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A silver lining behind the storm clouds over New York’s most prominent Latino civil rights organization is the grassroots movement of young lawyers determined to rescue the venerable Puerto Rican Legal Defense & Education Fund from financial ruin. “People are seeing renewal of this important organization,” said William Malpica, 36, a third-year associate at Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw and a graduate of Fordham University School of Law. “There’s an energy that was there when [the fund] began. “Sometimes I even have trouble sleeping at night because I have all these ideas,” said Malpica, a leader of the barely month-old movement and a Brooklyn native whose family is Puerto Rican. “I have to write them all down.” In the process of renewal by way of fund-raisers in private homes and nightclubs, said Malpica and others involved, the ad hoc “Friends of PRLDEF” has a goal of raising at least $100,000. At the same time, Friends has become a significant new venue of networking for lawyers and law students across the city’s Latino cultures. Although not a direct beneficiary of the fund, “Being a Latina, I was interested in doing whatever I could to help solidify what was there when I was a student,” said Sandra Rodriguez, 27, a graduate of New York University School of Law whose parents came to New York from the Dominican Republic. “A lot of students of color who I know have been helped by PRLDEF, and so in an indirect way it’s been helpful to me. “Young associates treasure the opportunity to network, and to know you’re doing it for a good cause is wonderful,” said Rodriguez, a second-year associate at Mayer Brown. “This also gives students a chance to network with associates in practice.” Rodriguez was the organizer of a public fund-raising event staged by Friends of PRLDEF last Tuesday night at Nectar Patio Bar and Lounge. “It’s the first time that we’ve been able to bring together so many people from so many organizations under one umbrella,” said Eric S. Medina, 27, a third-year student at Fordham Law and president of the campus Latino Law Students Association. “There’s just been so much motivation to get together and put aside allegiance to this organization or that and get behind the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.” The fund was created and named in 1970, a time when virtually all Latino attorneys in New York were Puerto Rican. Today, however, the fund serves the entire Hispanic population range of New York — including Dominicans, Colombians, Ecuadorans, Nicaraguans, Mexicans and Cubans. Medina, of Cuban extraction, said he could not have navigated law school without the fund’s educational opportunities, which include mentoring, scholarships, low-cost LSAT preparation courses and placement in summer internships. But according to Cesar A. Perales, the founding president of PRLDEF, these opportunities are at risk, due to the fund’s historic dependence on revenues from foundations and, to lesser extent, corporate donations. Because of the poor economy, said Perales, the former New York State Commissioner of Social Services under Governor Mario Cuomo, such revenues have been drastically reduced. The resultant financial hemorrhaging at PRLDEF reached crisis proportions this summer when its 2003 operating budget of $1.8 million experienced a shortfall of $500,000. The office staff of 23, represented by the National Organization of Legal Services Workers, took voluntary salary cuts ranging from 30 percent to 50 percent for a four-month period that ended two weeks ago. Despite their sacrifice, the staff has been reduced to 15, said Perales, who has returned to PRLDEF as president and general counsel until such time as the organization is stabilized. Among those who recently left PRLDEF is attorney Ileana M. Infante, for four years the director of the fund’s education division and now a program officer at the Robin Hood Foundation. Financial and certain managerial troubles at PRLDEF, she suggested, are beside the point. “What’s important is not what happened, but how the Latino legal community has come together to face the situation and be supportive,” she said. “People have put aside their cultural differences in order that this organization survives to serve the Latino community as a whole.” For Perales, the activities of today’s young Latino lawyers is both surprising and, as a measure of progress since 1970, gratifying. “Thirty years ago, there just weren’t that many Latino lawyers. So we couldn’t rely on individual giving,” he said. “I always thought that would be an outgrowth of our work over the years, but nobody focused on that. But we’ve built up a large cadre of Latino lawyers now with strong connections to PRLDEF. “So I thought I’d reach out to a handful of our lawyers,” said Perales. “Then before I knew it, this all just caught fire in the Latino legal community.” Indeed, word spread quickly via the Internet, according to Ellie Jurado-Nieves, 31, a government relations counsel at the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. “I’d worked with PRLDEF for many years, and so I was surprised when I got an e-mail talking about it being in jeopardy,” said Jurado-Nieves, a graduate of Pace Law School. “It’s usually during moments of crisis that light bulbs go off. I mean, what would we do without PRLDEF? You begin to realize, there’s no way we can survive. “So we’re lighting a fire.”

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