September 2013

About the Series

Pro Bono Net is proud to present this series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the legal relief efforts to get their thoughts on the successes, lessons, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of an upcoming conference on October 17, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.

This week, we are delighted to share our interview with the Tashi Lhewa and Young Lee of The Legal Aid Society.


Tashi Lhewa

JH: How did you guys come to work at LAS, what brought you here, what’d you do before?

TL: My name is Tashi Lhewa, I’m a consumer staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society, and I’ve been here for four years. After Sandy hit, I was temporarily a Sandy attorney,

YL: I’m Young Lee and I’ve been with LAS since 2006. I originally was a housing attorney, doing landlord-tenant work in the Bronx. After Sandy happened, watching the news and seeing what I could do as a lawyer, I was very interested in getting involved, so I applied to for the Sandy attorney position.

JH: Does the housing experience help with Build it Back and housing issues from Sandy?

YL: It definitely helps because a lot of Sandy clients are renters. The Build it Back program has more to do with homeowners and, luckily, LAS has a very good foreclosure unit, so I can go around the office and ask questions about mortgage forbearance and other homeowner issues.

TL: One of the main strengths of LAS is the diversity and the size of our practices. After Sandy hit we provided comprehensive legal assistance – consumer, foreclosure, benefits, family law – whatever help people needed, we provided. That was something we took pride in doing.

We also have great partnerships with large firms through our pro bono unit. Marlene Halpern, Emily Borman, Lou Sartori – our pro bono unit here – did great work, especially around the DHS Interim Placement Program hotel lawsuit. In that case, we worked with Weil Gosthal to sue the City to prevent them from evicting those who lost their permanent housing from the hotels. The City’s position was “they can go through the shelter system.” The problem is we’ve seen people do that and get denied. The suit is ongoing; we were able to successfully get a preliminary injunction at the end of May.

On the topic of partnerships, I want to mention one more thing: our work with community organizations was incredibly helpful. Organizations such as Market Community Corporation out in Far Rockaway – they were right there. We were able to build on our relationships with them to get to the clients and victims who needed help.

Young Lee

YL: Those relationships were especially helpful in the immediate aftermath. The Robin Hood Foundation funded a Mobile Justice Unit – a giant RV. With the Mobile Justice Unit we were able to get to Far Rockaway and provide a lot of assistance. In the beginning, Tashi was going out there all the time. The people out there couldn’t get anywhere else. Luckily, we were able to go out there and do intake and help as many people as we could.

TL: It was huge; being there where we were needed, instead of telling people to come see us. We had workshops; we had clinics in all the affected neighborhoods — Coney Island, Far Rockaway. The key thing in the immediate aftermath and what was heartening was we had Legal Aid attorneys from various practices and offices all donating their own time to go out and do intake.

YL: And this was while our main office at 199 Water was flooded, so there was a bit of crisis mode internally, but even then we were able to do stuff, which was incredible. That had a lot to do with our leadership and the strength of our employees, and the fact that a lot of our members are from these neighborhoods.

JH: What do you think are the lessons that should be learned form Sandy and the response? What was most challenging; where weren’t we able to provide as you would have liked?

YL: One thing that I don’t think almost any of the legal services community was prepared for was the breadth of the storm. Taking the discrete example of homeowners, it would have been great to do workshops and flyer the flood zones with legal information such as “always make sure your contractor is licensed” – all the different problems really could fit on one page.

TL: Having relationships with other entities and agencies is key. I think of all the problems with FEMA and the various agencies – in the immediate aftermath, when the need is the greatest and you want to assist people — those relationships needed to already be in place.

YL: Frankly, we had enough people to deploy on the ground between us and the pro bono lawyers, but they would get there and then have nothing to do. They would still be helpful, but there were logistic and infrastructure issues. Thinking about what happens when phone lines go down, having a certain amount of PDAs, iPads, maps, etc. Internal logistics is crucial in disaster situations.

JH: 8-10 months later, what are the big issues that you still see people facing?

YL: There are still homeowners battling insurance companies. Many homeowners who don’t think they’ve gotten the insurance relief they’re entitled to.. For example, they got insurance money, but the contractor isn’t doing a good job, or the contractor asks for more money. Seeing what’s covered and what’s not covered. And then the people who are in flood zone areas, in which the flood zone elevation requirements have changed – we get a lot of questions on that, particularly regarding Build it Back.

On the renters’ side, I’m concerned about the bigger-picture potential loss of low-income housing in these areas, and whether or not it’s going to be replaced. The people who got displaced form these low-income neighborhoods – they are pretty much going to be renters and for many people these places have been their homes their entire lives.

