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Home / Expert Opinion / Pro Bono Spotlight: ACC chapter members discuss legal service needs

Pro Bono Spotlight: ACC chapter members discuss legal service needs

Local members of the Central & Western New York Chapter of the Association of Corporate Counsel demonstrate a tremendous commitment to making justice accessible to all, even though their day-to-day careers may be focused on corporate operations and business profits. Their actions and words confirm their understanding of the overwhelming need for legal representation for basic quality of life issues.

In 2013, the local ACC chapter contributed $15,000 to the Volunteer Legal Services Project Kinship Care program, which provides support to grandparents navigating the court system to address legal issues faced in taking custody of their minor grandchildren.

Several individual ACC members, who have also been actively involved with VLSP for many years, responded to a set of questions concerning access to justice.

Who’s responsible?

“It’s hard, if not impossible to live a decent life without access to the legal system,” said Gary Cohen, present VLSP board member and senior patent counsel at Xerox. “At one time or another, most, if not all of us, need the benefit of access to justice and/or legal services, and denied that benefit, our lives are very negatively impacted.

“And just as significantly, each lawyer has a moral obligation to provide some service to the underserved and help them to live a decent life,” he continued.

Stephanie Schaeffer, chief legal officer at Paychex, who served in multiple official positions on the VLSP board over the course of 10 years, added, “I believe that each of us has a responsibility to give back to the community. Access to the courts is a fundamental right that is essential to protecting other basic human rights, such as housing and freedom from violence. If people have no lawyer, then they often have no meaningful access to the court system. They have no voice to stand up and protect them from injustice.”

Gail Norris, general counsel at the University of Rochester and current co-chair for the Campaign for Justice, said: “For the poor and underprivileged, pro bono legal work and funded legal services for the poor through legal aid-type organizations are the only avenues to ensure that representation is provided. … Lawyers are in a unique position to fully understand how important it is to provide legal representation for those who can’t afford it to ensure that our justice system works.”

Sharon Underberg, past VLSP board president and assistant general counsel at Kodak, stated: “Access to justice is a critical issue in our community. I believe every lawyer has a responsibility to do his or her part to give back to the community by assisting the indigent (with time, money and hopefully both) to ensure appropriate legal representation in the often dire make-or-break life-changing situations in which our clients find themselves. If we don’t help, who will?”

What kind of support?

“From the in-house community perspective, I think the best way to encourage pro bono legal service is to debunk the myth that in-house attorneys don’t have the expertise or time to commit one or two pro bono matters each year,” said Maureen Mulholland, general counsel at Monro Muffler Brake, Inc. and local ACC chapter board member. “Gail Norris and I made a successful financial pitch to the in-house community this year (re: Campaign for Justice). We asked ‘if you don’t give, who will?’ The response from the in-house community was tremendous.”

Cohen emphasized the importance of young attorneys doing pro bono work, saying: “To the extent we can involve young lawyers, we’re ensuring the future of providing pro bono legal services.”

Underberg added, “We need to continue to spread the word throughout the community, encourage law firms and in-house legal departments to promote and support pro bono legal services and put particular focus on lawyers just starting out and also those winding down their careers. The N.Y. State Bar reporting requirements should help to provide incentives to lawyers to donate time and money, since lawyers will need to be conscious of what they are or are not doing. This promotes additional accountability on the part of individuals.”

Gary Van Graafeiland, retired Kodak counsel and enthusiastic VLSP volunteer, offered an observation that there should be “a concerted effort to involve retired lawyers, who in many cases are looking for things to do to keep busy.”

Norris acknowledged that “many attorneys think they do not have the necessary skill-set to undertake a pro bono client in an area of law in which they have no expertise. In-house attorneys rarely appear in court proceedings, so it may look like a scary thing. We need to overcome this perceived competency gap. We also need to fund more legal positions in the well-run legal service organizations where lawyers dedicate their full time to representing the underprivileged.”

Community resources?

