Twenty-five years ago, I was sitting at my desk at a law firm, surrounded by commercial documents, wondering to myself, “What am I doing with my life?” The telephone rang. An executive recruiter was on the telephone, pursuing a familiar ploy. “Do you know anyone who might be interested in heading a non-profit organization?” “What does it do?” I asked. His response: “Poverty law.” My response: “Yes! Me!” Soon thereafter, I bade farewell to the world of commerce and became executive director of Volunteers of Legal Service.
I came to the job knowing little about legal services for the poor. I had had extensive experience with non-profit organizations, but in different fields, both as a staff member and a volunteer. As staff, I served as executive secretary of Citizens Union working on civic reform issues and at the International Institute for Environmental Affairs, where I participated in planning events for the United Nations 1972 Stockholm Conference, the first world gathering on environmental issues. As a volunteer, I served as chairman of the Correctional Association of New York which has the statutory mandate to visit and report on conditions in New York state prisons, and for13 years I was the Wednesday night driver for the Coalition for the Homeless food van.
The mission of VOLS, as I came to learn, is to develop projects to provide pro bono civil legal services to benefit poor people in New York City, and then to recruit, train and mentor volunteer lawyers to undertake the needed legal services. Forty-four law firms in the city have taken the VOLS Pro Bono Pledge. Last year, these firms reported performing a total of 1,069,727 pro bono hours—mainly providing free civil legal services to poor people in the city, or to organizations assisting the poor—through participation in the projects of public interest and legal services organizations, including VOLS projects.
I came to learn that poor people are most in need of legal assistance in the areas of housing, public benefits, immigration, family law and special education, each an essential of life relating to shelter, income, legal status, family relationships and children’s education.
I also came to learn that pro bono work provides an extraordinary opportunity for lawyers both to help those in need and to enrich our own lives. We at VOLS relish the joys and epiphanies lawyers experience in their pro bono work. Over the years I have asked our volunteer lawyers to share their experiences and impressions. Below are a few examples.
• “These families are desperate to secure their basic rights to shelter, something that obviously impacts their children’s ability to succeed in school. Some of our clients live under terrible conditions, with rodent infestation, cold air coming through broken window frames, open wires. The work we lawyers do is a valuable life lesson for us. We see the power of what a lawyer can accomplish.”
• A volunteer lawyer arranges with the landlord to make repairs and is present on a weekend to ensure that the repairs are properly carried out. “This was a great family. Very welcoming…. I learned that the father works on Fulton Street in a Chinese takeout place. To save money, everyday he bicycles from uptown Manhattan to work. Years ago, when my own family came from Pakistan to New York, we lived in a housing project in Coney Island, so I very much identify with this family.”
• A partner. “I love these cases…. To hear the relief in a client’s voice when we achieve a successful outcome is very rewarding…. When I recruit for this project, I tell lawyers at my firm, ‘Here is an opportunity for you to make a real difference in a family’s life.’”
• “There is little you do as a corporate lawyer that draws you into emotional dramas. I think these cases bring out the best of your talents and skills. I worked on a housing matter with the family of a teenage boy who was very ill. This young man held the family together—a kind, mature, loving spirit. I would meet with him at the hospital. He was going through so much with his illness and the added burden of wanting to make sure his mom and dad were taken care of. Sadly, he died…. As the father of four young children myself, working on these cases means a lot to me.”
• A lawyer working with the elderly poor. “I especially enjoy working with Russian-speaking immigrant clients. They remind me of my own grandmother back in the former Soviet Union: sweet, proud, and vulnerable at the same time. And I try to treat each one of them as if they were my relatives and make them feel a little more comfortable and cared for in this new country that they (and I) now call home.”
• A lawyer working with incarcerated mothers on child custody issues. “I’ve found my involvement with the project to be one of the most rewarding aspects of practicing law in New York. Every so often I get a call from a released mother to say thanks and to let me know that she has her kids back. That is a great call to take!”
• “I know that our presence in these correctional facilities serves as a beacon of hope for all the women incarcerated there. I cannot think of a more essential and fulfilling experience.”
• A lawyer working with AIDS patients. “My clients remind me that wealth is not limited to dollars. Compassion, fortitude, candor, optimism and humor are equally as valuable. Those are the qualities that my clients demonstrate during our meetings and they are qualities that I strive to emulate both professionally and personally.”
• “I have represented eight microentrepreneurs, largely on intellectual property issues…. Some have a great idea and are enthusiastic to start a business, others have been laid off and are looking for a source of income. With start ups, the sense of enthusiasm is contagious. For existing businesses, it is exciting to help take them to the next level….”
• “Most people who come to us have lost their employment and sole source of income through no fault of their own. They are truly downtrodden. I knew I wanted to continue doing this work after I called one of my first clients to inform him we had won our case. My client was overcome with emotion as it had been a huge struggle for him just to get the fare to take the subway to the hearing. When he told me, ‘You are the best thing to ever happen to me,’ I knew that I had made a real difference in another person’s life.”
For the past quarter century, I have had the good fortune to work on legal matters which I deem to be of the highest importance; to work with lawyers who strive to fulfill the Biblical injunction in Deuteronomy, “Justice, justice shall ye pursue all the days of your life.” The work has been life-transforming: For the clients and for their pro bono lawyers. And for me.