New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announces Friday that Legal Aid attorney-in-chief Steven Banks will be his human resources commissioner.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announces Friday that Legal Aid attorney-in-chief Steven Banks will be his human resources commissioner. (Ed Reed for the Office of Mayor Bill de Blasio)

Steven Banks, who has been attorney-in-chief of the New York City Legal Aid Society since 2004, was named commissioner of the city’s Human Resources Administration by Mayor Bill de Blasio on Friday.

Banks said he has “waited my entire life” to find a mayor whose attitudes toward low-income New Yorkers are in line with his own.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime to work under a mayor who has the values that I share and the values that are going to make a real difference for the clients that I have represented for so many years,” Banks said at a City Hall news conference (See Video and Transcript).

A new leader for the Legal Aid Society was not immediately appointed Friday. Chairman Richard Davis said Banks is not leaving the agency until the end of March and that the group will have sufficient time to choose a replacement.

“We have a strong bench behind him,” Davis said.

Banks said one of his goals at HRA will be to make sure the agency treats clients with dignity.

“We’ve got to look at each policy and procedure to see whether or not people are treated fairly,” he said. “The word ‘human’ is in the title of the agency, the Human Resources Administration. We have to make sure that people are treated as human beings.”

He said HRA is on the “front lines” of numerous social issues, including preventing homelessness, ensuring low-income residents receive food and housing assistance and helping people with HIV and AIDS.

For his part, de Blasio said he has long watched as Banks has been “fighting for what he believes is right” at the Legal Aid Society.

“I believe he has been a voice for the voicelessness, and a lot of times he challenged government policies that didn’t make a lot of sense,” the mayor said. “He was an important part of the check-and-balance system in this city.”

While city officials and office holders have often not welcomed Banks’ criticism of their job performances, de Blasio said they have always respected Banks’ integrity and intelligence.

The Democratic mayor added, “I knew his heart, and I think he had a vision for HRA that was really compelling as to how it can contribute to the overall fight against inequality in the city.”

Banks and de Blasio were once direct political adversaries. De Blasio defeated Banks in a race for a Brooklyn City Council seat in 2001, though de Blasio said Friday that the debates between the candidates that year “were high-minded and always respectful.”

De Blasio also praised the administrative abilities that Banks displayed at the Legal Aid Society.

Banks is generally credited with helping the Legal Aid Society regain financial footing from 2003 and 2004, when the organization faced a projected shortfall of $22 million on annual revenues of $143 million.

The group’s fiscal woes stemmed from the decision to construct a new building in Harlem, costs related to relocating its Church Street offices after the 9/11 attacks on the nearby World Trade Center towers, and higher-than-expected pension costs.

The group, which was also forced to vacate its headquarters at 199 Water St. in Manhattan by Superstorm Sandy, stabilized its finances with an infusion of aid from New York City, by cutting personnel costs and with prudent stewardship of its finances.

“He brought stability to the organization,” Seymour James Jr., the attorney in charge of the society’s criminal practice, said of Banks. “It’s in a strong position financially. Prior to him taking charge we had a large deficit, and once that was resolved we had a balanced budget every year. He was very careful about making sure we didn’t overspend.”

However, Seymour said Banks immediately recognized when taking over in 2004 that the Legal Aid Society did not have enough supervisors and put more into the group’s various practices.

The Legal Aid Society currently has a staff of 1,450, about 1,000 of whom are lawyers. The group handles about 300,000 matters for clients each year.

The 138-year-old group is reputed to be the largest supplier of legal services to the indigent in the United States.

Banks, Chairman Richard Davis, President Blaine Fogg and the organization’s senior staffed planned to meet on Monday to discuss the transition to a new attorney-in-chief, according to society spokeswoman Patricia Bath.

Davis, a solo practitioner since leaving Weil, Gotshal & Manges, said it was understood that Banks might be lost to the new de Blasio administration.

“I’m not shocked he got a city appointment,” Davis said.

He said Banks has been a “superb chief executive of the Legal Aid Society and I think he’ll do a terrific job at whatever he does.”

“He will be missed, no question,” Davis said.

Fogg, who is of counsel at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said he would look for the group’s next attorney-in-chief to be “someone who is a good leader, good lawyer, good with dealing with elected and appointed officials both in the city and state,” and working with labor unions.

“It’s a big job,” he said.

Fogg said it was not clear whether the Legal Aid board will opt to name an interim or acting chief before Banks’ permanent replacement is chosen.

The appointment also didn’t surprise Alan Levine, a Cooley partner and a former chairman of the board at Legal Aid.

“Steven Banks is one of the most capable public lawyers in the city right now,” he said. “It’s not a surprise that a new progressive administration would look to find a role for him.”

Levine said Banks “took control” at a financially perilous time for the Legal Aid Society.