TL: Especially with our renter clients who are the lowest low-income people. They were already in a precarious situation prior to Sandy and now you have someone who is homeless and I think the City and other agencies really need to not just say “here’s your voucher, go find a place.”

YL: The voucher is only two years, which is really not that long to get back on your feet.

TL: And the fact that they have a voucher is no guarantee that they’ll find something that’s affordable. With the hotel populations – they’re trying to get them out as fast as possible, and the people are looking, but they can’t find a place.

YL: Unfortunately for that client population, it is frankly true that as people leave, the most capable leave first. The people who need the most help are going to take longer to find a place, and those are the people about whom the City says, “we’ve finally done a good enough job, we don’t have to help these people.” But those are the people who need the most help! Some have undiagnosed mental issues, some are physically disabled, some are just not that sophisticated clients — but for some reason the City can’t seem to bother with them.

And that attitude worries me for the rebuild. If they’re taking that sort of attitude towards these individual, actual people that they can see and hear, then they’re obviously not going to be thinking about these people in the big picture.

JH: On these issues and going forward, how can law students be effective volunteers and advocates?

TL: At this stage, one thing that’s going to be really important is outreach: education on Sandy issues and future preparation. We’ve had two storms in two years; I think it’s really important to go out to the communities at risk, do outreach and hold educational information sessions.

YL: I think law students could really help with education on insurance in general. Even the sophisticated layperson will have difficulty trying to figure out what the policies say. With a certain amount of training, law students can absorb this information and go out to communities and educate the homeowner population in lay language on these issues.

As far as advocacy purposes, there are definitely still certain instances where law students can be direct advocates. Let’s say with public assistance and public benefits and welfare; dealing with welfare centers. You don’t have to be a lawyer to represent these people at Fair Hearings.

JH: Same question for pro bono attorneys. How can they be helpful?

YL: Weil Gotshal was great – they took every FEMA appeal case that came through because at the beginning it was just Tashi and he couldn’t do all of them. Weil took tons of them.

TL: They made a commitment that all of their associates would take one case.

YL: What was great about Weil was they didn’t base it solely out of New York. If they couldn’t find a New York associate, they’d send it to another office. That was a good thing about FEMA appeals – you could do it remotely.

TL: Speaking generally, I think that pro bono attorneys are a great resource. We look for people that have at least background training and basic understandings of legal procedure and due process – that’s crucial for most things, even with administrative appeals.

YL: Now it’s a lot of insurance issues. Mostly we are working with pro bono attorneys who are not necessarily saying they’ll litigate against insurance companies, but at least advocate on behalf of our clients. There is value from the insurance company seeing a law firm’s letterhead.

The reason that pro bono attorneys are especially helpful in these cases is there’s a certain amount of training and esoteric knowledge you need for them. Also, having a less emotional perspective. A lot of clients can do the basics and document everything, but then there’s an issue of sometimes a client is just too close to it. This is their home, they get emotional and its better to just have a second pair of eyes looking over something.

JH: Where do you hope to go from here with Sandy and future disaster relief?

YL: The biggest thing is to continue helping the people who were directly affected. My worry about that is that there are problems out there that we don’t even know about; so trying to identify them.

Also, there are issues with a lot of people in Queens who live in illegal apartments, basement apartments, apartments that weren’t up to code – a lot of those people had a difficult time getting help because they couldn’t get proof of their residence. How we can better help those people is something I want to think about for future storms.

Another concern is monitoring the Build it Back program and making sure all of this federal money is spent in a way that’s not just going to favor business interests. The program is specific to homeowners, but I think they’re using a lot of the money to help business interests. We want to make sure that at least some of that money goes to the actual client population — especially the low-income and most vulnerable New Yorkers.

We’ve done a lot of internal thinking as well – making sure that we’re prepared for the next storm. Looking at how we’re going to mobilize internally; having an action plan with clear, written guidelines. Sandy was somewhat ad hoc.

And then looking externally, trying to advocate with politicians and legislators to pass better laws on things like mortgage forbearance. And then educating the public would be another big part. Educating people about insurance and legal preparation for disasters. People know that they should have a certain amount of bottled water in their house, food, etc.; we need to educate them in the same way about legal prep. For example, having a working camera with a battery to take pictures of damaged property in case you have to throw it out.

TL: I agree with everything that Young said. Another key is transparency. Encourage transparency with all the parties that are involved: Federal agencies, state, local. I think that’s key and something that was really missing. Intentional or not there were huge issues with transparency, which caused a lot of problems for people looking for assistance.

Patrick Reynolds, the 2013 Pro Bono Net and Montana Legal Services Association 2013 AmeriCorps VISTA, reports on the September 11th, 2013 LSNTAP webinar on the use of technology to help unrepresented litigants. More of Patrick’s posts are available here.

