In the parlance of astronauts, “re-entry” refers to the critical moment when a shuttle either slices through the vacuum of space and returns safely to Earth’s atmosphere or burns to a crisp.

It’s not that much different in Richard Greenberg’s world.

As attorney-in-charge of the Office of the Appellate Defender, Greenberg is all-too aware of the difficulties and dangers offenders encounter when they return from the void of prison to a society that moved beyond them during their time behind bars.

“We had clients we may have represented on appeal years ago who are finally going home,” Greenberg said. “We discovered that a lot of these clients have no resources and no family. They might get off the bus at the Port Authority and walk to our office and say, ‘Help me. I have no place to live.’ The lawyers started helping people, but lawyers aren’t really equipped to do that.”

So in 2001 the New York Office of the Appellate Defender (OAD) became the first in the country to combine a direct-service, social work re-entry program with an indigent appellate practice. Through a unique internship program, three or four social work interns per year, usually from Columbia University but also from Fordham and Hunter, do their field placement in Greenberg’s office.

“They assist clients who are still incarcerated, who are getting near their release dates, and help them plan for their release,” Greenberg said. “They do parole advocacy, help people set up programs and when people come home they come to the office and meet with the social worker. It is mostly re-entry related, but if I have a client who is doing a long bid and has medical issues or mental health issues or family-type issues, if it seems appropriate I’ll have a social worker work with that client.”

Greenberg is quick to credit a former supervising staff attorney in his office, Melissa Rothstein, who happens to have a master’s degree in social work from Columbia, with coming up with the idea—and she is just as quick to credit him with implementing it.

“We wanted to do more for our clients than a criminal appeal can do and recognize that there are a lot of issues that clients had beyond their criminal cases,” said Rothstein, who now works with the Equal Rights Center in Washington, D.C.

“Rick really embraced the concept of holistic representation,” she said. “He really helped put OAD at the forefront of looking at some of the more challenging aspects of re-entry and how to assist somebody who had never been on the Internet or doesn’t know what a MetroCard is. Rick was a critical leader for that program to come about.”

The social work/re-entry program is just one example of the visionary, holistic approach Greenberg brought to the Office of the Appellate Defender, according to the man who hired him in 1994, E. Joshua Rosenkranz, now of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe. Rosenkranz refers to Greenberg as “the best hire I ever made in my entire career.”

“The Office of the Appellate Defender would be dead if anyone else, including me, had been running it through Rick’s tenure,” said Rosenkranz, whom Greenberg succeeded in 1996. “He single-handedly both led the organization and kept morale up, and preserved the office through political turmoil and the politicking that needed to get done to persuade the city to keep it alive and the courts to endorse it. The very fact that he has kept it alive is a deed unto itself.”

Rosenkranz said Greenberg is a “leader in the public defender world,” one who brought a more expansive vision to the OAD.

“It used to be that we did one thing,” Rosenkranz said. “We did criminal appeals. We would write great briefs and argue cases and now the Office of the Appellate Defender does so much more, with a whole section devoted to trial-level advocacy. Rick has been at the cutting edge of more full service toward clients.”

In addition to the re-entry program, Greenberg also has nurtured a volunteer appellate defender program where private-firm associates are enlisted for criminal appeals. At any given time, attorneys from up to 20 of the largest, most prominent New York City firms are participating in the program, Greenberg said.

“It is a great experience for the associates who do this because they are usually working in the corporate law field and this gives them an opportunity to really see a human face and to litigate,” he said. “It is a great experience for them and it is good for the client because although the lawyer from the firm is not particularly experienced in criminal defense or criminal appellate work, they are being supervised by a very experienced lawyer from our office.”

Greenberg said the client gets the benefit of two lawyers as well as the resources of the firm.

“A lot of times if we need an investigator or expert, the firm will kick in additional money. It enables us to leverage the public money we get from the city to handle appeals by enlisting the help of law firms to make that money go further,” he said.

Additionally, a “reinvestigation project” launched in 2007 focuses on cases where “resource-intensive” reinvestigation could establish a wrongful conviction. In 2010, the OAD received a two-year U.S. Justice Department grant to expand the program.

