This is no exaggeration: legal aid for the poor is in a state of crisis. According to the federal Legal Services Corporation (LSC), it is estimated that one in two low-income Americans seeking legal help will be turned away this year. Those of us who have toiled in the trenches to provide civil legal services believe that the actual number is much higher. There are some indications that as high as 80 percent of those eligible under the federal guidelines for legal services are not receiving the same. The scenario is far worse for those facing foreclosure, where two are turned away for every one person served. A study just released by the Brennan Center for Justice reported that 84 percent of homeowners in Queens County facing foreclosure on their subprime mortgages did not have full legal representation; that number increased to 91 percent in Richmond County and 92 percent in Nassau County.
Increased need and diminished funding brought about, in part, by the economic downturn will translate into the denial of legal representation for millions of poor people this year alone. Hundreds of thousands of those people are New Yorkers. And these numbers reflect only those who have sought legal services. Many never ask for help. Millions of people simply try to represent themselves.
Together with bar associations and good government groups all across the country working to shore up funding for civil legal services, thousands of attorneys in towns and cities all across New York and our nation are doing their part to narrow the justice gap by providing pro bono service.
Our members are helping people save their homes from foreclosure, secure desperately needed governmental benefits, protect their child custody rights and seek refuge from abusers. I know of no other profession that gives so generously of its time and expertise. To honor our profession’s commitment to pro bono service and mobilize new pro bono volunteers, we are joining the American Bar Association and local bar associations throughout New York in celebrating the first-ever National Pro Bono Week, Oct. 25 through Oct. 31.
At the same time, we are launching “The Good We Do Campaign” to promote the good that lawyers do. Toward this end, we issued a statewide radio ad touting pro bono service. We solicited good news stories from lawyers and their clients about the benefits of pro bono service, and we are sharing those stories on our The Good We Do Blog at www.thegoodwedony.org. We reached out to many mayors and state leaders, asking them to issue proclamations declaring Oct. 25 through Oct. 31 as National Pro Bono Week in their respective cities and jurisdictions. We received proclamations from Governor David Paterson and various communities, including Albany, Buffalo, Binghamton, Utica and Ithaca, to name a few, and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo issued a citation commending the state bar for our efforts to support National Pro Bono Week.
Last Friday we participated in a kick-off celebration, hosted by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman and the Court of Appeals, and today we will cohost a breakfast with the New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Office of Court Administration.
For a complete listing of activities taking place across New York State, go to www.probono.net/ny/calendar. National Pro Bono Week is a celebration of what lawyers do not just for one week, but all year long.
State Bar Answers the Call
For nearly 20 years, our motto at the New York State Bar Association has been “Do the public good. Volunteer for Pro Bono.” And our members have answered the call. Last year alone, our Empire State Counsel designees donated more than 75,000 hours of pro bono service. We partnered with the Empire Justice Center and the Queens County and Brooklyn bar associations, among others, to train more than 250 attorneys to assist homeowners facing foreclosure.
We collaborated with local bar associations in upstate New York to train pro bono volunteers to take cases in bankruptcy, family law matters, will drafting and incapacity planning. In 2009, our elder law and health law sections worked together to provide more than 100 free legal clinics statewide for elderly New Yorkers. And, as part of National Pro Bono Week, we are partnering with local bar associations to offer free legal clinics to the public on foreclosures, bankruptcy and wills.
This is just a sampling of the good work performed by attorneys all across New York. I am proud and honored to be a part of a profession that gives back to the community. So many of you shared with us your pro bono stories, which indicate that the experience is often just as rewarding for the attorney as it is for the client. Pro bono service—helping our most vulnerable at the darkest time in their lives—is at the very heart of why most of us joined this honorable profession. It is the good we do.
We need you. Millions of New Yorkers qualify for but are not receiving legal services either because they do not ask for help or because they are turned away by legal service providers who lack resources. Having legal representation is the difference in being able to keep your home, retain custody of your children or obtain government benefits. Pro bono attorneys stand between their clients and homelessness, poverty and lack of medical care.
Few pro se litigants understand the legal defenses available to them; they are unable to identify violations of federal and state laws and navigate an often complex court system. I urge you to join the growing ranks of attorneys who have answered the call to do pro bono, and also to join our Empire State Counsel program.
The Empire State Counsel program honors our members for the good that they do in communities not only throughout New York, but across the globe. Since the program’s inception in 2006, nearly 2,500 attorneys have qualified for the Empire State Counsel designation, having collectively provided more than 125,000 hours of pro bono services. In 2008 alone, the Empire State Counsel class contained more than 1,300 attorneys, all of whom were honored with a certificate, lapel pin and listing on our Web site. Through the end of 2009, we will be accepting applications for volunteer services rendered in 2009. If you are a member and have donated 50 hours or more of free legal services to persons of limited financial means, apply for the designation by going to www.nysba.org/probono. Help us reach our goal of inducting 3,000 members into this elite group of volunteer attorneys.
Pro bono service alone will not close the justice gap, but your efforts make a difference in the lives of thousands of people each year. On behalf of the state bar, thank you and keep doing the good that you do.
Michael E. Getnick is the president of the New York State Bar Association.