The LSNTAP Webinar occurred on Wednesday September 11th and featured 4 presenters. After an introduction by Moderator Claudia Johnson, the LawHelp Interactive Program Manager at Pro Bono Net, the first presenter was Gordon Shaw, Executive Director of the Massachusetts Justice Project, who talked about Online Triage and the Massachusetts Legal Resource Finder. Kathleen Caldwell, Website Coordinator at Pine Tree legal Assistance, presented next about how Jim’s Mailbag, A2J, and Hotdocs have increased traffic and helped website visitors.  Deputy Director Raquel Colon of Legal Services of Northern Virginia finished out the webinar with information about the SMS Texting Appointment Reminder System.
Claudia Johnson started off the webinar with a discussion about components of engaging online tools, such as interactive apps, videos, forms, chat, and checklists. She also presented a survey of what the legal aid community is doing with its online tools and discussed projects currently being worked on.  Tools that are currently in development include SMS texting, Promoting interaction with lay experts, and new mobile apps. The trend is for increased engagement to successfully reach a larger number of clients.

Online Triage Presentation

Gordon Shaw provided information about the Massachusetts Legal Help Finder, which is designed to effectively help triage intake requests by directing users to a short online form which provides links to self-help content relevant to one’s issue. This way, intake task can help focus on helping users with issues that aren’t easily answered with online content.

The questions are designed to be user specific, narrowing down info based on where the user lives, if they are a senior, the number of people in their house, and so on.  The questions also help with users requesting information that Massachusetts legal aid doesn’t cover, by directing them to right places to ask.  Please note that mapping is still in progress, and upon further review a new format might still be used.

Jim’s Mailbag, A2J and Hotdocs

Kathleen Caldwell highlighted the usefulness of lay experts (non lawyers) for contributing content and gave advice for seeking out new content generators to increase both website traffic and usefulness.  Jim Strickland, writer of Jim’s Mailbag, is a very prolific contributor to Stateside Legal, a national website focused on legal aid for veterans. A disabled Vietnam veteran with his own website and established following, Jim was eventually recruited into a partnership with Stateside Legal. Within his area of specialization (veteran’s affairs) he has been able to provide very relevant and accessible information to a large number of visitors dealing with complicated veteran related legal issues.

HotDocs were also highlighted as a useful tool for veterans, as creating a checklist generated by a LawHelp interactive survey can create an organized document for resolving common legal issues. This program is still fairly new, and is continuing to be tested in Portland, Maine. While the answers are still a work in progress, the drive to simplify continues. The last program, titled “Don’t Leave Money on the Table” helps to connect veterans to the 30 most common programs offered by the VA, to help people sort of what benefits they may be eligible for and navigate through the complicated tangle of different programs and benefits.

The most basic lesson Kathleen Caldwell stressed was to plan ahead extensively and think about what your visitors are looking for and what will work best for them before building a feature. Once a tool is created, frequent testing can make a big difference and remaining open to feedback is also of upmost importance.


SMS Appointment Reminder System

Raquel Colon spoke about a program to reduce the number of no shows and missed appointments with an SMS texting appointment reminder program for clients. The program is designed to increase efficiency by reducing the amount of time spent resolving the issue, and rescheduling missed appointments. The campaign extracts information from the KEMPS case management system to place automated calls and text message reminders. One very important concern is Domestic Violence related cases, where it may be unsafe for a client to receive a reminder. The system is designed with fail safes to avoiding messaging flagged clients for safety.

The SMS reminder system is easily integrated with normal intake procedures, with the intake worker asking if the client has the capability to receive text or voice messages, and if they wish to be exempt from the reminder system.  Future developments will include Spanish language reminders, and usability testing should commence in October.


Claudia Johnson ended the webinar with an overview of lay advocacy tools, which may become more important in the near future.  New York, California, and Washington State Bars are considering a modification of legal practice rules which would increase the amount of intervention non attorneys are allowed to contribute. Successfully utilizing technology can increase the volume and reach of these lay experts, and lay advocacy is already taking place to a certain extent.  The field of Health Care was mentioned as an example to emulate, with used as an example, a website with in depth discussion boards and lay experts answering questions and providing detailed resources, under the moderation of a doctor.

Interdisciplinary Apps were also singled out as an emerging development. Application partnerships with non legal aid focused groups could have great benefits, covering a wide range of topics on issues like elder abuse or unemployment.

A full recording of the webinar is available on YouTube. The next Pro Bono Net hosted webinar will be held on October 23rd, and will be on Innovations and Technology Enabled Pro Bono.