“I believe access to justice for the indigent is everyone’s problem and that VLSP’s funding sources should not be limited to the Monroe County legal community,” Underberg said. “There are many vendors who work with and benefit from the legal community, and they should feel ownership as well, along with the various charitable foundations in our area.

“All local in-house lawyers who support VLSP and utilize firms outside of Rochester can assist in this effort by asking their out-of-town providers to make a contribution to our local pro bono cause. It is a win-win for the law firms, many of which have pro bono legal support as a line item on their balance sheets.”

Xerox counsel Cohen mentioned that the Xerox Foundation has generously contributed grants to VLSP, the Campaign for Justice and the Partnership for Justice, adding, “To the extent we’re focusing on the human part of the pro bono legal service, there are a number of organizations (such as banks, telecommunication providers) who seek to use their vast surpluses to help people save their homes or escape environments of domestic violence.”

Van Graafeiland proposed having more publicity about the needs for access to justice in our community. “More publicity through the Democrat and Chronicle, City Newspaper, The Daily Record and the Rochester Business Journal. And constant message repetition.”

Schaeffer agreed there is definitely an opportunity to increase awareness. “I think that litigation attorneys are aware of the need because they see the problems faced by pro se litigants in their daily practice. I don’t believe other attorneys, or the community at large, are really aware of the need.”

Mulholland said her recent experience on the Campaign for Justice, made her admit she “learned a lot about the need for representation and the devastating impact on the courts of pro se applicants attempting to navigate the system on their own. I can only assume that many other attorneys — especially those in-house — are equally unaware of the current state of pro bono legal services in our community.”

“We need to continue to have a dialogue about this issue,” Norris added. “There are multiple organizations working on this problem and we need to be sure we are marshalling all of our efforts effectively and collaboratively to maximize resources for this important cause. We have all the right ingredients: an active local bar, financial support, dedicated professionals running pro bono services … we just need to make sure we continue to leverage them efficiently and build on them to address the unmet needs.”

February 2014 honor roll

Solo practitioners: Maroun Ajaka; Ryan Bailey; Odette Belton; Carolyn Chase; Ardeth Houde; Shaina Kovalsky; Kenneth Licht; Isabelle Melody; Mosunmola Ojo; Luis Ormaecha; Barbara Orenstein; Paul Richardson; Thomas Rohr; Warren Welch

Attorneys at firms: Julia Hall (Empire Justice Center); Josie Sheppard (Harris Beach LLP); Diana Holl (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Andre Lindsay (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Robert Hooks (Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP) Ben Mudrick(Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Christine O’Connor (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Jesse St. Cyr (Harter Secrest & Emery LLP); Anthony Piazza (Hiscock & Barclay LLP); Mark Whitford (Hiscock & Barclay LLP); Jennifer Fazio (Kaman, Berlove, Marafioti, Jacbstein & Goldman LLP); Heath Miller (Marchioni & Associates); Thomas Farace (Nixon Peabody LLP); Dwight Collin (Nixon Peabody LLP); John T. Fitzgerald (Nixon Peabody LLP); John Garrett (Nixon Peabody LLP); Jodie Ryan (Philips Lytle LLP); Robert F. O’Connell (Petralia, Webb & O’Connell); George Schell Sr. (Schell & Schell Attorneys at Law P.C.); Nathan Van Loon (Van Loon Menard); Jack Battaglia (Woods Oviatt Gilman LLP)

Government: Andrew Borelli (Appellate Division JD); Ben FrazziniKendrick (Appellate Division); Laura Groschadl (Appellate Division); Sylvia Kraus-Lewicka (Appellate Division); Craig Peterson (Appellate Division); Joseph Sroka (Appellate Division); Steven Carling (Rochester City School District Dept. of Law)

Corporate attorneys: Eliot Katz (Thomson Reuters); Robert Nassau (Syracuse University Law School Tax Clinic); Gail Norris (University of Rochester Office of Counsel); Gary Cohen (Xerox Corporation)

Nora A. Jones is a freelance writer with long-term ties to The Daily Record and Thomson Reuters. She can be reached at njones01@rochester.rr.com.