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Yisroel Schulman finished his first year at New York’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in 1984 utterly disenchanted with his future profession. Exasperated by the abstract nature of his classes and uncomfortable with the idea of working in a law firm, he found himself thinking seriously of dropping out. “I wanted to get into the law to help people,” he recalled recently of that time. “The first year of law school was so theoretical that I couldn’t see the relationship between the law and helping people.” But that summer, when Schulman heard about Cardozo’s Bet Tzedek Legal Services Clinic, in which students represent indigent elderly and disabled clients, his thoughts of quitting law school evaporated. Accepted into Bet Tzedek for his second year, Schulman helped bring a successful Article 78 challenge to the government’s denial of Medicaid-funded home care for a disabled child with a rare disease. “That was my first taste of the true good that the law can do and how important access to civil legal services are for the poor and other disenfranchised populations,” Schulman said. “And it felt good.” Now 37, Schulman has for 10 years been the executive director of New York Legal Assistance Group, the privately-funded non-profit that is a spiritual descendant of the Bet Tzedek clinic. From shoestring beginnings, NYLAG has grown into a 30-lawyer organization with a $5 million budget that is active in family law matters, advocacy for the disabled and class action litigation. “I think it’s a very special unsung organization,” said Abby S. Milstein, a partner at Constantine & Partners who is a member of NYLAG’s board of directors. “It does a tremendous amount of really important work.” Schulman, who is the son of an Air Force pilot, began taking college classes at age 15 after a peripatetic childhood that included stints in Maine, Puerto Rico, Nebraska and Florida. He graduated with honors from Emory University, writing his thesis on the origins and strategies of public interest organizations. Entering Cardozo as a 20-year-old in 1983, Schulman struggled through a frustrating first year. But he was energized by his subsequent participation in Bet Tzedek, so much so that he returned to Cardozo soon after graduation as an adjunct professor and supervising attorney at the clinic. When he was made a full-time member of the faculty a year later, Schulman was rumored to be the youngest law professor in the nation. At Cardozo, Schulman and fellow professor Kathryn O. Greenberg, a former trusts and estates lawyer at Shea & Gould, began developing the relatively novel concept of a privately funded legal services provider that would serve much the same constituency as Bet Tzedek. The idea was to create an organization that would be more streamlined and more flexible than the typical legal non-profit by virtue of accepting only private funds. Schulman remembered his first fundraising effort for the venture as a disaster in which he sent out hundreds of letters to foundations and got nothing back but negative replies. But when Greenberg secured a $35,000 start-up grant from the Brookdale Foundation, the two professors decided optimistically to leave Cardozo and start NYLAG. The organization — Schulman, Greenberg (who is still NYLAG’s president) and a secretary — was born in July 1990 in a small office in the Lincoln Building opposite Grand Central Terminal in New York city, a site they chose because the building included a law library. Since then, NYLAG has grown in size by about 35 percent a year. It now occupies one floor of a building near Bloomingdale’s on the East Side of New York, with about 30 full-time attorneys and roughly 50 volunteer attorneys, paralegals and students at any given time. The group also has informal intake centers for clients in the offices of social services providers in the five New York boroughs and Long Island. NYLAG began by serving clients referred by Jewish social services groups, which continues to be the case. Schulman estimated that about 60 percent of referrals come from Jewish organizations such as the Metropolitan Coordinating Council on Jewish Poverty (although the individual clients reflect a wide variety of backgrounds). But Schulman, an Orthodox Jew who wears a long black beard, said that NYLAG also has relationships with groups like Catholic Charities and the Lutheran Community Center. “People sometimes get a kick out of that given my physical appearance,” he said with a laugh. WELFARE REFORM EFFORTS In the courtroom, NYLAG has brought class actions challenging, among other things, New York City’s evaluation process for neglected children and the City’s withholding of benefits to legal immigrants. Just this week, NYLAG attorneys got the news that Southern District Judge William Pauley III had refused to lift an injunction that bars the City from creating job centers as a part of its welfare reform efforts. NYLAG is co-counsel with the Legal Aid Society and two other groups on behalf of the class of plaintiffs that challenged the job centers. The organization’s offices are a youthful place, with two on-site clinics that allow law students to get intensive litigation experience. One NYLAG project uses law students to help Holocaust survivors apply for restitution and compensation programs. Through a novel program with Hunter College High School, even high school students have at times argued in hearings for NYLAG, with court permission and attorney supervision. “Fortunately, no one has ever said to me, ‘You’re too young to be the director of the New York Legal Assistance Group,’ ” Schulman said. “ And as a result, my philosophy is to give students whatever they can handle.” NYLAG’s current budget includes more than $2 million in private funding, plus $2.4 million in in-kind contributions like the donated time of volunteer lawyers, paralegals and staff. In the public service spirit of thrift, NYLAG’s law library came used from a law firm, and its bookshelves came in a donation from the Door Store. Schulman suggested that foundations and donors give to NYLAG because they like the leanness of the operation and the emphasis on volunteers. “They know we watch our pennies,” he said. “All our money goes into services.” Honored last month with the Attorney General’s Award by New York Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer for his work on behalf of the elderly and indigent, Schulman still maintains a caseload of about 60 matters. “I’m very hands-on,” he said. “The only way to really know what’s going on is to do cases.” Schulman, who studies Torah for a couple hours each day, also sees his work in a religious context. “I clearly consider all of my work to be consistent with what I’ve learned in my Judaic studies, which is the concept of tikkun olam — repairing the world,” he said. “That’s basically the goal of everything we do at NYLAG.”

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