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February 27, 2009 3:49 PM

Pro Bono Help Wanted

Posted by Francesca Heintz

Although the economic crisis has spared few parts of the legal world, the impact on public interest law firms has been especially severe. Demand for legal services is growing even as funding has declined, says Michael Rothenberg, the executive director of New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a nonprofit firm founded in 1976 to help serve the legal needs of underrepresented New Yorkers. NYLPI has 14 in-house lawyers, but also partners with more than 80 firms to provide legal services on areas ranging from health justice to disability rights.

We talked to Rothenberg about the issues facing the public interest legal community and how the public interest job market has been affected by the downturn.

What have you been seeing with legal aid organizations and public interest law firms as the economy has worsened?

We're seeing reduced funding, so there are fewer resources available for our organization and higher demand in terms of client needs.

Does the lack of funding also affect young lawyers or anyone that wants to enter the public interest job market? Is there a place for them?

I think there are a few issues here. One is that many, many legal services offices have imposed hiring freezes already, so there are fewer jobs out there. And then in terms of law students, it has always been challenging to get jobs in public interest, just as it is at prestigious firms. There just aren't that many jobs available. It will definitely be more challenging for people graduating from law school to find jobs in the public interest sector.

As it becomes more difficult for people to find jobs in this area, how will public interest legal needs be met going forward? Where will you find people to advocate for underserved individuals?

There are two parts to that question as well. The reality is that--and this has been true for 5, 10, 20 years--many people who need legal services help are turned away because there aren't enough resources. If you look at housing court or family court, all the studies show that 80 to 85 percent of the low-income litigants are pro se. So even before this economic crisis, there was a huge unmet need. As a result, many groups in the state have been advocating for direct state funding for legal services. We're actively advocating now, even though this is a time when a lot of this funding is being cut.

Are you hopeful that some of the federal stimulus money will come down the pipeline to legal services organizations?

We're very hopeful. We have in the assembly and the senate many advocates that understand the importance of representation for low-income individuals. And the governor put a placeholder in his amended budget for funding for legal services. We think that many of the players in Albany believe in this and the important role that legal services organizations play in keeping people in their homes. But we will know more in a few weeks.

Bernie Madoff and his investment fund had ties to many charities and foundations, many of which lost much of their money or even had to close shop. Has this affected legal aid organizations and public interest law groups by extension?

I haven't seen legal services offices close up yet. But in New York, we certainly saw several important foundations that had all of their assets with Madoff dry up. The Jed Foundation and the Pinkerton Foundation have stopped making grants. In the case of Jed, they were giving over $20 million a year to public interest and legal services organizations, so that’s an enormous loss in terms of support. In terms of how quickly that has trickled down to grantees, other funders have stepped up and tried to fill the gap. Public interest organizations and legal aid agencies are incredibly resourceful. They make the most of limited resources and will do anything they can to survive.

If funding continues to go down, will law firms fill the void? 

I think it definitely is a possibility that law firms will step up and do even more. Over the last decade or so, most of the big law firms in NYC have created and built an infrastructure for doing pro bono work. The question going forward is that law firms, too, have been impacted by the economic downturn so I think everybody is looking at ways to be more creative and get these services to people in need with fewer resources.

Simpson Thacher & Bartlett just announced that it's offering year-long fellowships to some associates that want to work in public interest organizations, with the expectation they will return to the firm after the year is up. Do you see that as a model other firms may follow?

I think a lot of law firms are looking at creative ways to make sure they can give their associates opportunities to grow. We're also seeing that in the transactional area, where there is excess capacity, the firms are looking at other ways to get their associates some hands-on work. For example, some firms are looking to see if they can share an associate with a non-profit institution a few days a week. I don't know if anyone has implemented that yet, but we’re hearing from a number of firms that they’re exploring the possibility. Others are exploring models along the same lines as Simpson Thacher on how to get associates experience that will be relevant and helpful and at the same time meet unmet legal needs.

From the law firm perspective, are you seeing an uptick in pro bono interest in the past year?

Yes, we’re seeing demand up 30 to 40 percent from law firms for work. The challenge is that legal services offices have demand from both sides, in terms of law firms hoping to get more cases and also more demand from the non-profits and individuals we serve.

Are there particular areas in public interest law that might grow and present more opportunities for lawyers?

The clear overwhelming new area in terms of growth is foreclosures and subprime lending and the impact on low-income and working families that were taken advantage of in the mortgage area over the last five years or so. The number of foreclosures in process, and the ones that are likely to come forth in the next year, are staggering and will also create a lot of pressure on the court system.

We are hoping that one of the things that comes out of the stimulus package is a creative approach to helping homeowners address the foreclosure issue. Hopefully there will be some thinking on how to take these matters out of the court system. Maybe somewhat analogous to the 9/11 compensation fund, where you could have a special master and take it out of the court system. Then we would see an incredible opportunity for pro bono lawyers to come in and help individuals.

What should law schools be telling their students about public interest careers? 

If people are interested in public interest work, they should definitely intern in the summer or volunteer during the school year. The most important thing is to get to know the staff and to get your work known, so the practical advice to the individual student hasn't changed. I don't know enough about the macro numbers to comment, but our applications were quite high this fall for summer positions but [I'm] not sure if that's a reflection of the economic climate. We'll probably see more what’s going on with that this spring.

Anything else you want to add about what’s going on in your field?

The important thing to note is that the pro bono community is doing all that it can to address these needs, but we need more resources.

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