The reinvestigation project recently won a victory in People v. Oliveras, 90 AD3d 563, where the Appellate Division, First Department, reversed the denial of a CPL 440.10 motion for ineffective assistance of counsel. The case is now headed to the Court of Appeals.

Greenberg said two other reinvestigation unit cases are pending, with “several investigations in the pipeline.” He anticipates filing motions in the coming months.

The Office of the Appellate Defender was created in 1988 by the administrative board of the courts to address a backlog of criminal appeals in the First Department. It primarily represents indigent defendants convicted of felonies in Manhattan and the Bronx.

OAD attorneys, including Greenberg, frequently appear in the Court of Appeals and the First Department. They also represent clients in sex-offender classification hearings and other post-release matters, which brings them to the trial courts.

The office is funded primarily through a contract with New York City, but it also raises money from private individuals and law firms. Its $2.5 million budget supports a staff of 16 lawyers, half of whom are hired for three-year “training” positions.

“We are not paying anybody top dollar, yet it is very, very competitive to get a job here,” Greenberg said. “We hire from two to four new attorneys every year and get about 600 applications nationwide. A lot of people could go to a law firm for big bucks but choose to do this because they are committed to it, and that is what we are looking for.”

Greenberg, 59, has spent his entire career in public service.

After graduating from the University at Buffalo Law School in 1977, Greenberg went to work for the Legal Aid Society in Nassau County. He also held positions with the Legal Aid Society in New York and worked in the Attorney General’s environmental protection bureau before joining the OAD.

Greenberg also serves on the First Department’s Disciplinary Committee and was recently appointed to the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Public-Private Partnerships in Appellate Representation.

“I’ve never been motivated to make a lot of money and I’ve always been motivated by the service I provide, and I feel the best way to contribute is by working for indigent defendants or doing service for the state,” said Greenberg, who grew up on Long Island and now lives on the Upper West Side. “I think the less money has to do with it, the better.”

Greenberg has a daughter and two step-sons. His partner, Roberta Gordon, is an environmental lawyer with Bryan Cave.

A music major at the State University at Binghamton, he plays bass guitar for two rock bands (Music Time Fun Explosion and Kinky) and writes songs. But he said he knew as early as high school that he wanted to be a criminal defense attorney.

“I love working on behalf of my indigent clients, regardless of what they may have done, and I am always inspired by them,” Greenberg said. “One of my favorite parts of the job is going to see someone in prison and sitting face-to-face with them, even if they have done something terrible. To be able to give them all of your energy and compassion, without really judging them for what they’ve done, is a blessed thing.”

Simpson, Thacher & Bartlett partner Roy Reardon said Greenberg “truly leads by example” and “has made recognizing the humanity of each client a core value underlying every aspect of OAD’s practice.”

“While the client-centered, holistic model of public defense is taken for granted today, Rick was at the forefront of bringing this ideal to appellate practice,” Reardon said in a letter nominating Greenberg for a Law Journal award. “Rick has pushed OAD to go beyond representing clients on direct appeal…to more fully serve its clients and their families, and the justice system generally.”

Joseph Sullivan, the former presiding justice of the First Department who is now of counsel to Holland & Knight, said he has always been impressed by Greenberg’s willingness, “despite what I am sure is a heavy administrative and supervisory role,” to carry his own caseload.

“One has to observe him only once in an appellate argument to recognize that he is a superb advocate and to appreciate the total commitment and passion that he brings to any assignment he undertakes,” Sullivan said in a letter supporting Greenberg’s nomination. “It should come as no surprise that he has devoted his entire professional life to the defense of the indigent in criminal prosecutions.”

Rosenkranz marvels that Greenberg, after 18 years in the office, shows no signs of burn out.

“There was already a great excitement about this upstart organization when I was running it, but over the course of two decades you can lose that start-up mentality,” Rosenkranz said. “Rick has maintained the energy, the excitement.”

Greenberg said he “never gets tired” of the job, adding that there is very little turnover and that interns and staff attorneys appointed to three-year stints typically leave only because they have to.

“We have supervisors who have been here for many years. They almost never leave. We have top-notch people. The office is very collegial. As a training office, we get new lawyers in every year. They are young. They are motivated. They are enthusiastic. It keeps the office very vibrant,” Greenberg said.