September 26, 2013
9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.
San Francisco & Live Webcast

 Chair:  Sally J. Elkington, Elkington Law


 Why You Should Attend

Although the recession is beginning to even out and foreclosures in many parts of the country are in the decline, the recession continues to affect financially marginalized people in disproportionate numbers.  Many debtors are unrepresented and bankruptcy clinics are still in great demand. There is a critical need for pro bono attorneys to assist low-income clients at all levels.  The practice of bankruptcy law changed dramatically with the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act of 2005 (BAPCPA).  The implications of BAPCPA continue to develop in the Courts, all the way up to the Supreme Court.  In the meantime the practice is ever changing and can be quite complicated with even the simplest form of bankruptcy, Chapter 7.  This program was developed for brand new practitioners and those who are either not familiar with the practice or have not practiced bankruptcy law since the passage of BAPCPA.  The program will focus on Chapter 7 bankruptcy, from the day a new client walks into your office to the day you receive notice that they have successfully received a discharge and their case is closed.


What You Will Learn

  • An overview of Chapter 7 bankruptcy including legal sources, jurisdiction, venue, eligibility and the parties
  • Your duties as a bankruptcy attorney and debt relief agency, how to evaluate and interview a client, how to choose between a Chapter 7 or Chapter 13, and your responsibilities of investigation (due diligence)
  • How the discharge works and the effectiveness of the automatic stay
  • How to protect the debtor’s property through exemptions
  • An in depth overview of the means test
  • How to prepare the schedules in a Chapter 7 and prepare your client for the meeting of creditors


Who Should Attend

This program was designed for the practitioner, paralegal and legal assistant who is new to bankruptcy or new to BAPCPA.  If you want to volunteer in pro bono clinics, develop bankruptcy as one of your practice areas or are a new attorney who wants to develop a bankruptcy practice, this program will give you the tools you need to get started.


To register please visit the PLI website or call Customer Services at (800) 260-4754.

About the Series

Pro Bono Net is proud to present this series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the legal relief efforts to get their thoughts on the successes, lessons, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of an upcoming conference on October 17, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.

This week, we are delighted to share our interview with the Sandhya Reju Boyd, Executive Director of Brooklyn Jubilee – a faith-based, Christian organization dedicated to pursuing social and economic justice throughout Brooklyn. The interview was conducted at Brooklyn Jubilee’s Sandy relief operations trailer in Coney Island.


Sandhya Boyd
Sandhya Boyd

JH: How did you come to work at Brooklyn Jubilee? How did it start, and how did you get involved?

SB: I started out as a lawyer in civil legal services and I loved it, but within a year or two of working in traditional legal services settings, I found that something was missing for me and I felt like something was missing for my clients as well, and that was the ability to connect on a spiritual level. On a typical day at Brooklyn Jubilee someone comes to us in crisis, and we talk to them about their legal problem, but at the end of the meeting we will offer to pray for them. For the vast majority of our clients, this isn’t anything approaching evangelism – they’re churchgoers themselves. We’re actually connecting with them on a human level that goes beyond their legal problem and creating a really powerful bond between lawyer and client; we share mutual respect, not just for each other as people, citizens, or neighbors, but as souls.

It is exciting that all of those things came together and we certainly give God all the credit. I loved all my years working for Legal Services, but there’s something special about what we’re doing. We’ve attracted a lot of staff who were already church-based people, so this is special for us as well.

JH: Prior to Sandy, what services did Brooklyn Jubilee provide?

SB: We have sites at six food pantries, soup kitchens, and community centers all around Brooklyn—including the trailer we’re in now. The other sites are in Park Slope, Flatbush, and Brownsville. We go to places that already provide services and have developed relationships with the community.

Every other month, we take over the meal at a soup kitchen in Flatbush and offer a diabetic-friendly meal that’s low-calorie, low-cost, and dietician approved. We bring a dietician to the meal who chats with people about the food and general nutrition, and we also bring a doctor and a lawyer. We’ve been doing this for a little over a year and the response from the community has been very positive – generally 90+% of the people say they really like the meal and 80-90% say they intend to prepare the meal at home. We give them the recipes and are hoping to add a cookbook so people can make all our recipes at home.

Integration of services is a big part of our philosophy. We don’t see ourselves as just a law firm but as part of a community network of providers; we want to integrate all of those potential services (for example, helping the formerly incarcerated find job training programs) in what we’re doing.

We get every legal issue under the sun, from “where do I get a job” to “I have an immigration problem” to “I got hit by a bus”. We mostly represent people facing eviction and with public benefits problems; that has stayed pretty consistent for seven years.

JH: Can you talk about what Brooklyn Jubilee did in the immediate aftermath of Sandy? What are you most proud of, and what was most successful?