“He re-energized the board, and I think he established superb relations with the political constituencies,” Levine said Friday.

Banks also developed a great working relationship with the administrators of the state court system and with city officials, Levine said.

“It’s a big loss,” he said.

In interviews Friday, Legal Aid attorneys praised Banks as accessible, hard-working and knowledgeable of the issues that rank-and-file attorneys had to deal with each day.

‘One of Us’

Stephen Pokart, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society’s Manhattan criminal defense practice who has worked at the organization for almost 40 years, said, “We will miss him badly, and I’m sure that Mr. de Blasio made a terrific pick for commissioner.”

Looking back on Banks’ time as the organization’s top attorney, Pokart said he “was one of us” and repeating the phrase several times as he discussed Banks’ work.

“He knew what the battlefield was that we live in,” he noted.

Pokart said Banks’ departure, which he announced to staff in a late-morning email, came as a surprise. “None of us had any idea this would happen. There were no rumors flying,” he said.

Looking ahead to Banks’ replacement, Pokart said he wanted the organization’s leadership to pick someone who understood the agency and its clients, not a “corporate type” who wants “to do good deeds” but doesn’t know what the problems are.

Dawn Ryan, attorney in charge of the organization’s criminal defense practice in Brooklyn, called Banks a “visionary attorney-in-chief, a zealous advocate for our clients and an impressive leader.”

She said she was “very sad” the organization was losing him, but “very happy for the opportunity presented to Steve. I believe he’ll do a wonderful job.”

She said that on many occasions she was “able to email [Banks] at one in the morning and he would respond within minutes. There was never a matter too small for him to discuss.”

Deborah Wright, president of the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, UAW Local 2325, whose membership includes approximately 1,000 Legal Aid lawyers, said she spoke for members when saying Banks would be missed.

Still, she added, “This appointment really speaks to who he is and what he has devoted his entire career to.”

Wright said Banks remained accessible to Legal Aid attorneys, despite the immense law office he headed.

Daniel Greenberg, Banks’ predecessor as the organization’s top attorney, said Banks has dedicated his professional career to protecting the rights of poor people.

“People who know him only as somebody who sues government don’t really understand that he uses the law as a tool to make people’s lives better, but he’s always been open to discussions and negotiations,” said Greenberg, a special counsel at Schulte Roth & Zabel.

Dedicated Advocate

Among the Legal Aid’s most notable cases under Banks’ watch was the 2008 settlement it reached with the Bloomberg administration in McCain v. Bloomberg. It ended 25 years of litigation with the recognition that homeless people with children have the right to decent shelter from the city.

Michael Cardozo, who was Corporation Counsel under Michael Bloomberg, said Friday that while he had his share of differences with Banks, they also worked together.

He cited McCain as a high point of their working relationship.

During the recession, Cardozo said, Bloomberg’s office and the corporation counsel led an effort to get volunteer lawyers to help fill the gaps in representation.

“Legal Aid is a terrific organization and he’s done a terrific job of leading it,” Cardozo said.

James and Wright, the union leader, both said the Banks’ most important accomplishment was successfully pushing for legislation which began to impose case load caps on attorneys for indigent criminal attorneys in 2010.

“That enabled Legal Aid to increase staffing and reduce unreasonably large criminal case loads,” James said.

Banks has worked closely with the Unified Court System on a number of initiatives and projects.

He was a member of committees appointed by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to study increasing the use of non-lawyers to help low-income New Yorkers navigate the court system and to increase the amount of pro bono hours lawyers should aspire to contribute each year from 20 to 50.

The chief judge said in a statement released by his office Friday that Banks has worked “tirelessly to protect the rights of some of our most vulnerable residents.”

“Steve is a dynamic leader who has devoted his career to advocating on behalf of the poor and underserved,” Lippman said. “I have no doubt that he will continue in his new role to make a tremendous impact to improve the lives of needy New Yorkers.”

Banks, a New York University School of Law graduate, has been with the Legal Aid Society for 33 years.

He began his career as a staff attorney in Legal Aid’s Staten Island neighborhood office and later became coordinating attorney for the organization’s Homeless Rights Project, director of government relations for the civil practice, associate attorney-in-chief, deputy attorney-in-charge of the civil practice and associate attorney-in-chief.

He lives in the Windsor Terrace neighborhood of Brooklyn.

Also at his news conference Friday, de Blasio introduced Nisha Agarwal as his administration’s commissioner of immigrant affairs.

Agarwal, a Harvard Law School graduate, recently established the Immigrant Justice Corps, a nonprofit that pairs recent law school graduates with legal services providers to represent immigrants who are living in the country illegally.

De Blasio said Agarwal will oversee his administration’s agenda for immigrants, including establishing a municipal ID for the city’s 500,000 residents who do not have legal permission to live in the U.S.