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When the Legal Aid Society opened its Greater Harlem Office at the corner of 128th Street and Madison Avenue on Oct. 30, the 127-year-old organization started down an unfamiliar path in a neighborhood where it has long been a fixture. Until now, the society has never owned a building. It has never had the liberty of working from the ground up, of designing meeting rooms, modern offices — with modern equipment — for its attorneys, and computer education classes for community members. Nor has it had the chance to assemble attorneys from different disciplines under one roof, and ask them to work together to solve all of a client’s legal problems as a team. As impressive as Legal Aid’s new building might be, this new style of advocacy is the more important construction project in Harlem, at least in the mind of Daniel L. Greenberg, the society’s president since 1994. On Madison Avenue, Greenberg says he sees not only a new home, but the opportunity to change the way his attorneys serve clients and attack cases. “We recognized that we had the potential in that physical space to create the microcosm of what we want to create societywide,” Greenberg said in a recent interview inside his present, and temporary, office at One Battery Park Plaza. “We very much intend to create a full-service law firm there.” The concept of a “full-service” firm for the poor — what Greenberg often refers to as the “integrated service model” — is not a new one, at least not at Legal Aid. Greenberg began describing the vision the moment he joined Legal Aid from Harvard Law School, where he was director of clinical education for eight years. In Greenberg’s ideal Legal Aid Society, it would not matter how a client first arrives, whether it be with a criminal charge, an eviction notice, or an immigration problem. Once in the door, a client would be questioned and cared for from all corners of the agency. Attorneys would refer clients to colleagues with different expertise, or even request help from another attorney in handling certain aspects of a case. And lawyers also would at times discuss matters having more to do with social work than the law in an effort to uncover what additional help — perhaps drug counseling or psychiatric services — their clients need. “If one sees a lawyer’s job as helping a client solve a problem, it leads you in a direction that expands the notion of what you might be doing,” Greenberg said. “It’s no longer only, ‘Can I suppress this identification under the Fourth Amendment?’ It becomes as well, ‘Can I offer something to my client that can stop him from being picked up again?’ “ Greenberg said he believes the best example of this collaborative work took place at the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) center to assist victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, where Legal Aid set up shop from the outset. “If you think about what the FEMA Center was, it was a sea-change notion that somebody who needed help should have everything brought easily for the client to access it, instead of that person having barriers to getting the help,” Greenberg said. “We’re replicating the FEMA center internally. We’re trying to give the one-stop shopping to our clients within the Legal Aid Society.” To hear Greenberg describe all this, it could not sound more simple, as if he might transform the relationships and perspectives of his 955 attorneys as easily as he turns on the light in his office. Greenberg, who recently turned 58, is an optimistic man; it was nine years ago when he first began talking about “integrated service.” He says he feels no disappointment in not having already brought about changes he long ago believed were necessary. “The time has been beneficial, because it’s allowed us to bring these issues to people at a point where they are more ready to hear,” Greenberg said. A ROCKY BEGINNING In 1994, Legal Aid’s Criminal Defense Division had a budget of $79 million and 620 full-time defense attorneys. In October of that year, though, the attorneys went on a four-day strike to protest a contract that had expired in January. The results were disastrous and immediate. Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani canceled Legal Aid’s contract with the city and demanded $18 million in cuts to the agency’s budget. By 2001, the agency had fallen into a pattern where its budget hovered around $54 million, with the City Council restoring an additional $5 million to $6 million each year against the mayor’s wishes. The ranks of criminal defense attorneys fell to 377, and Legal Aid found itself in competition with alternative legal service providers created by the mayor during the strike. To this day, many in Legal Aid’s union of attorneys still look at those rival agencies as having been created for the sole purpose of busting a union. Greenberg took over Legal Aid in November 1994 when the crisis was at its peak. He made several swift decisions to lay off managers and attorneys that became controversial, including one — the firing of the popular director of the volunteer division — that was rescinded after pro bono coordinators at large law firms objected to the move. But he also refused to speak pessimistically about the society’s future, and began expounding on his grand vision for a poor people’s law firm, something more than a struggling agency with numerous offices that were loosely stitched together, if at all. Now, according to Greenberg, the time for change is better than it has ever been. The agency has struck up a warm relationship with the city under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. This year, it hired 130 criminal defense attorneys, bringing the total in that area to 501. Its funding has been increased to $68 million in a time where budget cuts have hurt city agencies of all stripes, including the police department and the district attorneys offices. About $8 million of that money is tied to Legal Aid’s performance: If it does not represent 86 percent of the city’s indigent criminal defendants, the money will be taken away. So far, Greenberg said, Legal Aid is handling around 91 percent of the cases. HARLEM OFFICE In Harlem, the agency has built a five-story, 29,000-square-foot building on the back of $18 million in tax-exempt bonds from the Industrial Development Agency, a public benefit corporation, payable over 30 years. Since last year, the society has raised $8.3 million from the private sector to fund services in the Harlem office, and it has a goal of an additional $14 million over the next four or five years. While the plan for the Greater Harlem Office, which will be run by veteran attorney Adriene L. Holder, is to approach each client with a team of attorneys from different backgrounds, Greenberg said the philosophy of the office can apply to the rest of the agency — as well as serve as a model for the rest of the country — even though his other attorneys do not have the luxury of working in the same building. At the FEMA center, Greenberg said, “We also found out that the most helpful people we had were the generalists, the lawyers trained across the board who understood the