SB: Three days after the storm, Brooklyn Jubilee staff and volunteers went out to the evacuation centers to see how we could help. From being here in New York after September 11th, I knew that people would have a lot of legal questions – things like how to break a lease and what kind of compensation are victims entitled to.

We visited a lot of evacuation centers in Brooklyn. They were centralizing people into three major centers; the two in Park Slope were getting a lot of attention, but no one was going to the FDR High School Center in Bensonhurst. We went there and spoke with evacuees about their legal rights. We held sessions on Friday and Saturday after the storm and over the next few days we gave over 100 people one-on-one legal advice.

We started working with other legal services groups; we went to hotels and asked if there were evacuees who needed to talk to someone. And we found out about the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, and two weeks after the storm we hosted a legal info session there. We started going there twice a week, and then starting December 31st we were there five days a week. I’m very proud that we’ve been able to provide advice and representation for hundreds of people in the months after the storm and how quickly we got on the ground.

We’re close to $200,000 that we have either recovered or helped people save post-Sandy on recovery from insurance and FEMA, as well as disaster unemployment and rent abatements for tenants.

JH: What do you think the legal community could have done better? What are the lessons if/when future storms hit?

SB: There were a lot of efforts to share resources and information with each other, but there was not enough willingness to work together on cases. There’s a certain sense of pride, which is not unwarranted, but I think in this sort of a crisis it’s important to recognize that it isn’t so much about the legal process but about a community recovering from trauma and that through working together with other organizations we can do more than just draft legal papers – we can actually rebuild community relationships.

Unfortunately, I felt that there were more turf wars around legal cases than there needed to be. It caused confusion and prevented some folks in need of services from receiving them because providers struggled to work together on cases. That’s the one thing I can say I was disappointed with the legal services community as a whole. There wasn’t enough collaboration on casework.

I hope that next time around there would be more trust between providers. We can share credit for hard work, and we can do more together than we can apart.

JH: Nine months after Sandy, what are the big issues and challenges people are still facing?

SB: The biggest legal issue that we’re still working on is homeowner stock, due primarily to insufficient insurance recovery and contractor problems. Contractors did poor work, and now people have to find new contractors to redo the work but don’t have the money to pay. The contractor problems are particularly challenging because a lot of contractors were unlicensed—unbeknownst to the homeowners. So we are filing complaints with the Attorney General, calling contractors, and engaging attorneys.

Another consistent problem is people who were displaced and are struggling to re-establish themselves; difficulties with renewing FEMA rental assistance or just finding an apartment they can afford, and this is exasperated by the fact that many of them were already impoverished.

JH: On volunteers, almost a year after the storm, how can pro bono attorneys be helpful?

SB: Pro bono attorneys have been great following-up on cases, from calling clients to flesh out stories to drafting FEMA letters or affidavits. One of the challenges of engaging volunteers is most providers are looking to refer work out, but we’ve kept all of our volunteering in house—everything is supervised by Brooklyn Jubilee staff. We stay engaged and supervise in all of the cases; otherwise, it limits the amount people who are willing volunteer.

I think having people available, and then getting firms to take on pro bono insurance matters is probably a little ambitious, but having them help us as a legal services community to assess cases and to advise us on case strategy – that has been fantastic. We met with one attorney from an insurance firm and we talked through all of the insurance cases we had at the time, and it was so instructive getting someone with that kind of experience.

Firms willing to take contractors to court would be really helpful, because I don’t know any legal services providers that have the resources to do it.

JH: Same question for law students—how can they contribute to what Brooklyn Jubilee does?

SB: A lot of it is the same: being available for intake, following up on cases by talking to clients, drafting FEMA affidavits and letters, or writing motions and HP petitions for Housing Court. This summer we had students working on insurance cases, drafting letters to claims representatives and following up with clients telling them to get another contractor estimate.

JH: Where do you hope to go from here?

SB: In terms of Sandy, we opened a new site on July 29th and we’ll be working with Legal Services – NYC, providing disaster relief services to homeowners in Sheepshead Bay and Canarsie, where there hasn’t been a strong, on-sight legal presence. We’ll be at Investor’s Bank in Sheepshead Bay; they are giving us their conference room every Monday evening.

We’ll definitely be in Coney Island through the end of the year. We’re still getting new people in every week with disaster issues, whether its homeowners who have given up on trying to do things on their own, people we’ve been working with for months whose cases aren’t getting traction, or cases we’ve been working on that are going well. I feel like we’re going to get another disaster of Sandy proportions before too long, and I think the expertise we’ve developed this time is going to be needed again much too soon.

