III. Increasing Access to Justice
By Lynn M. Kelly
Executive Director, City Bar Justice Center
Prior to the 1970s, “pro bono” as a term was not in standard use in the legal profession. The Legal Aid Society had been set up in 1876 to assist German immigrants in New York, expanding in 1889 to serve all, and important legal work had been performed from time to time without compensation by lawyers, including members of the City Bar. In 1942, in what might now be seen as a prototype of the modern pro bono clinic, the “War Committee of the Bar of the City of New York,” supported by multiple bar associations and managed by the City Bar, was set up to provide free legal advice to men being inducted into the army.
Man and boy taking a walk
The City Bar Justice Center’s Fragomen Fellow accompanies a very young respondent to immigration court.
It was in the 1960s and 70s that the widespread notion began to take hold that providing pro bono legal services to the poor was an obligation of every lawyer. This shift in the legal profession paralleled the wider shifts in American culture, as younger members persuaded the leaders of their profession that equal access to justice required the systematic providing of legal services to those who couldn’t afford to pay for them.

These young City Bar members suggested “that the City Bar sponsor a public-interest law firm to be staffed with salaried attorneys and funded by levies drawn on the large firms,” and in 1976, New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (NYLPI) was founded to “increase legal services to the poor through screening and channeling public law opportunities to participating large law firms.” Among its founders were three City Bar Presidents: Cyrus R. Vance, Sr. (1974-76), Adrian W. Dewind (1976-1978), and Francis T.P. Plimpton (1968-70).

In 1984, in the face of cuts by the federal government in funding legal services for the poor, a second pro bono organization, Volunteers of Legal Service (VOLS), was founded.

In 1987, the City Bar created the Community Outreach Law Program (COLP), which won awards and became a national model for bar associations seeking to provide legal clinics for the poor.

In 1988, the City Bar’s Committee on Legal Problems of the Homeless wrote a lengthy report calling for changes to reduce homelessness, and in 1989 filed an amicus brief in the successful Jiggetts v. Grinker appeal challenging the inadequacy of the public assistance shelter allowance. In 1991, with the Project on the Homeless, COLP helped create a weekly clinic to provide free onsite legal counseling to the homeless population. The Legal Clinic for the Homeless lives on at the City Bar Justice Center, sending volunteers from law firms, corporate legal departments, and Columbia Law School into family shelters in New York City.

In 1991, the City Bar started Monday Night Law, with teams of volunteer attorneys counseling low- and moderate-income clients with civil legal problems. That project continues, with volunteers serving over 1,000 clients a year with a free in-person consultation with an attorney.

Prior to 9/11, no segment of the civil justice sector in New York City was experienced in mobilizing volunteer resources on a mass scale. The families of the victims needed immediate legal help to obtain expedited death certificates; file health and life insurance claims; obtain workers compensation, Social Security, and other survivors’ benefits; and navigate Surrogates’ Court. All segments of the legal profession in New York came together, coordinated by the City Bar, and forged a mass-disaster, legal-response model. In 2006, the City Bar Fund’s pro bono services were renamed the City Bar Justice Center, and its pro bono disaster-response model was employed to help victims following Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Maria, and became a model for relief efforts around the country.

Today, the Justice Center runs the largest civil legal hotline in New York State and trains and guides pro bono attorneys from law firms and a growing number of corporate legal departments in over a dozen programs, helping over 25,000 people a year by leveraging over $15 million worth of pro bono legal services. These programs adapt to the challenges of the times, and they work in tandem with the City Bar’s programs and policy initiatives.

Underpinning the practice of pro bono is the premise that facing bankruptcy, deportation, or the loss of one’s home can be as devastating to a person’s life as a criminal conviction. That’s why the City Bar has put its policy apparatus to work advocating for a right to counsel for people facing the loss of essential human needs. In 2014, the City Bar commissioned research showing that a national immigration federal public defender system could pay for itself through savings on detention, foster care, and transportation. And in 2016, the City Bar issued a report and written testimony in support of a right to counsel in Housing Court for low-income New York City tenants subject to eviction or foreclosure proceedings, which became law in 2017.

The Justice Center’s pro bono programs will continue to evolve and respond to the gaps in the justice system and the interests of the New York legal community. We predict more clinics, more firm and corporate lawyers working together, more unbundled services, more courthouse-and community-based projects, more technology to bring services to people wherever they are, and more access to justice. Pro bono is alive and well on the 150th anniversary of the City Bar, and here’s to many more years of collaboration. As former City Bar President Conrad Harper said, “If our heart as an association is in the profession, our soul is in pro bono work.”

Men posing
The “War Committee of the Bar of the City of New York,” supported by 10 bar associations and run by the City Bar, provides free legal advice to men being inducted into the army.
The forerunner of the City Bar Justice Center, the Robert B. McKay Community Outreach Law Program, is created to provide services to low-income New Yorkers.
The City Bar launches Monday Night Law, providing the public with free in-person consultations with attorneys.
The Legal Hotline, the largest of its kind in New York State today, is established.
The Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice is founded.
Following Superstorm Sandy, the City Bar Justice Center provides pro bono legal services for those in hard-hit communities.
Sign of Legal Clinic
The City Bar Justice Center, in conjunction with the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, launches the Federal Pro Se Legal Assistance Project.
The City Bar Fund, the non-profit 501(c)(3) affiliate of the City Bar, is established. It currently operates four programs: the City Bar Justice Center, the Cyrus R. Vance Center for International Justice, the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, and the Lawyer Assistance Program.
The Association issues report on the “Prevention of Homelessness by Providing Legal Representation to Tenants Faced with Eviction,” and three years later would launch the Legal Clinic for the Homeless.
The Association mobilizes volunteers to assist Chinese people smuggled by human traffickers aboard the Golden Venture, which ran aground off of Queens.
Lawyers line up around the block to volunteer to help victims and survivors of the 9/11 attacks. Some 3,000 attorneys receive training.
The City Bar Fund’s pro bono services are consolidated and renamed the City Bar Justice Center.
The Association commissions research showing that a national immigration federal public defender system could pay for itself through savings on detention, foster care, and transportation.
Report and written testimony in support of a right to counsel in Housing Court for low-income NYC tenants subject to eviction, ejectment or foreclosure proceedings. Int. 214-A is signed into law by the Mayor in 2017.