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State hopes more attorneys will join ‘pro bono’ program

Linda J. Kostin

The state is stepping up its efforts to find experienced attorneys to provide free legal services to indigent clients.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman sent out about 10,000 letters earlier this month to upstate attorneys, asking them to consider volunteering their legal skills through the Attorneys Emeritus program, according to David Bookstaver, director of communications, Unified Court System. That has generated calls to the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County, which has decided to host a recruitment luncheon June 16 on the program and local volunteer opportunities.

“We decided to plan a luncheon because we thought that would be the best way to convey the information about our various opportunities and how we support our lawyers,” said attorney Linda Kostin, VLSP’s  pro bono coordinator. She said about 10 attorneys, ages 55 and up, are enrolled in the local Attorneys Emeritus Program, but there are many more in that age range who volunteer, but are not enrolled. Others are signing up online (www.courts.state.ny.us/attorneys/ volunteer/emeritus/index.shtml) which also generates contact to the local project.

The program, rolled out Jan. 1, 2010 by Judge Lippman, calls on attorneys ages 55 and up with at least 10 years of experience to provide 30 hours or more a year of unpaid legal assistance under the auspices of qualified legal services providers, bar associations and court-sponsored volunteer lawyer programs.

The $375 registration fee is waived for retired attorneys, as well as CLE requirements.

“There’s clearly a need throughout New York state for legal services which is why Judge Lippman is so adamant about funding for civil legal services for criminal indigent defense and this is an obvious augmentation to his other initiatives,” Bookstaver said.

Judge Lippman included $25 million in his 2011-12 budget request to devote to Civil Legal Services which have lost other funding sources. Bookstaver said that amount was halfed during recent budget cuts which resulted in more than 400 court workers being laid off statewide, including 45 in the Fourth Department.

“New York lawyers have a proud history of helping those in need,” Judge Lippman says in his May 2 letter. “I hope that you will consider volunteering your time and legal skills to help some of the 2 million-plus unrepresented New Yorkers who appear in our courts each year — many of them poor and vulnerable persons who need legal advice and assistance.”

Kostin said among the greatest local need is help with tax-related questions and unemployment insurance benefits, the latter of which prompted a local CLE. She said a notice from the IRS is distressing enough, but especially if you’re low income.

“They get a notice of deficiency or some money that the IRS believes is owed by the taxpayers,” Kostin said. “They’re scared and they need help.”

She said family law is a perennial evergreen area in which people always need assistance, or just about anything on the consumer side. The first recruitment lunch will be 12:15 to 1:30 p.m. on June 16 at the Monroe County Bar Association boardroom on the 10th floor of the Telesca Center for Justice.

Kostin said attorneys need not volunteer in their traditional practice areas, but may find new opportunities like Gary P. Van Graafeiland, retired Kodak general counsel, who volunteers through VLSP. He was trained and mentored by Staff Attorney Ann Williams and now helps with health law, Kostin said.

“Gary’s a wonderful guy,” she said. “He’s actually done recruitment presentations for VLSP.”

She said Van Graafeiland helped with a recruiting initiative at Corning Inc. in Steuben County which encouraged other corporate attorneys to volunteer. Retired Judge Richard Rosenbaum has also been active in the program and chairs the MCBA’s Senior Attorney Committee. He and Kostin gave a presentation on pro bono work during the January meeting of the New York State Bar Association.

Kostin said the response has been good from the MCBA which supports pro bono efforts in many ways. MCBA President Susan Schultz Laluk noted that the Partnership Campaign raised $2 million to co-locate four civil legal service providers within the Telesca Center, the only bar in the country to do so. That resulted in lower rent for providers, as well as conference rooms and training facilities at no extra charge.

Civil legal service providers also receive discounts on dues and CLEs. MCBA helps recruit pro bono volunteers in e-communications, promotes VLSP participation at Law Day and pro bono awards presentation, publishes a list of attorneys who have provided pro bono services and promotes VLSP’s CLEs on its website.

In addition, the county bar is active in the Annual Campaign for Justice and President-elect Bryan Hetherington and Executive Director Mary Loewenguth serve on the VLSP board.

“With the budget cutbacks, we will continue to look for more ways we can collaborate to provide pro bono in our community,” Laluk said.

 

For more information about the Attorney Emeritus Program, contact Kostin at (585) 295-5703, the state at (877) 800-0396 or email volunteerattorneys@nycourts.gov.

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