Justice on Wheels in New York and California

In New York City and California, two very different organizations devoted to improving the lives of low-income people are using a common approach to reach underserved populations.

And that approach involves wheels.

New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG) provides free civil legal services to New Yorkers who cannot afford attorneys. With 51 intake sites located in courts, hospitals, and community-based organizations in all five boroughs of New York City as well as Westchester and Long Island, NYLAG helps thousands of people every year with legal problems relating to housing, public benefits, domestic violence, education access, and other issues.

OneJustice, by contrast, does not focus on direct client representation. OneJustice is a California nonprofit organization that helps low-income Californians indirectly—by supporting nonprofit legal services organizations and their pro bono partners. More specifically, OneJustice supports a network of 100+ nonprofit legal organizations and 800 staff attorneys with financial leadership, new fundraising strategies, executive coaching, board governance trainings, and more.

Despite these two organizations’ many differences, they both came to the same conclusion a few years ago: they could serve more low-income people if they brought lawyers into more direct contact with the low-income people they wanted to serve. So NYLAG and OneJustice both started thinking about wheels.

NYLAG spent years developing its Mobile Legal Help Center—a 41-foot-long Freightliner truck custom-designed as a fully functioning legal services office. The vehicular office is a partnership between NYLAG and the New York State Courts Access to Justice Program. Not only is the Mobile Legal Help Center a legal services office; a video link to the New York State courts allows judges to preside over emergency hearings in domestic violence and eviction cases. The Mobile Legal Help Center, which launched in January 2012, was an essential component of NYLAG’s Hurricane Sandy response. Storm victims in Red Hook and Coney Island in Brooklyn, the Rockaways in Queens, Staten Island, and Long Island were able to obtain help with FEMA claims, housing, and emergency public benefits quickly and safely, thanks to the Mobile Legal Help Center—even though NYLAG itself was displaced from its Hanover Square office.

OneJustice started its Justice Bus Project in 2007. The project emanated from the realization that low-income rural Californians were suffering from a double bind; they had lots of legal problems—some of them very specialized issues like water access—but very little access to low or no-cost legal assistance. So OneJustice began coordinating Justice Bus trips to bridge the gap between urban pro bono resources and rural and isolated communities that needed help. Often a Justice Bus trip is born when OneJustice contacts a rural legal services organization to discuss its community’s needs, and that conversation sparks an idea for a Justice Bus trip. Substantively, the Justice Bus has handled problems ranging from elder law to economic development. Recently, the Justice Bus traveled more than 600 miles round-trip to help Native American veterans.

Would a mobile component bring a new dimension to your organization’s work? How are these vehicles funded? What are the challenges of staffing them? The answers to these questions and much more can be found in the new issue of Clearinghouse Review, which features articles on the Mobile Legal Help Center and the Justice Bus.

All Together Now: Partnering with Pro Bono Counsel to Advance Social Justice

HandshakeI am a dyed-in-the-wool legal aid lawyer. Of my 14 years practicing law, I spent only one year in private practice. And although I appreciate to this day many of the skills I gained, I scurried back to legal aid faster than you can say “pay cut.” I love it all--the challenges, the many underdog days, and the deep satisfaction found from helping others in need. I am humbled by my colleagues and their dedication and even more humbled by my clients and their willingness to stand up for what is right.

Over the last six years, my poverty law practice has evolved. As the cases we have taken on got bigger and more complex, so too did the challenges of bringing and financing this litigation. Partnering with law firms enabled us to advance our advocacy agenda without the worry over costs that frequently accompany litigation. Those pro bono partnerships also enabled us to be better lawyers and advocates as we worked alongside seasoned and exceptionally skilled lawyers.

The Shriver Center’s experience with the Chicago, Illinois, office of Reed Smith is a great example of a successful pro bono partnership. Reed Smith attorneys have worked with us on three major housing and civil rights cases. By working together to build each case and share responsibilities, we were able to accomplish a lot of good and advance social justice along the way.

But we also had a lot of fun. I only hope that Reed Smith found as much joy working on these cases as we did: when a group of clients, well into their 80s and 90s, protested at the offices of one of the potential defendants and forced from them an on-the-spot apology; when the federal law changed (to our clients’ benefit) on the eve of a Seventh Circuit brief being due; and when we got to tell a client that their actions not only changed the law but helped thousands of people like them.

That is the joy of law and of helping people in need that you do not soon forget. Our many thanks to the pro bono attorneys at Reed Smith for their partnership, and to all of the law firms and lawyers who rise to this important challenge.

Meeting the Legal Needs of Military Veterans, Servicemembers, and Their Families

Today we are seeing the needs of military families being raised to level of national importance. First Lady Michelle Obama, along with Dr. Jill Biden, has made improving the lives of military families her signature issue, and this is reflected in a proposed expansion in funding for military support programs in the president’s 2011 budget. Improving the focus on military family issues is welcome, as the burdens placed on the men and women of our armed forces have increased throughout the past decade, where active-duty servicemembers have become accustomed to frequent and lengthy deployments overseas. This trend has imposed great challenges on our military families, which may not end upon the servicemember’s discharge into our already-sizable veteran population. These include, unfortunately, a full range of legal issues, many of which are unique to those currently and formerly serving in the armed forces.

As these legal needs have grown, they have been met with many local, state, and national initiatives enabling attorneys to step forward to deliver much-needed legal help to active-duty sevicemembers and veterans. And where military culture had historically adopted a “we take care of our own” attitude when it came to providing legal services to its members, the military legal assistance establishment is now grateful for the support of and collaboration with the private bar to act as a “force multiplier” to extend the range of services and legal counsel available to servicemembers, often delivered at a reduced cost or free-of-charge by the civilian attorneys.

There is much that a private bar attorney can to do aid our current and former servicemembers. Many military families encounter civil legal needs, such as:

  • landlord/tenant matters, including deposit recovery problems related to Servicemember Civil Relief Act (SCRA) lease terminations;
  • family law issues, especially child custody disputes arising around overseas deployment;
  • credit and lending problems, which can include payday loans, auto sales contracts, and interest rate reductions under the SCRA;
  • employment issues, particularly for National Guard members and Reservists needing to enforce reemployment rights;
  • guardianship needs, or estate matters on behalf of families of deceased servicemembers; and
  • securing vitally-needed benefits for veterans from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

In the fall of 2009, the Shriver Center published a special issue of Clearinghouse Review featuring articles written by military and civilian attorneys on these and other topics affecting veterans, servicemembers, and their families. This issue of the Review is an important tool supporting work done to expand access to justice for current and former military members, and it is available online for subscribers; nonsubscribers may purchase individual articles, or order the entire special issue. Any military legal assistance attorney may have free access to the issue through the American Bar Association Military Pro Bono Project website. Attorneys, whether in legal aid, pro bono, or private practice, can do much to help military families, and this issue of the Review illuminates how such assistance can be provided.

For more discussion on these issues and the important role that can be played by members of the civilian bar, please join our Shriver Center Dialogue on Accessing Justice: Military Veterans, Servicemembers, and Their Families, Friday, February 26, 2010, at DLA Piper 203 North LaSalle Street, Chicago, IL 60601, at 8:15 a.m. Presenters will include advocates working to meet the legal needs of this important population. We hope you will join us to find out how you can get involved with giving back to those who have sacrificed so much for us.