Originally published by NYS Office of Victim Services

New York, NY (October 1, 2018) – The New York State Office of Victim Services today announced a new website connecting crime victims with information and free civil legal assistance is being piloted in three Western New York counties, allowing victims to learn about their rights and connect with resources or legal representation. Established using $1.5 million in federal funds secured by the state agency, the New York Crime Victims Legal Help website will initially serve Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties and will expand to serve crime victims Upstate and on Long Island by the end of 2019.

Continue Reading New York Crime Victims Legal Help being piloted in Erie, Genesee and Niagara counties

Pro Bono Net would like to recognize the thousands of volunteer lawyers who make a huge difference for those in need. We are celebrating Pro Bono Week, October 25-31, by honoring those dedicated volunteers. Each day we are spotlighting a pro bono volunteer in the community on our organization’s website in the Volunteer Profile section. As our second profile, we are spotlighting a piece on Christopher Mendez, a former volunteer at Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS) NY, written by Bill Lienhard, its Executive Director.

Fifty Hour Pro Bono Requirement Prods Former Marine to Help Bronx Health Organization

Author: Bill Lienhard, Executive Director, Volunteers of Legal Service NY

Chris Mendez, Former Marine and Pro Bono Volunteer
Chris Mendez, Former Marine and Pro Bono Volunteer

 

 

Bill Lienhard, Executive Director of Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS), shares this very special story about Christopher Mendez, a Senior Compliance Officer for Invesco Ltd, and a former Marine. This piece speaks to Chris’ journey through NY’s 50 hour pro bono requirement, his passions and time as a volunteer in VOLS Microenterprise Project, and the important work of his client, Community Health Worker Connections. 

 

 

 

 

With nearly 1,000 volunteer lawyers serving 3,000 clients each year, it’s not possible for me to get to know every client and volunteer and to take the time to understand the impact of pro bono legal assistance in particular cases.   Every so often, however, my feet get itchy, and I have to get out of the office, meet the people involved, and see what my organization, Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS) is actually doing.

I was in this mood when, in response to a mass email to VOLS’ Microenterprise Project participants, I received this concise and enthusiastic email from Chris Mendez, a volunteer in the project:

“I believe you’ve been briefed on the pro bono work that I’m doing with Community Health Workers through SoBRO [South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation] to satisfy NY’s pro bono requirement for admission. The project is moving along nicely. I thought perhaps we can grab lunch or coffee in the coming weeks so that I may formally introduce myself and give you an update on the work that I’ve done and what I’ll be doing with them going forward.”

Here was my opportunity to get out there and see VOLS in action! Although VOLS focuses on recruiting lawyers from large law firms, and not on individual volunteers, I was curious to see, first hand, the impact of Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman’s requirement that people applying to become lawyers in New York State first complete 50 hours of pro bono service.   Who was Chris?  What was the impact of the 50 hour rule? Why was Chris volunteering? What was he doing? Who was he volunteering for and what impact was it having?  I decided to go and find out the story. I am very glad that I did.

Chris and I met for lunch near Bryant Park, and then again at his office at Invesco, where he works as a Senior Compliance Officer. Chris grew up in Mt. Holly, NJ, as the eldest of five children.  His father emigrated here from Guatemala in 1981 and his mother is from Florida.

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Volunteers of Legal Service is a New York based organization. It leverages the good will, resources, and talents of New York City’s leading law firms to provide pro bono legal assistance to the city’s neediest residents.  Through their projects, their attorneys provide pro bono assistance that helps reunite families, stave off evictions, resolve immigration issues, win vital government benefits, and start small businesses.

VOLS logo

 

 

 


Once again we wish to thank all of the volunteers that continue to make our mission of increasing access to justice a reality. Come back each day this week to view the next Volunteer Profile spotlight!

Interested in volunteering?  Check out our “Volunteer Tools” page to learn about the range of resources we have at Pro Bono Net to help mobilize and engage pro bono volunteers, or start searching for opportunities right now by using our national Pro Bono Opportunities Guide!

