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Eighteen months after launching an innovative project aimed at helping small firm and solo practitioners survive in community-based practices, City University of New York School of Law is looking to expand the program. Community Legal Resource Network (CLRN) was started in January 1999 after Open Society Institute, a philanthropy funded by financier George Soros, awarded CUNY and three other law schools a total of $2 million for three years to bolster legal services in underserved communities. Northeastern University Law School in Boston, University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore and St. Mary’s University School of Law in San Antonio, Texas, also received funding. CUNY started with just 30 graduates in three practice areas and the program has now grown to 50 participants spread among five groups. The groups, each led by an experienced lawyer and made up of roughly 10 attorneys, meet once or twice a month, depending on the group’s needs. The attorneys trade war stories and advice about everything from collecting bills to technology to soliciting clients. Initially, the plan was to have two groups centered around practice areas such as family law and immigration, and another focused on a particular distressed neighborhood in one of the boroughs. But attracting enough lawyers from one neighborhood proved problematic, so CUNY switched gears and started a general practice group, according to Frederick P. Rooney, CLRN’s project director. The general practice idea became so popular that a year later a second section was formed, aimed at attorneys starting out in solo practice. In January, CLRN also started an employment discrimination group. “[The program] has helped build my confidence,” said M. Michel-Roache, a solo practitioner with offices in Harlem and downtown Manhattan. “I joined the program because I felt isolated,” she said. “All we have to do is attend the meetings and we can get so much for so little,” she explained. GETTING CONNECTED Among the benefits Michel-Roache said she has received are computer training, the aid of a billing specialist, a Palm Pilot and Amicus Attorney, which is a law office management and scheduling software. Both the Palm Pilot and Amicus Attorney were donated by the manufacturers. To get all participants on board technologically, CLRN staff members went to attorneys’ offices and helped install Internet and e-mail software and showed the attorneys how to use them. At CLRN’s inception, only 46 percent of members had access to the Internet, according to Rooney. Now they all use the Internet for research and e-mail to communicate with each other. “It literally dragged me into this century,” said Michel-Roache. Also, Michel-Roache and two other lawyers were able to hire one CUNY law student each this summer. Students receive $2,500 for the 10-week internship, paid through the CLRN grants. But the greatest benefit, participants claim, has been the ability to network. “When you are out on your own, it’s great to just have another person to turn to,” said Theresa Hughes, a family law practitioner in Forest Hills, Queens. “It is as if we are all a part of a medium-sized law firm,” she explained. According to Deborah Howard, law school consortium project director, whose job is to foster communication between the participating law schools, a network is crucial for solo and small firm lawyers. And, a successful network cannot be born overnight. “A network of like-minded peers is a process that takes time to build because you first have to create a community,” she said. MENTORING Soon participating attorneys will also be able to tap seasoned professionals as part of a mentoring program. Practicing attorneys and CUNY Law School professors will be available to answer questions by phone and e-mail and to meet with the lawyers in the program, according to Rooney. According to CUNY Law School Dean Kristin Booth Glen, the program “has really engaged the graduates in a way that I only dreamt would happen.” Dean Glen predicted that the project will spread to as many as 40-60 law schools in the future. “This project has the ability to change legal education,” she said. By offering support to small firms and solo practitioners, CLRN is laying the groundwork to fulfill the program’s main objective — to provide legal services to local, underserved communities. According to a 1995 American Bar Association report, 70 percent of New Yorkers lack adequate access to justice with disparities of gender, race, country of origin and income. Soros’ intention was to bring legal services to those communities. CLRN attorneys have begun offering such services. One day each week, CLRN’s immigration attorneys counsel students at Baruch College, which is part of the CUNY system. According to Rooney, many CUNY students are immigrants faced with vast legal issues, and can ill afford to hire a private attorney to answer immigration related questions. The CLRN attorneys are paid $50 per hour from Baruch student activity fees, which is part of annual tuition. According to Rooney, CLRN is in talks with other CUNY colleges to expand this program. CLRN attorneys also will offer neighborhood lectures. Beginning July 29, at the Redemption Lutheran Church in Queens Village, roughly seven attorneys will teach one class each dealing with the basics of landlord and tenant law, custody and other legal topics. Both public forums provide the opportunity for attorneys to offer free or low-cost legal advice while marketing their services. NEW FUNDING NEEDED But in order to continue this work, additional funding must be found, said Rooney. This May, CUNY received the last $100,000 from Soros’ three-year grant and $25,000 from the Sherman Foundation. According to Rooney, the law school and the consortium as a whole are just now turning their attention to locating alternative sources of funding. If foundation support is not forthcoming, CLRN will consider charging its member attorneys either annual dues or a fee for each service that the program provides.

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