Kurt M. Denk headshot

Reflections on Justice

Q&A with New City Bar Justice Center Executive Director Kurt M. Denk

You were the City Bar Justice Center’s Pro Bono Counsel for three years, before succeeding Lynn Kelly in March as Executive Director. Let’s start there: tell us about how you ended up at the Justice Center, your experience working with Lynn and the Justice Center staff, and how it helped prepare you for your new role.

Law is a second career for me, but I’ve always been committed to service with and for others, and over the years have had the privilege of doing everything from teaching at the undergraduate and law school levels, to working as a prison chaplain, to doing a substantial amount of pro bono work as a litigation associate at Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel. I actually enjoyed being at a firm more than I would have imagined prior to devoting six years of my career to that work, but certainly did know that I wanted to return to public interest and service-oriented work. I also knew from sufficient enough life experience by the time I made the move from Kramer Levin, that it was important to wait for the right move.

Fortunately, my instincts were correct when I decided that the City Bar Justice Center pro bono counsel role was that move. I was familiar with the Justice Center, having done some of my pro bono work through its Immigrant Justice Project and been honored with a Justice Center award in connection with that work. Between that and my interview process, which involved not just Lynn Kelly but also each attorney director of the Justice Center’s dozen legal services projects, it was clear that Lynn and the rest of my future colleagues were people not only who I would learn from, but also who I would feel inspired by as I connected attorney volunteers to the work of the Justice Center and its clients.

In recent development work I’ve been doing in my new role, I’ve described our roughly 30-person team as “small, but mighty” – we’re fewer than three dozen people, serving nearly 25,000 New Yorkers in need each year! That only happens with folks who are smart, generous, committed, and hardworking. So when the opportunity came to throw my hat in the ring to succeed Lynn, I felt prepared – and also confident this was something I wanted to do, and could do – because I had learned so much from, and believed so much in, the people comprising the Justice Center.

It seems that almost every area of the City Bar’s work was busier than ever over the past year and several months. What did you see from the legal community in terms of the response to the pandemic and its impact, both generally and specifically in connection with the Justice Center’s projects?

It’s interesting – oddly prescient and tragic, in some ways – but I still vividly remember from when I began my job as the Justice Center’s pro bono counsel, Lynn Kelly explaining to me that the Justice Center had long positioned itself as an organization that would be a leader in the legal community’s response to disasters. She described to me how lawyers had lined up around the block to assist the City Bar’s efforts after 9/11, and what the Justice Center had done after Hurricane Sandy and other disasters as well. Little did I know what kind of disaster loomed for us all in 2020!

Sure enough, what we saw when the pandemic hit was exactly what we had seen before – only at a digital distance! Yet again, hundreds – eventually, over 1,000 – lawyers stepped up and signed on for our pro bono response initiatives. Pro bono directors at our partner law firms and corporate legal departments contacted me and asked, “what can we do?” – and they meant it! In a short span of time, dozens, then hundreds, of volunteer lawyers advised small businesses, the newly unemployed, frontline healthcare workers, and so many others of our clients. Others produced high-quality research that assisted our policy advocacy in new ways on novel topics that the pandemic presented. The response was truly extraordinary – we just celebrated that in our annual Gala, capturing that volunteer effort’s spirit (#GreatLawyers4Good & #BarOfHope) through custom-tailored artistic performances.

As for impact – we’re proud of what we delivered, which we quantified in terms of thousands of New Yorkers served by our team, aided by roughly 2,000 volunteers who contributed 22,000 hours of service valued at over $15 million. But it also makes us proud that several of the clients whom our programs served made a point of saying they appreciated not just the services we and our volunteers provided, but the heart and compassion they experienced from the lawyers they worked with. If we provided New Yorkers facing incredible vulnerability with hope, in addition to high-quality legal assistance, then we did our jobs well.

When your new role as Executive Director of the Justice Center was announced, you said, “We inhabit a unique historical moment, when hoped-for COVID-19 recovery and political reconciliation will ring hollow if it is not tethered to deep, searching, and tangible movement towards greater racial equity and social justice, including and especially in the legal sector.” What are some ways this can be achieved? What can lawyers, firms, and corporations do to bring real change? What can the Justice Center do?

In many respects, the profound need for pro bono legal services that exists – and I can tell you, we don’t come close to serving all the need that’s there – is a terrible indictment of the society we’ve built. Many if not most of the dozen civil legal services projects that we operate – serving immigrant New Yorkers, families experiencing homelessness, elders, and others at risk of losing their homes, and so many others – well, those projects exist because of structural social, economic, and racial inequality, as well as inequality in our legal system.

So, how do we achieve greater racial equity and social justice, including in the legal sector? It’s, first, by doing the work we’re doing. Because across our projects, anywhere from over half to upwards of two-thirds of those we serve belong to communities of color and other communities historically excluded from equal, and equitable, access to justice.

But also, when doing that work, we can’t just see it as taking a case or a brief legal service from Point A to Point B, or putting in a half day at a legal clinic, and then returning to our normal lives. As lawyers, many if not most of us are products of systemic privileges to some greater or lesser degree. So in addition to doing that case, we need to ask why that case even exists, who it is that we’re advocating for and what they need, and then work, not just their case, but the systems that give rise to that case.