Earlier this year, Pro Bono Net partnered with JASA of Legal Services for the Elderly in Queens to develop a new web app that enables social workers to perform quick legal screenings for homebound and disabled seniors. JASA assists many at risk Queens seniors with their emergency issues, in particular housing, consumer debt, and elder abuse cases. However, many seniors are homebound or face significant obstacles getting to legal help and a courthouse. In many ways they personify the broader justice gap in America.

In January, Donna Dougherty, Attorney-in-Charge at JASA, heard about Chief Judge Lippman’s new Court Navigator program and joined the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services in New York to work on a model creating a similar pilot for social workers assisting seniors and the disabled. In February, we partnered with JASA and began working with Georgetown law students in Professor Tanina Rostain’s course, “Technology, Innovation, and Legal Practice” to develop the app. Our Executive Director, Mark O’Brien, had been invited by Professor Rostain to teach the spring semester along with Kevin Mulcahy, the Training Director for Neota Logic. A generous technology donation from Neota Logic allowed the students’ app design to become reality.*

App Development

Before beginning the development process, Donna asked JASA’s social workers what they wanted and just as importantly what they did not want in an app. The social workers were nervous about crossing the line between providing support and legal information and giving legal advice. They are in a client’s home for a limited time so the app had to be easy-to-use, quick to identify potential issues, and provide concise and clear suggestions for action.

The other crucial consideration was practical – many of JASA’s clients do not own computers and/or do not have Internet service. Initially JASA and PBN looked at using iPads – they’re portable, user friendly, and can access the Internet over a cellular network. However, the team quickly realized that they could also be limiting and that making a more universally accessible app was a better use of resources. Thus, they settled on a web app! Social workers would carry small, lightweight laptops and use iPhones as mobile hotspots to access the app.

With these needs in mind and a budget of about $5,000, Donna and Pro Bono Net’s Adam Friedl began working with the Georgetown students in March and had a completed app by the end of Spring Semester. Donna acquired all the tech equipment within two months of starting the project and so the project roll out was ready to begin within 6 months of the start-date. Over the summer, the app, christened the Debt & Eviction Navigator (or DEN), launched.

Roll-out

As the roll out began, the social workers were apprehensive and in some cases resistant about using technology – some had never used a laptop or a hotspot. After a small amount of training however, they quickly realized 1) how easy the DEN is to use and 2) its massive potential to help streamline services and allow JASA to provide more holistic assistance. They can now give their clients information easily, quickly, and clearly. Most importantly they can help people who otherwise cannot access the court system.

Over the past several months, JASA social workers have used the DEN to interview over two hundred people. About five were homebound and had an immediate legal issue (e.g. they had a lawsuit pending against them in court). Without the DEN, these clients might not have known that their issue was pressing. Without the new navigator program, they would not have been able to access the court system.

After identifying that a homebound client has a legal issue, JASA brings the situation to the court’s attention and the client is able to access the justice system remotely. For example, the social worker can assist a client to file an answer online, verify their identity and intentions with the court via VoIP and online video calling, and then have their filing marked as “homebound” and sent to judges who are familiar with the new system.

Future

Donna is really excited about the potential to use similar apps to increase access to justice for homebound and otherwise isolated Americans. The development process was fast, easy, and inexpensive. As providers and the courts gain experience they will be able to make more powerful and efficient apps in the future. Investments today will also decrease future development costs; iPads, hotspots, video conferencing technology only have to be bought once.

The combination of technological advancements and a court system willing to experiment enables gatekeepers – those with the most consistent contact with hard-to-reach people – to extend access to justice to often-neglected populations. Donna envisions apps that could help in foreclosure cases, disaster relief work (where computer access is often limited or non-existent), and with language issues. The DEN is just the first iteration in the exciting future of access to justice apps!

*Editor’s note: Michael Mills, President and Chief Strategy Officer of Neota Logic, is a Pro Bono Net board member.

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net is highlighting innovative and inspirational pro bono stories.Visit the Celebrate Pro Bono site to learn more about Celebrate Pro Bono.

Below, we are pleased to provide an overview of MassProBono, one of our biggest projects of the past year.

In the late 1990s, in the midst of the technology boom, the legal aid community in Massachusetts sat down to talk about the need for statewide websites. They planned to have three websites: MassLegalServices, to support legal aid advocates; MassLegalHelp, to provide general legal information to the public; and MassProBono, to connect private attorneys to volunteer opportunities. MassLegalServices and MassLegalHelp were built into successful sites over the years. While the URL for MassProBono was reserved, the site never came to fruition.