Today is Citizenship Day (aka “Constitution Day”), which commemorates the signing of the U.S. Constitutionin 1787 and recognizes the efforts of people who have made the decision to become American citizens. It’s a great occasion to ask this question: Did you know that there are more than 8 million green card holders in this country (sometimes called “the forgotten 8 million”) who could become U.S. residents right now—if they only wanted to?

In the U.S. there are more than 8 million green card holders who could become residents right now. Photo courtesy of the New Americans Campaign.

Pro Bono Net is pleased to be taking part in Citizenship DayThe National Immigration Forum is partnering with the New Americans Campaign to host a press conference and reception in Washington D.C. to highlight the importance of citizenship services and showcase the way NAC’s national partners have been pushing forward innovations in the field. Pro Bono Net’s Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, will present on the intersection of technology and citizenship services.

“Immigrants are often early adopters of technology, which is why CitizenshipWorks provides easy-to-use online tools to help low and moderate income individuals answer important questions about their eligibility, better understand the process and prepare for their citizenship tests,” says O’Brien.

Details on NAC celebrates Citizenship Day can be found here.

The New Americans Campaign aims to modernize the ways in which service providers help these Lawful Permanent Residents embark on the naturalization process. But to many green card holders it is tempting to maintain the status quo because they think they’re only missing out on the ability to vote. Many don’t realize that there are economic benefits—both for the individual and the nation—to becoming a citizen. For example, a study published in December 2012 by the University of Southern California (“Citizen Gain”) found that citizenship alone can boost individual earnings by 8 percent to 11 percent, leading to a potential $21 billion to $45 billion increase in cumulative earnings over 10 years nationwide. Becoming a U.S. citizen confers other benefits as well: Citizens often become more engaged in their communities, they gain the ability to sponsor family members for immigration, and many government employment opportunities require citizenship.

If you are a Lawful Permanent Resident, simply enter your ZIP code for a list of free legal aid providers near you to get started with your citizenship application. CitizenshipWorks provides easy-to-use online tools to help you answer important questions about your eligibility for naturalization. CitizenshipWorks also has a free app for Android and iOS phones, which can help you get started.

The NAC site has a collection of materials about the economic benefits of citizenship, and a list of activities being sponsored by NAC partners throughout the month of September.

So on this Citizenship Day, if you are a green card holder, mark this special occasion and “zip to citizenship” by entering your ZIP code.  Just give it a try.

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky
Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

A few weeks ago, Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl and I had the opportunity to attend Practising Law Institute’s 15th Annual Supreme Court Review, a day of lively panel discussions about the Court’s October 2012 term that assembled an enviable lineup of prominent legal scholars. The morning session featured panels covering some of the term’s most high-profile issues including the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Voting Rights Act (VRA), and affirmative action. The afternoon portion delved into fascinating but less publicized topics such as the taking of DNA samples from arrestees under the Fourth Amendment, the Court increasing the difficulty of bringing class actions, and the growing debate on genetic patents.

During the lunch break, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky (University of California, Irvine School of Law), a conference co-chair and leading constitutional scholar, generously sat down with us to discuss the need for more pro bono and public interest lawyers, recent happenings in constitutional law, and exciting new developments at UC Irvine. In line with the event’s main themes, Dean Chemerinsky emphasized how the Shelby County (VRA) and Windsor (DOMA) cases will increase the need for legal services in the coming years. In Shelby County, the Supreme Court struck down the formula for determining what jurisdictions must obtain preclearance for their voting procedures from the Justice Department. Dean Chemerinsky believes the main avenue for enforcing the law will likely now be Section 2 litigation – proving that voting practices have a discriminatory effect. This is an expensive and time-intensive process that is beyond the resources of many individuals and smaller nonprofits, creating a massive new need for pro bono and public interest work to ensure VRA enforcement. According to Dean Chemerinsky, the Windsor decision raises a host of new legal issues around same-sex couples’ benefits eligibility and tax concerns that pro bono efforts can help to address.

In light of the enormous need for legal assistance in the U.S., Dean Chemerinsky was eager to discuss the unique programs at UC Irvine School of Law and its emphasis on developing a strong public interest and pro bono commitment in its graduates. UCI encourages public interest work before, during, and after law school. Scholarships are given to students with a background in or demonstrated commitment to public interest work, and students can obtain financial grants that allow them to pass up law firm summer associate programs and instead work for public interest or legal services organizations. One of UCI’s graduation requirements is that all students work at an in-house clinic providing legal services to the poor and indigent, while graduates who have not yet found employment are eligible for a bridge program that will fund temporary public interest work while they look for permanent positions. Additionally, UCI offers its graduates working in public interest law one of the best loan repayment assistance programs in the country. Dean Chemerinsky is hopeful that these programs will encourage a new generation of lawyers to dedicate their professional practices to helping those in need.

