The Work

June 23, 2010 1:21 PM

Bingham's Harlem "Class" Graduates from Elementary School

Posted by Nicole Hong

Carmen Sanchez's daughter graduated from Manhattan's P.S. 83 elementary school this week. It's a nice milestone for Sanchez and her family. The last few years haven't been easy. Sanchez's two older children ran into serious "legal issues" in high school, and the family was almost evicted from their apartment due to problems with the landlord. But thanks to pro bono help from Bingham McCutchen, Sanchez was able to resolve these legal issues.

"They're more like my friends than my lawyers," Sanchez says. "Whenever I call, they always pick up, and they're always here for me."

Sanchez's daughter is one of more than 425 students in five Harlem schools who are part of the Say Yes to Education Inc. program, a national nonprofit that provides a range of services for inner-city children, including the promise of full college tuition if they graduate from high school. This week the children are graduating from their respective elementary schools.

Founded in 1987 by philanthropist George Weiss, the program began in Philadelphia as a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, Weiss's alma mater, and has since added four other chapters, most recently in Harlem and Syracuse. Robert Dombroff, a partner at Bingham and a close friend of Weiss's, spearheaded the firm's pro bono commitment when the Harlem program started in 2004. The firm pledged to provide 15 years of free legal services for the Harlem schoolchildren and their immediate families.

Since the program's inception, approximately 145 Bingham lawyers have contributed more than 10,500 pro bono hours to the Harlem families. Dombroff estimates that the services cost the firm approximately $2 million every year.

"I can't begin to describe Bingham's impact," says Gene Chasin, senior vice president of Say Yes to Education. "We hear constantly from our families that Bingham's support allows them to stay in the area and keep their children in the schools."

Although the families' legal needs center around housing and immigration issues, the range of legal services the firm provides varies, Dombroff says. Bingham once represented a student's older brother who was accused of committing a murder. The lawyers discovered that the brother was innocent, and after presenting evidence to the Manhattan district attorney, all charges were dropped.

Bingham has organized workshops to help train its Say Yes lawyers, including a tutorial from the chief judge of a housing court.

"We get so much reward from [the program] because of the passion that our associates have for doing this kind of work," Dombroff says. "For these young associates, representing large corporations might not give them the same satisfaction."

Instead of meeting with the families in Bingham's New York City office on Park Avenue, the lawyers go to Harlem and run office hours in legal clinics. Bingham staff members also are allowed to take off one day per month in the summer to help chaperone Say Yes's summer camp program.

Bingham is the only firm providing pro bono help in the Harlem chapter, but several entities support the families with a comprehensive range of services. For instance, Harlem Hospital provides all health care services for the families, and IBM has offered computerized reading labs for every class in the program.

Bingham also collaborated with Say Yes to solicit firms to provide pro bono legal services for the organization's newest chapter in Syracuse, launched in 2007. The Syracuse program is the first Say Yes chapter to promise comprehensive support and full college tuition for an entire school district of more than 20,000 students. Bingham's work in Harlem was the inspiration for the pro bono structure of the Syracuse program, says Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of Say Yes to Education.

"They have literally saved lives and created stability and safety for so many children," Schmitt-Carey says. "It is just an amazing and admirable thing."

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