MassProBono, a site 15 years in the making, launched in late April. Barbara Siegel, Project Manager at the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association, discussed with us the history behind the site and the exciting plans for how it will bolster legal services in the Commonwealth.

Three years ago, legal aid coordinators from across the state began meeting together again after a long hiatus. The renewed idea for MassProBono grew out of these conversations, and the Volunteer Lawyers Project (VLP) received a Technology Initiative Grant from the Legal Services Corporation to help the idea finally become a reality. Pro Bono Net was the natural choice to help build the site. While Massachusetts has a strong existing legal services network, MassProBono will fill a critical void in pro bono needs, efficiently matching volunteer lawyers with legal services organizations across the state.

The site is also a product of coordination with the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and the Massachusetts Bar Association (MBA), which for years has maintained a pro bono opportunities guide that lists organizations needing volunteers. However, the MBA was using an antiquated listing system and agreed to collaborate with VLP on an Opportunities Guide for MassProBono that will encompass all existing listings from the decommissioned MBA guide.

The new MassProBono site will serve primarily to match pro bono volunteers with opportunities. “It’s giving pro bono programs a forum where they can be very visible to a wide population,” explained Siegel. “The other side of that,” she noted, “is letting people out there who are interested in pro bono really see the wide array of what is available and the different ways that they might be able to volunteer based on their background and how much time they have.” Like other Pro Bono Net sites, MassProBono also raises awareness of the need for pro bono and highlights the great work that the legal community is undertaking.

MassProBono strives to involve organizations from across the state. The Greater Boston area is typically well served thanks to easy access to a large legal community; however, other areas of the state have the potential to gain great benefits from the new site. Siegel explained that the site also makes geography less of a barrier through online mentoring functions and pooled resources.

In addition to an attractive new layout, Pro Bono Net developed several exciting features for the Massachusetts site. Resources can now be directly submitted to the site library using an email form, allowing for easier and more efficient sharing. The site also features a new projects tool that allows volunteers to find short-term pro bono opportunities such as walk-in legal clinics. This tool grew out of a shift in the pro bono field towards more unbundled and limited assistance representation. The availability of these short-term opportunities has proliferated and the projects tool on MassProBono will connect volunteers with limited available time to these projects. The opportunities guide for the site has also been integrated with the projects and cases tools, allowing members to quickly discover all available opportunities.

The launch of the site was met with excitement from the Massachusetts legal community. Programs that are not already tied into the legal community were particularly eager to begin utilizing the new site, according to Siegel. These programs are now able to connect with the greater pro bono community in Massachusetts and gain access to the wealth of available resources. On the other side of the equation, lawyers in the community are also excited about the new site – particularly those not employed by large firms. “A lot of pro bono is done by people in small firms and people who are unemployed and they don’t have access to a pro bono coordinator who will give them a list of opportunities,” said Siegel. “I’m really excited about what the site can do for those folks.”

In honor of National Celebrate Pro Bono Week, Pro Bono Net and LSNTAP partnered to produce a pre-Celebrate Pro Bono Week webinar on innovations in technology-enabled pro bono. Moderated by Adam Friedl of Pro Bono Net, the webinar presented examples of new innovations in technology to support pro bono, as well as tips on how to make these technologies more effective and helpful for pro bono programs.

Paul Haidle, Director of the Volunteer Attorney Program at New Mexico Legal Aid, kicked off the presentations by discussing their virtual legal fair, in which attorneys gather at a central hub and connect with clients in rural areas using Skype. Additionally, Haidle explained steps to developing a successful rural clinic and technology considerations for a virtual clinic.

Next, Ric Morgan, a private attorney, and Beth Anderson of Johnson & Associates, covered a virtual pro se clinic concept – free monthly clinic(s) at public libraries across Colorado that link parties without an attorney to counsel over the Internet – and a sample plan for implementing such a concept.

Tony Lu, Product Manager at Immigration Advocates Network, then described work being done on Citizenshipworks 2.0. Citizenshipworks 2.0 is a project currently in development that utilizes expert systems, online forms, contextual information, and video/web chat to connect those seeking US Citizenship to the appropriate pro bono resources.

