Senior Lawyers Pursue Social Justice

20 Jun 2017
Author: Robert Precht

From the New York Law Journal: 


Older Lawyers Pursue Social Justice Through Emeritus Program

Jeff Storey, New York Law Journal

May 26, 2017

Former Broome County Corporation Counsel William Gibson, 80, spends two to three days a week in Housing Court listening to "very sad" stories and fighting for tenants' access to a "basic human need."

Robert Hilliard, 71, argues before Immigration Court that teenagers from Central America should not be returned to their home countries where they would be vulnerable to gangs.

Linda Clarke, 58, has answered "nonstop" phone calls two afternoons a week from low-income workers with wage-and-hours, discrimination and other employment law issues.

All three are "attorneys emeritus," participants in a program launched seven years ago by then Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman as "a permanent piece of the puzzle" to close the justice gap for low-income New Yorkers. Fordham Law School's Feerick Center for Social Justice provides administrative and programmatic support for the program, with help from the state court system and large law firms. AmeriCorps VISTA funds two positions.

Lippman predicted that the program could attract "thousands" of aging but still healthy volunteer attorneys for a "quantum leap" in pro bono representation and legal advice for low-income New Yorkers in foreclosure, debt collection, housing, family and other civil cases. According to a just-completed Feerick Center report, 2,256 attorneys enrolled in the program from 2010 to March 2017, and the report acknowledges that some who reregistered may be counted more than once.

But the emeritus program has "grown steadily," according to Fern Schair, chair of the center's advisory council, and with accelerated outreach and placement, she said it can only get "bigger and better."

More than 200 senior attorneys are currently volunteering with one of 64 approved host agencies—up from 179 in fall 2016 and 138 in fall 2015. But volunteers often don't report their hours, and the report's authors believe the latest figure is "almost certainly" an undercount.

Feerick Center data does not disclose how many senior attorneys would have done pro bono work on their own, with or without the emeritus program. But Schair said that when the program started, potential host organizations were skeptical about its value because they had always had trouble reaching older attorneys.

"There has been a big uptick in people willing to volunteer and organizations willing to take them," she said.

Emeritus status is awarded to attorneys in good standing who have reached the age of 55 and have practiced for a minimum of 10 years. The program was originally designed for retired attorneys but was quickly expanded to include active attorneys who met the age and experience qualifications.

Many of the active attorneys are in "various stages of winding down their practices," Schair said. Of the respondents to a 2016 survey, 59 percent of emeritus attorneys were retired and 41 percent active.

Attorneys who are still practicing continue a $375 biennial registration fee and meet CLE requirements. However, emeritus attorneys may earn up to 15 CLE credit hours through the program. Host organizations must provide malpractice insurance for volunteers.

All emeritus attorneys must perform a minimum of 60 hours of pro bono service for one of 65 approved legal services providers statewide in a two-year registration period. Available data indicate that many donate much more than that.

The 87 emeritus attorneys who volunteered for organizations that receive Interest on Lawyer Account grants donated an average of 127 hours in the single year of 2016, according to the report. The Feerick Center's own outreach found that 40 lawyers had completed 60 hours of service up until March, with half reporting more than 100 hours.

Giving Clients 'Dignity'

Clarke trained as a barrister in the United Kingdom and taught law before traveling to New York, where her husband had a teaching job at New York University. She passed the New York bar and signed up with the employment hotline of MFY Legal Services Inc.

A specialist in the field, Clarke handled calls in "every kind of employment issue." She gave legal advice where she could and referred some calls to other lawyers. In some cases, she had to suggest to callers that they didn't have a case and "should move along with their lives." She said they were "extremely appreciative" that someone had listened and left them with "some dignity."

Clarke is returning to the U.K. for the summer but plans to take up her volunteer position again when she returns in the fall.

As Gibson neared retirement, he realized that he wanted to keep working. "Rather than continue in a civil practice, I sort of moved into the pro bono area because there's such a need."

Gibson represents clients through the Legal Aid Society of Mid-New York Inc. He helps with child support and domestic violence cases, appears with clients in Housing Court, provides legal advice over the phone on a consumer hotline and lends his time to the Binghamton Veterans Center "Talk to a Lawyer" program.

"I didn't know what to expect," he said. "It just sort of evolved. ... I try to keep things simple."

Hilliard represents minors in Immigration Court for the Safe Passage Project. He said he had gotten "a little tired of working full time," but enjoyed what he was doing and "wanted to find things to do that are useful."

Hilliard, who has decades of experience in the complex field of immigration law, handles various matters, including several asylum cases. Studies show that unrepresented immigrants have little chance of prevailing, but those with lawyers can do well.

He said that most judges are "quite delighted" to have a lawyer before them to clearly present the issues in a case. "It's not enough" for a minor facing deportation "to say, 'I don't want to go home. I want to have a better life here.'"

The Feerick Center report found that many emeritus volunteers come from business and corporate law and lack experience in the areas the program tries to address and familiarity with the kind of clients they will be working with. Schair said the recruits may learn a whole new area of practice and be tutored in "cultural confidence."

When James Slattery, 74, started handling cases for the Brooklyn Bar Association Volunteer Lawyers Project, he asked where the need was greatest. He was immediately directed to bankruptcy cases and assigned two mentors. Slattery, a former corporate lawyer at Cullen and Dykman, had never done bankruptcy work.

Slattery said most lawyers may be a "little shy" about taking on a new area, but most will react as he did.

"Lawyers are basically good people," he said. "If you reach out to them, they will get involved."