connection of unemployment with housing with immigration with other benefits, and could be case managers to the FEMA center as they walked people around from place to place.” To instill this idea, he said, “You need to train people differently, you need to have people think of their jobs more expansively.” Recently, Legal Aid has trained two of its criminal defense attorneys in immigration law, both through its civil division and outside programs. Russell Neufeld, the attorney-in-charge of the Criminal Defense Division, said that all new criminal attorneys will receive training in immigration law. This is also the first year in which incoming attorneys were trained together before being broken into separate classes relevant to their respective divisions. “I think part of it is changing with the times,” said Neufeld, who, after 21 years at the society, is the first manager ever responsible for all the office’s criminal defense divisions, which include the trial level, criminal appeals and capital punishment. “When I started, you didn’t have to take six law school courses to understand immigration consequences. Now, there are these huge implications for clients, beyond whether they are going to go to jail.” RANK AND FILE Few Legal Aid lawyers will disagree with the idea that their clients have problems beyond their latest run-in with the law, or that they could benefit from social services or psychiatric care. But the slightest mention of “integrated service model” causes any number of these attorneys to let loose long sighs. “It sounds nice, but what does it really mean?” they ask. The devil, they say, is in the details, and they feel they have been given very few of them. “If the integrated service model means creating a communication system that would enable us to provide better services for our clients, we’re all for it,” said James A. Rogers, the president of the union that represents Legal Aid’s attorneys. “But if the vision thing means taking on additional responsibilities, then we will make sure it doesn’t happen.” Legal Aid’s attorneys worked for a year under an expired contract until they ratified a new one Monday evening with a vote of 89 percent, Rogers said. Though changes in philosophy were not specifically bargained over, the contract does assert that members maintain their right to reject transfers between different divisions, even if divisions are consolidated. And union representatives are to be appointed to any committee whose goal is to develop policy changes. “I’m less interested in management exploring these new things than ways to get the primary job done, because people are working harder than ever,” Rogers said. Though Greenberg’s philosophy for the society has been discussed in memos and meetings, including a large gathering earlier this year, many attorneys feel it is long on words and short on substance, at least for the moment. As far as the future, they fear that the new Legal Aid will involve more work and more problems for everyone to think about, without the requisite improvements in pay and benefits. Reginald Haley, who recently returned to criminal defense at Legal Aid after spending several years at the Neighborhood Defender Service in Manhattan, said he has no problem with thinking about cases in broader terms, or with asking for help from attorneys in other divisions. The idea was stressed at his old job, and he recounted a recent case at Legal Aid, where a client needed legal advice on child support payments. When Haley requested help from the Civil Division, he said he received a two-page memo, single-spaced, from an attorney there — in a day. But learning about his client’s other legal problems is not so easy, he said. “This is the down side. In addition to all the things we typically have to do, now we are in the position of having to do additional work, to ask more questions. [Clients] could have a number of things going on, and they won’t tell us. It’s a very real thing because of our caseloads. I just can’t imagine a world in which we will ever not be swamped, barring something like Bill Gates giving a billion dollars. What’s most troubling for people in the rank and file is, ‘Now we need to do more?’” Some attorneys reject the “integrated service” philosophy on principle. “I am vehemently opposed to this,” said one criminal defense attorney, who asked not to be named. “It’s already hard enough to know everything you need to know about criminal law. To me, this is a fundamental change in the way the public defender office works.” Though no Legal Aid attorney said a fundamental change is imminent, just the thought of revamped training and a different style of lawyering makes many bristle. “Right now, it’s almost as if the new [attorneys] are going to be indoctrinated into this way of thinking, but us old dinosaurs will be able to work in our own way,” the criminal defense attorney said with a tone of concern. For others, resources — or a lack thereof — are the most important variable in any formula managers want their attorneys to follow. “My feeling is that Danny Greenberg wants to feel that he did more than come to Legal Aid and run it,” said another criminal defense attorney who also asked to remain anonymous. “He’s an intellectual; he wants to have an idea, and I think that’s great.” But, the attorney said, “The only way we can do this is we have to have more lawyers.” BABY STEPS Greenberg and other managers insist that the point of all this is not to give their attorneys more work, but to improve the services that clients receive. “For me,” Greenberg said, “the only measurement is, [do] the clients get better service?” Mary E. Anderson, who has been at Legal Aid since 1990, feels that any complaints about these new ideas arise from misconception. For the past year and a half, Anderson has run the Mentally Ill, Chemically Addicted project, which was started with a four-year federal grant. She has four attorneys who work in tandem with social workers employed by Legal Aid. “I think that bringing more social work into our practice is a good thing, because in the long run you do help solve the legal problem by solving the social work need,” Anderson said. “Some of the lawyers think that this is a total change, and I just don’t see it as a total change. Most of us were doing these sorts of things all along. I think this will just streamline it and make it easier for us.” Steven Banks, associate attorney-in-chief and head of the Homeless Rights Project, agrees. “The new model that we are implementing in the Greater Harlem Office is really intended to build on collaborative work that is already underway, but in a far more comprehensive way,” he said. For the time being, Harlem will remain the most prominent example of how well — or poorly — the new Legal Aid can operate. As for the rest of the agency, the attorney who worried about becoming a “dinosaur” put it this way: “My experience is that nothing changes at Legal Aid, but we are all going to scream and yell about it.” Greenberg knows by now that no matter what he does, there will be plenty of yelling. Still, he hopes that this time, there will be change, too.

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