Afterwards, Brian Houghton, Litigations Projects Manager at Law Help Ontario demoed LHO’s ticket system to manage their remote assistance project, as well as considerations for undertaking such a project.

Lastly, Claudia Johnson, LawHelp Interactive Program Manager at Pro Bono Net concluded the webinar with a discussion of online forms and e-filing projects in the legal aid community.

While this was the final LSNTAP/PBN webinar of 2014, be sure to check out LSNTAP.org for additional information about upcoming online trainings. Materials from this and other webinars in this series are available on the SWEB Support Site.

Last month Pro Bono Net and LSNTAP took the legal community back to school with the 50 Tech Tips webinar. Xander Karsten, the LawHelp Program Coordinator here at Pro Bono Net, moderated the webinar. I suppose one could say he was the principal! The lesson plan covered website launches, productivity and efficiency enhancers, and data analysis and visualization with some general purpose tips thrown in for fun.

Kim Marhsall, Content Developer & Project Manager at Arkansas Legal Services Partnership, kicked things off by highlighting some efficiency enhancing services and apps. My personal favorites were the speed-reading app Spritz (and for PDFs readsy), the language teacher Duolingo, and word finders such as One Look and Tip of My Tongue.

Tony Lu, Citizenship Works Project Coordinator at the Immigration Advocates Network, augmented Kim’s presentation with a focus on general productivity tools. For collaborative project management he recommended Trello and for those times when you’re in a loud office and need to focus, check out Noisli or Simply Noise.

Coming off his recent partnership with Pro Bono Net on OlmsteadRights.org Talley Wells, the Disability Integration Project Director at Atlanta Legal Aid Society, gave some tips for launching a website. Talley’s central tip was to plan, plan plan! Make sure you know what is and, maybe more importantly, what is not possible and think about the site from a user perspective. A good best practice is to have a soft launch and audit your site for accessibility before and after as users find bugs and other issues. In addition, Brian recommended the LSNTAP Guide on accessibility and the Wave.WebAIM tool.

Jessie Posilkin, the Training and Implementation Specialist at LSC, concluded the webinar with some fantastic tips on data analysis and visualization. For those just starting out, she recommended Tuva Labs and School of Data as great resources to learn how to use and display data compellingly. For a bit more advanced work she highlighted SQL School as a great place to learn database querying.

The webinar lived up to the hype and is a great resource for anyone looking for simple (and powerful!) tech tips and hacks. Materials are available on the SWEB Support Site and join us for the next LSNTAP/PBN webinar, Innovations in technology-enabled pro bono!

At the end of July, my colleague Adam Friedl and I attended the Practising Law Institute’s (PLI) 16thAnnual Supreme Court Review. We want to thank PLI, a Pro Bono Net Bronze Sponsor since 2011, for inviting us (again) to the always-fascinating event. The daylong session kicked off with the themes and key decisions of the October 2013 Term. The diverse panel included law professors, practitioners, and journalists who provided a comprehensive and insightful (and occasionally controversial!) overview of the term, with a focus on some of the most noteworthy topics such as the ACA birth control mandate, unions and labor law, and warrantless searches of arrestees’ cell phones. It was a term of narrow decisions that leaned in a conservative direction and may set the stage for more sweeping changes in the future. Many of the panelists agreed that several of the cases were “proxy skirmishes” that avoided the wide ideological gulf on the Court. Adam and I left the program with a much better understanding of the 2013 Term and where the Court is going in the future. We cannot wait to return next year!

Throughout the day, three of the panelists (and the two conference co-chairs!), Joan Biskupic of Reuters, Dean Erwin Chemerinsky of University of California Irvine School of Law, and Professor Martin Schwartz of Touro Law School, were kind enough to sit down with Adam and me to discuss the 2013 Term and the evolving pro bono landscape.

