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Campaign for Justice gets off to strong start

The annual Campaign for Justice got off to a strong start Thursday, organizers say, after two days of campaigning. Photo courtesy Campaign for Justice

The annual Campaign for Justice got off to a strong start Thursday, organizers say, after two days of campaigning.

Now in its 24th year, the campaign kicked off Tuesday and continued through Wednesday evening. Dozens of attorneys volunteered their time to make phone calls to their peers, asking for donations amid a bad economy that has stretched the limits of pro bono work.

All of those organizations face cuts from the Interest on Lawyer Accounts Fund and the state. The IOLA fund will only have roughly $6 million to give, a drop from its record low of $6.5 million this year. State funding is uncertain and untimely, since almost every year budgets are passed months late.

The economy has also created more demand from legal service providers, which requires them to maximize every dollar while asking for donations in a tough time.

Nearly 2 million litigants went unrepresented in the past year, and foreclosure cases have increased 153 percent from 2007 to 2009, according to IOLA fund reports. Cases that assist people with obtaining, increasing or preserving food stamp eligibility increased 115 percent over the same time period. There are about 2,000 Monroe County residents who have received pro bono work this year on issues including divorce, guardianship, wills, bankruptcy and real estate.

Volunteer Legal Services Project Executive Director Sheila Gaddis said the Campaign for Justice is above where it was last year when the volunteers raised $235,000. This year, the goal is $240,000 and the campaign is 22 percent higher than it was at this point last year with $93,400 in pledges. The campaigns kick off each November and run through March.

“I think the legal community members are the primary givers to the campaign, and they understand the state budget situation and the downfall in IOLA,” Gaddis said. “They are also very, very aware of the need for civil legal services.”

VLSP, the Legal Aid Society of Rochester and Monroe County Legal Assistance Center collaborate on the annual campaign, which helps thousands of low-income clients with legal issues such as domestic violence, threatened loss of housing and consumer abuses. The campaign also supports the Hanna S. Cohn Equal Justice Fellowship, an Empire Justice Center fellowship that provides legal services to low-income clients.

Gaddis said the campaign goal increase was modest by design, only going up $5,000.

“We understood the economy is very difficult,” she said. That’s why they chose to just move the goal forward in a very modest way. I don’t believe there’s going to be any huge bump [in donations], but I don’t think we’ll meet this modest goal increase.

“If these last two nights are any indication, we will be able do that.”

David H. Tennant, a partner with Nixon Peabody LLP, takes part in the firm’s annual internal campaign to raise money. Last year, the firm made a contribution of $19,000.

“Access to justice is a core concern to any lawyer,” Tennant said. “Volunteer lawyers are able to help battered women obtain orders of protection, remove children from dangerous circumstances, like helping responsible parents to petition to obtain custody.”

The campaign will continue with a phone-a-thon from 9 a.m. to noon Dec. 1, hosted by WXXI.