The New York State Attorney Emeritus Program (AEP) provides volunteer opportunities to seasoned attorneys eager to give back to their communities. Over a two-year registration period, these volunteer attorneys pledge their time and expertise, committing to 60 hours of unpaid civil legal assistance. AEP connects volunteers to legal services organizations or court programs that need pro bono lawyers. Marissa Wallace, the Americorp VISTA for Pro Bono Net met with Ralph Wolf, senior attorney at the New York State Unified Court System to discuss the AEP program in more depth.
Can you give a brief overview of the Attorney Emeritus Program. How did it come about and what is its mission?
Created by former New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman in 2010, the AEP was established to help New Yorkers with legal needs who cannot afford legal counsel. The program is designed to enhance the capacity of New York State legal service providers that are facing increased demand for services, including Legal Assistance of Western New York, Inc. The AEP engages seasoned lawyers in pro bono projects under the auspices of the legal service providers.
The New York State Unified Court System’s Attorney Emeritus Program works with the organized bar and legal services programs to place:
- attorneys in good standing,
- retired or active,
- who are at least 55 years old,
- with a minimum of 10 years’ experience in pro bono civil legal service opportunities.
Emeritus attorneys who are engaged in active practice earn up to 15 CLE credits for pro bono work with an approved AEP host legal services organization, bar association or court program.
How has the program evolved since its inception?
The pandemic transformed the delivery of civil legal services for AEP and our partners. Providers now routinely offer remote services. The technological and programmatic innovations introduced during the last three years have laid the foundation for sustainable delivery models. Virtual services continue to expand providers’ reach to include formerly hard-to-reach clients, including those with mobility issues,
work or caretaking responsibilities that make in-person appointments difficult, and who live in remote areas of the state. The expected long-lasting impact of the pandemic on civil legal services is an
opportunity for the AEP to strategically deploy resources where they are needed the most, including in underserved areas throughout the state.
COVID created some obstacles to the AEP … and some opportunities. For example, when the AEP started, almost all volunteering was in person. Today, many of our volunteers work remotely. In fact, about 22% of our volunteers live out of state (and about 3 % live outside the country). Many of our host organizations have remote opportunities and some even have platforms exclusively designed to facilitate remote client video and/or phone interactions. Also, the remote option gives volunteers in our urban centers opportunities to help in rural communities.
The AEP programming has adapted to the new remote reality too. Where we have always held quarterly information sessions for new volunteers, we now also have bi-monthly remote drop-in sessions for experienced volunteers. The volunteers who attend these sessions appreciate the community of volunteers that these sessions foster.
Many AEP host organizations strive to provide culturally-appropriate services that take into account and try to dismantle structural racism. The AEP team recently conducted a survey to ascertain Emeritus Volunteers’ interest and experience in diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB), as well as intentional DEIB practices of host organizations. Over the next few months, the AEP plans to use these survey results to design training and resources for Emeritus volunteers and AEP host organizations. We hope that, over time, this initiative will promote model diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) practices by AEP stakeholders that leverage Emeritus pro bono resources.
Who benefits from AEP?
The volunteers benefit by volunteering and helping our community, especially for attorneys who are later in their careers and looking towards, or already retired. The opportunities to take that experience and give back to the legal community by mentoring younger lawyers and giving direct legal services to communities in need is invaluable to the volunteer and to those they serve.
The population that the AEP serves are people who do not qualify for free counsel and who cannot afford a lawyer. In many cases, that is the working poor. Free legal assistance is limited to those unable to pay for legal services. Most state laws define low income as 125% of the poverty level in that state. That amount is $32,188 for a family of four living in New York State. I’m not sure that a family of four living in New York City earning $100,000 could afford a lawyer. The AEP helps fill the civil justice gap for the working poor.
Opportunities for civil legal services are extraordinarily diverse and include, for example, limited-scope and full representation, appellate advocacy, administrative hearings, drafting legal documents and manuals, brief advice, working on hotlines, and supporting special projects – to name a few. Some of the areas where the AEP provides assistance include housing, immigration, consumer debt, benefits, family, trusts and estates, bankruptcy, domestic violence, matrimonial, reentry and employment.
How do you recruit and engage experienced attorneys?
