, was the support of Legal Services NYC offices in Brooklyn. Directors Gray and Needelman are still at their posts and serve on the VLP’s board of directors. But Needelman credits the “extraordinary group of private lawyers who were killer lawyers … who were really magnanimous, and really dedicated to this kind of work.”

After all, Brooklyn lawyers usually work at small firms and don’t have the same resources to coordinate pro bono efforts that the large firms in Manhattan may have.

“When attorneys in Brooklyn are donating their time, it is often a real sacrifice for them to do so,” Letica said. “You’d be amazed at some of these volunteers. We have volunteers that get involved and sometimes spend 100 hours on a case.”

“Those guys just do amazing, amazing work for the clients,” Mishkin said. “It was always wonderful to see the incredible outcomes, the conviction that they were doing the right thing and they were going to work on it until they got the result they desired.”

Still, the project’s growth to its current level has a hint of that old Brooklyn magic.

“Emotionally, lawyers do have a public interest mentality, believe it or not, as far as this whole ‘justice for all’ thing in their heads,” Needelman said. “The time was ripe. Sometimes things just fall into place at the right time.”

To volunteer as an attorney or to contact the VLP about a legal issue, call (718) 624-3894 or go to brooklynvlp.org.

* * *

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