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Pamela Bruzzese’s first pro bono project was typical big-firm corporate associate fare: she handled some financial matters for Partnership for the Homeless, a nonprofit organization that runs 140 shelters throughout New York City. But now Bruzzese is involved in a pro bono project much less common among first-year corporate associates like herself. She has shifted her attention from in-house corporate work for the organization to on-site case intake at Peter’s Place, a Partnership-run drop-in center for the elderly homeless in a Chelsea church. This shift marks the beginning of a new commitment by Kelley Drye & Warren to help establish a monthly legal clinic at Peter’s Place. The goal of this law firm and nonprofit collaboration is to help make the care provided at Peter’s Place as comprehensive as possible, while giving new associates a chance to do rewarding pro bono work as soon as they start practicing. According to Warren Scharf, vice president of program services and advocacy for the Partnership, bringing lawyers to the center — where clients come to get such essentials as meals, medical and psychiatric services and substance-abuse counseling — is the only way to begin to address the whole array of unmet legal needs of the elderly homeless. These legal needs involve social security and supplemental security income (SSI), medical benefits, public assistance, immigration, workfare and credit problems, he said. ON-SITE LEGAL CLINIC An on-site clinic is particularly important because those who come to Peter’s Place are “so frail and afraid they are not likely to make it to legal services in the area,” Scharf said. The clinic also helps highlight how technical and administrative casework can make for some of the most beneficial — if not the most glamorous — pro bono opportunities for new big-firm associates. After Scharf provided the Kelley Drye associates with some advice and training, Bruzzese began a fact-finding hunt on behalf of a client denied social security because of doubts about his identity — he had lost identifying documents and was unsure about his date of birth. Marci Rosenfeld, another first-year corporate associate at Kelley Drye who is volunteering at Peter’s Place, helped dig up a real estate deed to help determine whether her client’s house was stolen by a relative. Now Bruzzese and Rosenfeld have moved on to handle the cases of homeless elderly clients, one, a diabetic who does not speak English, and the other, an alcoholic and substance abuser. Both were denied social security and SSI benefits on appeal. Scharf said that the legal work Bruzzese and Rosenfeld are doing is essential to getting these clients off the streets. “The benefits are critical to making it possible for these clients to move into and hold on to permanent housing,” he said. For the associates, working at the clinic provides a chance for them to meet face to face with needy clients. Before the clinic began, Scharf and Arnold Cohen, president of the Partnership, proposed to the associates different possible projects, some of which involved research and statistical advocacy work. But the associates opted for the clinic and direct client contact. “Actually going to Peter’s Place and seeing how these clients get through the night makes you want listen and help,” Bruzzese said. BUDDY SYSTEM Especially over the last 10 years, associates at big New York City firms have taken on an increasing number of SSI and social security pro bono cases similar to those handled by Rosenfeld and Bruzzese. But the Peter’s Place project is different because it does not tax the resources of already strapped legal services organizations. Lisa Cleary, pro bono coordinator at Patterson Belknap Webb & Tyler, whose associates have taken on SSI cases from MFY Legal Services in the past, said that the buddy-system model adopted by Kelley Drye and the Partnership is efficient because it allows one group of associates at a given firm to “embrace and develop the expertise” to handle a large number of Peter’s Place cases. “It is much less efficient for lots of firms to be involved where no one knows much and needs individual training,” she said. Scharf said he hopes that the Kelley Drye collaboration will encourage other firms to pair up with the Partnership’s other projects. An added benefit of such a collaboration, Scharf said, is a constant supply of new volunteers. His goal is to train groups of Kelley Drye associates to handle Peter’s Place cases, then these seasoned volunteers will then train new law firm volunteers. A fresh group of first-year Kelley Drye recruits will be joining the program for the September clinic. In this way, Scharf hopes to make the effort “self-sustaining.” GAINING EXPERIENCE And the firm is extremely pleased with this arrangement. Partner Robert B. Adams, who coordinated the project at Kelley Drye and sits on the Partnership’s board, said he knows that “keeping new associates happy” in this age of mounting pressure to bill hours means giving them the opportunity to do meaningful pro bono work. He wants to let associates help design the program as it continues to take shape. Hopefully, he said, those who get involved right away will stay committed throughout their careers. The dual goal of the legal clinic, he said, is to help the homeless and empower associates. “The associates are getting a chance to work with real people, not just faceless corporations. They are getting client contact they wouldn’t have had otherwise.” Handling SSI and social security cases can be not only helpful and rewarding, but also excellent training. Jeffrey Trachtman, pro bono coordinator at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel, said his firm collaborates with the private, nonprofit Center for Disability and Advocacy Rights, putting junior associates to work on SSI cases at the federal appeals court level, and summer associates at the agency trial level. “These cases may not be as popular as death penalty or civil rights cases because they sound administrative and dry in concept. But in the end, many of them are the most rewarding because the clients you are dealing with have such grave problems and meritorious claims. … A given case may not seem as compelling until an associate uncovers the human story underneath,” Trachtman said.

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