Potential volunteer attorneys need to meet our age and eligibility requirements. Our latest innovation is the AEP website – NYS Attorney Emeritus Program (nysattorneyemeritus.law). Using this website, a volunteer can search for opportunities by subject matter, location, in-person or remote, etc. When an attorney completes their biennial registration with the court, they can opt into the program. With the new website, interested attorneys can go directly to the website from the New York State attorney registration page and sign up to be an AEP volunteer.
We also contact law school alumni associations and bar associations and find similar opportunities to get the word out. We reach out to eligible lawyers wherever we can find them.
Once we’ve recruited an AEP attorney, we find out about their volunteer interests, their legal experience and how they want to serve their community. Together with our host organizations, we can train volunteers to meet the needs of the people that they serve.
What are some examples of Attorney Emeritus projects and case work?
AEP Attorneys engage in a wide range of legal representation and support. We work with our volunteers to find the right opportunity with our partners. Some AEP volunteers create a unique experience with outsized impact.
An attorney from the NY Attorney General’s Office joined the AEP Volunteer Team and leveraged his extensive litigation experience, focusing on research and writing to assist the organization. His contributions covered a wide range of client-specific issues, including the Soldiers’ & Sailors’ Civil Relief Act, service of summons & complaint in a divorce in Kosovo, revisions to Pace Women’s Justice Center’s Retainer, default motions, and the confidentiality of addresses held by the Child Support Collection Unit. This volunteer’s research and analysis were invaluable to PWJC, enabling new avenues of litigation strategy and having a significant positive impact on the organization and its clients.
Another attorney, a former staff attorney for JustCause, encouraged numerous volunteers to join AEP, recruiting 30 AEP volunteers for the organization. Her commitment extended beyond AEP, as she collaborated with a local law firm and the University of Rochester to establish the HELP-U Program, which provided wills clinics for low-income housing residents over the age of 60, and she assisted transgender clients in obtaining name changes to align with their gender identity. Once retired from JustCause, she has continued her pro bono work by joining AEP herself and actively participating in clinics, including bilingual wills clinics, and accepting clients directly.
How do the Feerick Center and the New York Courts work together?
The Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law School and the Unified Court System Office for Justice Initiatives work closely together to administer the program.
The New York State Unified Court System’s Office for Justice Initiatives directs the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program. The Office for Justice Initiatives works closely with the Permanent Commission on Access to Justice, the Advisory Committee on Access for People with Disabilities, and the Office of Language Access.
The Feerick Center for Social Justice promotes the rights and addresses the problems facing marginalized and low-income New Yorkers and individuals seeking humanitarian relief, including asylum-seeking families and unaccompanied immigrant children. The center links the social justice community serving those in need to Fordham and engages the Fordham community in service of national and local social justice initiatives. And through education and collaboration, the center engages with Fordham students, alumni, faculty and administrators to create and implement long-term innovative solutions critical for lasting change. The Feerick Center’s work of providing direct assistance and working in collaboration with others reflects the motto and mission of Fordham Law School— “In the Service of Others”—as well as Fordham University’s expansive Jesuit mission and vision. The AEP benefits from the Feerick Center network and resources every day.
The AEP Advisory Counsel helps the Unified Court System and Feerick Center coordination and convenes twice a year so that its members can stay informed and offer feedback. The Advisory Council members are always available to listen to a concern or offer strategies for expanding the AEP capacity.
How has the program impacted the larger legal community?
The AEP’s greatest impact may be its contribution to the national AEP movement when it started. There were a handful of state AEPs in 2010 and today all but three states have an AEP. The New York AEP continues to contribute to AEP best practices by sharing our experience with other AEPs.
Pre-pandemic and even now, New York Emeritus attorneys have provided approximately 10,000 hours of pro bono services a year through a network of over 65 legal services programs approved to serve as host organizations.
How do you see the AEP progressing in the future?
Since 2010, hundreds of Emeritus attorneys have dedicated countless hours to assist thousands of New Yorkers in need. These pro bono civil legal services by Emeritus attorneys are noteworthy for providing essential services and helping to bridge the state’s justice gap. I hope that we can continue to expand the number of AEP volunteers and our ability to link them to opportunities with our host organizations. Engaging with volunteers where they are and helping them to find an AEP host organization that is right for them is our bread and butter.
How can volunteers get involved?
Learn more about the AEP, check out our volunteer opportunities, and sign up to join us at www.nysattorneyemeritus.law.