Joan Biskupic
Joan Biskupic

We sat down with Ms. Biskupic for a quick chat before the day’s action began. She has chronicled the history of LGBTQ litigation, and in particular same-sex marriage cases, and recently wrote an article observing that BigLaw pro bono support has been exclusively on behalf of LGBTQ advocates. She traced her coverage of the cause back to a 1993 Washington Post article about contemporary gay rights cases, with a focus on a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that “opened the door to gay marriages.” From there, she noted that the legal community became increasingly supportive of gay-rights – often before the rest of the country. In the landmark 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, the ABA and O’Melveny & Myers came out in support of LGTBQ rights with amicus briefs and throughout the rest of the 2000s, the BigLaw community increasingly lined up on the side of progress. This culminated in pro bono support for the plaintiffs in last term’s key same-sex marriage cases. Ms. Biskupic speculated that demographics and the legal profession’s collegial and inclusive atmosphere contributed to the early support for gay rights.

Dean Erwin Chemerinsky
Dean Erwin Chemerinsky

At lunch, we spoke with Dean Chemerinsky and Professor Schwartz about how the Supreme Court affects the need for pro bono and the Court’s evolving understanding of technology. Last year, Dean Chemerinsky suggested that Shelby County v. Holder would create new demands for pro bono litigation. He echoed those comments this year, saying that without Section 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act or a new act of Congress that requires designated jurisdictions to get preclearance from the Justice Department, election system challenges must go through Section 2 – a far more resource intensive process. In addition, Professor Schwartz commented on the need for pro bono efforts to challenge the subsequent rush of voter ID laws.

On a more Pro Bono Net, technology-centric subject, we asked if they agreed with the New York TimesFarhad Manjoo’s contention that this Term showed the Court to be tech-savvy. They commented that clerks often explain technology to the justices, for example Aereo, but that in Riley v. California, which held that police need a warrant to search a cell phone, the Court relied on high-quality amicus briefs and perhaps most importantly, their own experience. The Justices own cell phones and can appreciate how much information we put on them!

Professor Martin Schwartz
Professor Martin Schwartz

We concluded by asking how UC Irvine and Touro encourage pro bono in their student bodies. Touro has a 50-hour pro bono graduation requirement, which is separate from the 50-hour rule for admission to the New York State Bar. Similarly, UCI requires students to go through a clinical experience, supervised by a faculty member, before being eligible for graduation. In 2013, 92% of UCI students performed pro bono service and the average was over 100 hours. The school also provides 10 fellowships a year to assist graduates who are interested in public interest jobs. Dean Chemerinsky and Professor Schwartz hope that these programs and the spread of innovative pro bono and public interest service delivery models will help increase access to justice in 21st century America.

This past August, Pro Bono Net partnered with LSNTAP to produce a webinar on online intake in legal aid. Moderated by Claudia Johnson of Pro Bono Net, the webinar reviewed online intake, what it is and how it fits in the delivery of legal services continuum, in addition to sharing two different program model implementations.

Joan Kleinberg, Director of CLEAR/Private Bar Development at the Northwest Justice Project kicked off the webinar by sharing how they developed their online intake in Washington State and the lessons they learned from the experience. Breckie Hayes-Snow, Deputy Director at the Legal Advice & Referral Center followed-up with an example from New Hampshire. Both programs made great recommendations on how to maximize the potential of online intake projects.

Next, Bob Aubin, a paralegal and self-employed developer, discussed technology nuts and bolts of online intake, and what legal non-profits need to consider and be aware of (from a technology perspective) before they start an online intake project.

Ed Marks, Executive Director at New Mexico Legal Aid wrapped up the training with an example of how to use intake data to facilitate and support regional resource allocation and collaboration across agencies as a way to promote systemic regional advocacy and effective resource allocation.

A worthwhile resource for those considering online intake projects and those already doing online intake, materials from this informative webinar are available on the SWEB Support Site. Be sure to join us for the next LSNTAP/PBN webinar!