Submitted by the Practising Law Institute

Since 2011, the Practising Law Institute (PLI) has helped us champion the necessity of pro bono as one of our Bronze Corporate Sponsors. PLI is dedicated to providing attorneys with information and techniques to develop a professional, competitive edge and recognizes the importance of pro bono in helping attorneys cultivate their skills, develop time management and give back to their communities. We are pleased to share with you some information about their upcoming September 12th Program on Ethical Issues in California Pro Bono Representation.

September 12, 2013

9:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

San Francisco & Live Webcast


Earn Ethics Credit!

 Chair: Robert A. Hawley, Deputy Executive Director, State Bar of California

 Why You Should Attend

While the ethical obligations of Pro Bono legal practice are no different than a commercial law practice, there are practical considerations regarding eligibility of clients, challenging clients, challenging pro bono attorneys, conflicts (similar in theory, different in practice settings), expectations on both sides, case management responsibility, and different delivery models, such as limited scope representation, that cause many professionals to hesitate offering pro bono legal services.  This program is designed to answer questions regarding the professional responsibility obligations of pro bono legal service, encourage attorneys to engage in this professionally rewarding aspect of law practice, and remove ambiguities that are barriers to engaging in pro bono legal services.

What You Will Learn

Experts in professional responsibility and in pro bono service from government practice, private practice, legal services, and in-house corporate law departments will discuss:

Application of the California Rules of Professional Conduct

  • ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct
  • Proposed California Rules of Professional Conduct
  • ABA Standards for Programs Providing Civil Pro Bono Legal Services to Persons of Limited Means
  • Basics of Pro Bono, Including the Definition of “Pro Bono”
  • Why Pro Bono is Considered an Important Part of the Profession
  • Professional Responsibility Concerns Unique to Pro Bono

The faculty will discuss hypothetical fact patterns and illustrate the application of the rules.

Who Should Attend

Law firm pro bono coordinators and partners, law firm associates, government attorneys, registered in-house and corporate counsel, legal services pro bono coordinators, solo practitioners, small and medium firm attorneys engaged in pro bono legal services, judges, and everyone interested in increasing access to justice.

To register please visit the PLI website or call Customer Services at (800) 260-4754.

About the Series

Pro Bono Net is proud to present over the next several weeks a series of interviews reflecting on the legal help provided to victims of Superstorm Sandy in the months following the storm. Our New York-based Program Associate, Jake Hertz, sits down with leaders of the relief efforts to get their thoughts on different aspects of the legal community’s response, lessons learned, and challenges that remain. These themes will also be the subject of an upcoming conference on October 17, co-sponsored by the City Bar Justice Center, the Legal Aid Society, and Pro Bono Net. This blog series, and much of Pro Bono Net’s Sandy work, is made possible through the support of the New York Community Trust.

To start the series, we are excited to share our interview with Sunny Noh.


Sunny Noh of NYLAG
Sunny Noh

Sunny Noh is a Supervising Attorney with the Storm Response Unit (SRU) of the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) where she supervises eight staff attorneys and paralegals in foreclosure, housing, and FEMA benefits as well as provides direct client representation.

JH: Hi Sunny, thanks for meeting today. Can you talk a little about NYLAG in general, as well as your activities around Superstorm Sandy?

SN: NYLAG is a civil legal services agency that has been around since 1990. We’ve grown exponentially over the last several years, and now have about 200 people on staff. Our office is located in the financial district and was flooded during Sandy, so we were temporarily hosted in conference rooms generously donated by various law firms and the UJA Federation of NY, so we were back at work within a week. We immediately began working on Sandy Relief, starting with a few dedicated staff talking with folks in Texas, Louisiana, and other disaster regions to discuss their experiences, and then researching to provide disaster response trainings to pro bono lawyers throughout the city.

We were able to send staff immediately to community agencies in impacted areas with whom NYLAG already had relationships, so we began serving Sandy victims right away. Additionally, we have a mobile legal help center—a legal services office on wheels—that we utilized to go into the affected communities and provide services. We also started a hotline staffed with NYLAG staff and pro bono volunteers.

We originally had three staff members dedicated to Sandy relief, including our director, Ann Dibble. In January we formally launched a Storm Response Unit, and we now have about 30 staff members, including attorneys, paralegals and financial counselors, working in both the city and Long Island. Thanks to our diverse staff, we provide a range of services including disaster benefits, FEMA, and SBA Advocacy; Housing Landlord-tenant advocacy; foreclosure prevention and mortgage relief advocacy; insurance advocacy; and other civil legal assistance. It’s been chaotic, but nine months after the storm we’re happy that we’re able to continue providing services.

JH: So, what initiatives or actions from the legal relief community do you think were really successful?