For example: suppose we’re litigating a partition action – which we do! – involving a Brooklyn brownstone that’s been in a family for generations and is at risk of forced sale because an opportunistic investor found an heir with a tiny fraction of an ownership interest in that home, bought that interest, and is now trying to get that home sold at auction. And we know that it will not be sold at market value, that the purchaser is likely to be an insider affiliated with that investor, and that the family that’s lived there will effectively lose decades of accrued equity, stable homeownership and, of course, their home filled with history and memories and hopes. Then we learn that that family is Black, and first bought that home during an era of race-based redlining, and realize that over the years that family also likely had unequal access to credit, also on account of race.

There, we should understand that we’re called to zealously advocate on behalf of that family, not just because our oath as lawyers requires it of us as for any client, but also because in doing so we’re addressing a larger systemic issue. And that’s where the “more” – not just in quantity of work, but in the way we approach it – must happen, and it’s what we call on our partners to do with us, more deeply. We’ve begun attracting institutional commitments from some of our law firm partners to cases like this – not to mention some standout individual volunteers – but frankly we need more to step up and join them.

At the same time, we’ve committed ourselves, at the Justice Center, to better understanding underlying causes of the problems our respective projects address; to working to connect concrete case work with broader advocacy efforts and law reform; and to doing internal work through our new diversity, equity, and inclusion committee and other initiatives to examine how we think and talk about the clients we serve and the work we do.

Before getting your law degree, you got a masters in philosophy and a masters in divinity. Were you always headed toward the law, or did something lead you there? And how have your other studies influenced you, your career, and how you approach the law?

I had contemplated a career in law as a high school student and early in my undergrad years, but was also pulled towards and ultimately pursued, for many years, a vocation as a member of the Jesuit religious order, including ultimately serving as a priest for a number of years. That’s where those philosophy and divinity degrees come from! But, historically, Jesuits have broadly worked in education and in any range of fields and endeavors that do not on their face seem religious. That’s because in Jesuit spirituality, there’s a focus on “faith and justice” as being two sides of a coin, if you will. So, towards the end of my seminary training, when I had begun work as a chaplain at California’s San Quentin Prison, I came full circle, in a sense, and pursued a law degree after my ordination as a priest, with the intention of continuing work in prison ministry, restorative justice, and like areas, while going on to become a law professor.

Personal decisions led me to leave ministry as a Jesuit priest – my now-husband and I are grateful dads! – but all of that training and the work I bring with me from that “first” vocation certainly inform aspects of how I approach my present work and vocation. You can glean some of it in my responses to earlier questions, especially inasmuch as I believe it’s crucially important in the nonprofit legal sector to think deeply about what we’re doing, ask tough questions, and have the humility to learn and to change our own attitudes and perspectives. And, very importantly, to never lose sight of – and, in fact, take as a first principle – the idea that in providing legal services to those who cannot afford them or who are denied an equal voice in society, we’re engaged in human services work. And for that reason, we need to engage in that work with the utmost in respect and compassion for our client, while also, always, keeping an eye towards making our communities, our society, more whole and just and reconciled. That may sound idealistic – it is! – but it really does drive what I do, and how I see public interest law can be done.

What’s next for pro bono? What’s next for the City Bar Justice Center?

First, pro bono providers, ourselves included, learned from the pandemic both how much need is out there, and how it can be addressed more comprehensively. By that I mean we’ve perhaps better seen (or, at least seen anew) how legal problems and social problems profoundly interconnect. Hopefully that insight will move the work of pro bono-driven legal services organizations, and what we ask our pro bono partners to do, towards more integrated, more holistic services – and to temper to some degree the pre-COVID trend towards more and more “bite-sized” and “unbundled” pro bono services. That approach has its place, but it does not effect systemic change and runs the risk of letting us off “easy” by thinking “pro bono: check!” without investing ourselves more deeply in the profound legal-as-social needs of pro bono legal services clients.

Second, the relative success of virtual/remote services delivery gives us insights and tools for building post-pandemic legal services delivery models that are perhaps more comprehensive, can reach more people, and have some new efficiencies that also will allow both more people to secure services, and allow providers to amplify the depth and scope of those services. Those programmatic updates should provide the infrastructure for the “depth” work I just mentioned, which better positions attorneys to both meet more and deeper needs, and to grow themselves, professionally and humanly, as a result of connecting clients and cases to larger causes.

Third – what’s next? All of the above! Here at the Justice Center we’re continually evaluating our projects, looking to provide some closer linkage between some of them to ensure our services are as comprehensive as possible. And we’re doing some important internal work – some study and reflection, if you will – to ensure that in this moment where we have real possibility for a leap forward towards greater racial and socioeconomic equity and justice, that the Justice Center is part of that leap – learning where we need to learn and how we can do better, and leading when and where we’re in a position to do so given the tremendous strengths of our team and our partners in the community and in the profession. We’re at a turning point in history, full of both bright lights and some very ominous shadows. It’s a time to lean into and be part of that light and, as City Bar President Sheila S. Boston has proclaimed, be that #BarOfHope.