With funding from the Legal Services Corporation Technology Assistance Grants, Pro Bono Net is organizing its first online developer training for the online legal services and court document assembly community. This five week series will start on 9/9/2014 and will end on 10/7/2014. Each two hour session will teach basic A2J Author and HotDocs skills, so that legal aid groups, pro bono groups, and partner court staff can learn how to create online forms through LawHelp Interactive. The training series has been well received and with quick and heavy registration. The webinar series will be recorded and in November, PBN will release the recordings for those who could not join the series. The trainers for this series include

  • Jessica Bolack Frank from A2J Author
  • Marc Lauritsen of Capstone Practice
  • Bart Earle also from Capstone Practice
  • Mirenda Watkins and Claudia Johnson from Pro Bono Net

More information can about the series is available at the LHI Support Trainings pageLawHelp Interactive is operated through a collaboration between Pro Bono Net, LSC, and the Ohio State Legal Services Association. LHI hosts over 3,000 online forms that are used daily in over 40 states by self-represented litigants, clinics, pro bono lawyers, and legal aid staff to efficiently create legal documents and increase access to justice. Teaching how to create online forms is of utmost importance as outlined in the LSC Technology Summit Report. In the second quarter of 2014, over 130,600 legal documents were created through LawHelp Interactive.

Last week, Jon Weinberg, the Pro Bono Net and Montana Legal Services Association 2014 AmeriCorps VISTA, completed his year of service. Before he left, we asked Jon a few questions about the past year and what’s next for him. We’ll miss him and we hope you join us in thanking him for his tremendous work over the past year!

Our 2014 VISTA, Jon Weinberg
Jon Weinberg

PBN: What interested you in the VISTA program and in service with Pro Bono Net specifically?

Jon: I became interested in VISTA after I decided to defer law school for a year. I realized I could benefit from working and getting non-academic experience working for a cause or organization I believed in, and VISTA really fit the bill. The Pro Bono Net VISTA opportunity particularly stood out because of PBN’s unique role in utilizing technology to advance access to justice and the opportunity to work with the legal community and learn about the law from a different perspective. Also, my family (like almost everyone in the New York area) was affected by Sandy and I saw the continuing needs and wanted to help with recovery.

PBN: Tell us about some of the projects you’ve worked on in the past year.

Jon: My projects have revolved around Pro Bono Net’s efforts related to disaster legal services. In New York, I aided PBN’s efforts supporting attorneys responding to Sandy and helped institutionalize a more permanent disaster legal response network following a reception, needs assessment survey, and focus group meetings. I worked with our partners at the Legal Services Corporation to help develop and convene a national advisory group of disaster legal experts to assist legal services responders. For the re-launch of the National Disaster Legal Aid Resource Center, www.disasterlegalaid.org, I supported the project team by soliciting information for a pro bono opportunities guide, adapting the previously-developed FEMA appeals tool, creating a toolkit and assisting with design choices and content migration.

PBN: What was your favorite project? Why?

Jon: My favorite project was probably working with attorneys in New York and New Jersey on a more permanent disaster network effort. Although I won’t have a chance to see the network truly come into being, I learned so much from assessing needs in the community and working closely with partners to propose a solution that’s both feasible and helpful. It was very inspiring to learn about the substantial response of the legal community to Sandy and I was honored to have had the opportunity to support efforts to continue collaboration.

PBN: How will your experience help you going forward, both personally and professionally?

Jon: Personally, I learned so, so much from working in a professional setting. I now appreciate how different it is from working in school and that working in an office brings with it very different challenges than those faced in classes and with student organizations. Professionally, I’ve learned that the law functions very differently than it’s advertised, and that lawyers have to take on vast, very different responsibilities in their line of work than I would have otherwise expected. The justice gap is very real, and the leap to bridge it requires great strength and determination on the part of lawyers who undertake the challenge.

PBN: What will you miss most about your year at Pro Bono Net?

Jon: I’ll probably most miss getting to work with the program team! It’s really an incredible group. I do look forward to keeping up our gChat conversations though! I’ll also miss being in New York and working at an organization that brings so many attorneys together and supports so many different exciting initiatives nationally. You really do learn something new every day here!

PBN: What are you doing next?

Jon: I’ll be starting law school next month! I’m now much more attuned to the challenges faced by attorneys who want to do good, both from legal services and the private bar, but I’ve also been inspired by those I’ve worked with this year who have been able to help people through the law (also through both legal services and the private bar.)

PBN: What is one, totally non-legal related factoid, you learned from your time here?

Jon: I can now say unequivocally that Gregory’s Coffee is unparalleled in Midtown Manhattan! And that soccer is underappreciated by most Americans (thanks Adam, Kevin, Jake, and Mark!)