SN: There was a very strong push amongst NYC legal services providers to have a place at the Recovery Centers. We learned from legal services providers in the Gulf that we would have to fight to have legal aid desks at the centers. I think our effort was successful and clearly demonstrated the importance of legal services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. Our presence signaled to FEMA that legal services should be a key part of the recovery effort. Being on the ground is a necessary element of disaster relief legal services and I am particularly proud of how our legal services community provided it.

JH: Is there a signature project or something that you worked on that you are especially proud of?

SN: I’m really proud of NYLAG’s response with the SRU. I think having staff dedicated to a variety of disaster-related services is important. We have to give a lot of recognition to our generous donors; we received significant grants, including from Robin Hood, The UJA Federation, and the Mayor’s Fund. They all recognized how important it was to provide legal services and to have resources to hire new staff. Consequently, we were able to quickly develop a large Unit, dedicated to Sandy relief work, which has enabled us to react to new and changing issues as they emerge.

I think the SRU is a great model for future disaster relief. All of our staff are general practitioners; they can provide general advice and counsel, but each staff member is dedicated to one area of expertise. The idea is that we all staff sites, we all work on the hotline, and we are all able to provide some advice and counsel, but then we can refer within our unit cases for additional services, including direct representation based on expertise. In this capacity, we are able to represent clients in everything from the insurance mediation program to FEMA appeals to housing court.

JH: What do you think the legal services community could have done better? If/when the next storm happens, what do you hope is a lesson that has been learned from Sandy relief?

SN: New York has a strong legal services community and we were quick to respond, but if we knew then what we do now, our impact could have been far greater; we were all learning for the first time how to navigate disaster relief, benefits, and other issues. Dealing with FEMA has been incredibly challenging, and there is a lot of frustration in the legal services community with how FEMA conducts its business.

New Yorkers didn’t know how to apply for FEMA, so in the immediate aftermath we were teaching people how to apply. Six months out, there were still people who didn’t understand whether they were eligible or had incorrectly been told there were ineligible. For example, we think many more immigrant households could have received FEMA benefits but were unaware that they were eligible or scared to work with a federal agency. If in the future legal services are understood to be an essential part of disaster relief, that would be a big improvement.

Now that we have experience, future disaster responses will be much more coordinated. We know what to expect, what to prioritize, how to assist clients, and what resources we need to ask elected officials and the government for.

JH: Eight to nine months later, what do you think is the role that pro bono attorneys can play? How can they be most useful?

SN: Each month has had different trends. Nine months out, there’s still a significant need, which is a bit disheartening. There is still a lot of need for pro bonos with real estate experience and insurance expertise. One issue that we are seeing is people who either previously or because of Sandy are in mortgage default and are facing foreclosure – we are trying to delay the proceedings so they can qualify for Build it Back or the buy-out program.

We’re seeing more FEMA duplication of benefits denials, which we believe is a signal that we will see a lot more recoupments soon, so assistance in advocacy with recoupments from FEMA would be helpful.

I suspect that there is going to be more need for advocacy as the Build it Back program gets up and running. There is going to be a need for direct advocacy, but also broader advocacy to ensure the program reaches those in need.

We’re also seeing many clients who are having problems with contractors and public adjusters.

JH: Similar question—nine months out, how can law students help?

SN: There are a lot of people who need FEMA advocacy and that is a great opportunity for law students because advocates don’t have to be lawyers, but having legal expertise is helpful.

There are a lot of opportunities for community outreach to educate victims on the relief that they are entitled to. There are still tenants out there who are not getting repairs for Sandy conditions.

I think there are going to be a lot of research opportunities. There are still a lot of issues that we are trying to understand with FEMA; including inconsistent implementation of policies and procedures that seem to have the impact of preventing people from getting the assistance that they are entitled to. Having resources to investigate and ensure that FEMA properly follows its own rules is also necessary.

JH: Is there anything else that you want publicized or want people to be aware of?

SN: We’re lucky in New York to have the legal services community that we do, and resources such as Pro Bono Net that bring people together and create forums for collaboration. The pro bono counsel, legal services, and community organization responses have been really valuable.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this will be the last time that we’re doing this. In the future we will be much better prepared and ready to act. After the Oklahoma tornadoes, we were in touch with Legal Aid of Oklahoma within days to train their attorneys and offer any assistance we could. Access to legal resources when navigating FEMA is incredibly important and our experience with Sandy has given us a lot of insight into what kind of oversight it needs.

The whole experience has been frustrating at times, but also really gratifying. It has been frustrating to see how difficult it is for people to get assistance, but gratifying to see how legal services and other advocates have been able to come together, reach out, and help these folks.