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St. John’s First Pro Bono Scholars Provide Critical Legal Services to Low-Income New Yorkers

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Justice for all. These words close a pledge made by millions of Americans each day. And they’re a pillar of our legal system. But as Hon. Jonathan Lippman, Chief Judge of the State of New York, shared in his State of the Judiciary address recently, the same words evoke a promise that remains unfulfilled. In reality, a wide “justice gap” leaves many people without the legal help they need when facing foreclosure, cuts in public assistance, eviction, and other serious legal challenges.

According to Judge Lippman, equal access to justice “means that everybody—regardless of race, ethnicity or orientation, irrespective of wealth or poverty, whether we are mighty or weak—each and every one of us gets his or her day in court. Equal justice, that defining principle of our country, requires that every human being has access to the courts and to a judicial system where the scales of justice are exquisitely balanced.” And he has devoted much of his time and energy as the head of the state judiciary to devising and promoting initiatives aimed at making the court system more equitable and accessible.

Last year, Judge Lippman announced the creation of the Pro Bono Scholars Program, with the express goal of “revitalizing legal education to adapt to society’s changing needs.” The program allows law students to sit for the bar exam in February of their third year in exchange for devoting their last semester of law school to full-time pro bono work on behalf of those of limited means. The students start their 12-week placements with approved externship programs, law school clinics, legal services providers, law firms, or corporations in March. They also complete an academic component of the program at their law school.

This year’s inaugural class included over 100 Pro Bono Scholars who collectively donated over 48,000 hours—and individually donated at least 500 hours— to assisting people in need. And program participants who passed the February bar exam are benefitting from an accelerated character and fitness review process and will likely be admitted to practice this summer.

The prospect of getting a head start on bar admission was a big incentive for St. John’s first Pro Bono Scholars, Pardis Camarda, Salvatore Lapetina, and Robert Stanton. After a two-month study period, all three passed the bar exam and are now seeking admission in New York. “I know that people might be apprehensive about taking the bar exam in the middle of their third year,” Stanton says. “It’s hard to shake the idea of having that ‘bar exam summer.’ But we had two solid months to prepare this winter and it was a manageable process.”

All three also rave about their experiences in the program, which is run through the Law School’s clinics. Under the program guidelines, it’s recommended that students take the clinic as a class in a prior semester so they’re very familiar with it at the start of their full-time commitment. “The missions of our clinical legal education program and the Pro Bono Scholars Program are very much aligned,” says Director of Clinical Legal Education Ann L. Goldweber, who heads both programs at St. John’s Law. “Through clinics offered in house and in partnership with outside organizations, our students build essential lawyering skills as they assist New York City’s neediest. We’re the last stop for many low-income New Yorkers. We give them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Having worked as a student clinician and as a summer research assistant in the Law School’s in-house Consumer Justice for the Elderly: Litigation Clinic—which is supervised by Professor Goldweber and Professor Gina M. Calabrese—Pardis Camarda welcomed the opportunity to work there full-time as a Pro Bono Scholar. The clinic is part of the St. Vincent de Paul Legal Program, Inc. and represents low-income, elderly Queens residents in cases involving deed theft, foreclosure defense and predatory lending, home improvement contractor fraud, debt collection, and other consumer matters.

“I love helping people,” Camarda says. “It’s why I went to law school.” She also appreciates the hands-on nature of the work she did as a Pro Bono Scholar, which included conducting discovery, drafting motions, and taking depositions. “Sitting behind books for three years doesn’t give you the full perspective. Law students need practical experience and the Pro Bono Scholars Program allowed me to continue building my practical skills while helping to bridge the justice gap and make a real difference.”

In addition to gaining real-world lawyering skills, Sal Lapetina says he learned a lot about the lawyer-client relationship through his full-time work in the Bankruptcy Advocacy Clinic offered in partnership with Legal Services NYC, the largest U.S. organization exclusively devoted to providing free civil legal services to low-income people. “I learned that it’s important to recognize the human being—and the human struggle— behind the legal matter that comes across my desk,” Lapetina says.”There’s definitely a stigma attached to walking through the door here. People often feel ashamed that they’ve fallen on hard times and are considering personal bankruptcy. I tried to reassure them that there’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Working under the supervision of clinic director William Z. Kransdorf, coordinator of the NYC Bankruptcy Assistance Project, Lapetina learned first-hand about bankruptcy law and practice. He met and screened debtors, gathered documents and information, and prepared bankruptcy petitions for use in Chapter 7 pro se proceedings. “Coming in to the program, I had no idea that there was such a need for civil legal services,” Lapetina says. “I’m happy that I was able to step in and do my part as a Pro Bono Scholar.”

Professor Kransdorf believes that the Pro Bono Scholars Program offers students a clear view of the justice gap and of legal services that they wouldn’t otherwise get. “Law students who think they can’t afford to work in the public interest may discover, through this program, not only how critically important, and incredibly fulfilling, the work is, but also that, thanks to the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, it can make good career sense.”

Just across lower Manhattan from Legal Services NYC is the New York Legal Assistance Group, home to the Law School’s Economic Justice Clinic. Directed by Christopher J. Portelli, a senior attorney at NYLAG and co-director of its Project FAIR, the clinic helps low-income New York City residents whose public assistance, food stamps, shelter allowance, or Medicaid has been adversely affected.

As a Pro Bono Scholar at NYLAG, Rob Stanton negotiated with agency officials and represented clients at administrative fair hearings—quasi-judicial mini-trials held before an Administrative Law Judge. “Only about one percent of the people whose public assistance is at stake are represented by counsel at the fair hearings,” he explains. “It’s an extremely intimidating and complicated process and the clients I helped were very grateful to have someone on their side, guiding them through the maze.” As part of his caseload, Stanton also prepared opening and closing statements, entered evidence, examined witnesses, and wrote memoranda of law.

“The Pro Bono Scholars Program has been a great fit for NYLAG,” Professor Portelli says. “It’s expanded our capacity to take on clients. After spending his first semester learning about—and training for—fair hearings, Rob was able to handle a larger caseload and some more complex matters full-time this semester.”

After graduation, Stanton will work at a private law firm on Long Island, where his practice will focus on workers’ compensation. “The experience I gained as a Pro Bono Scholar has changed my perspective on what it means to be a lawyer,” he shares. “I’ve witnessed the justice gap up -close and understand how far-reaching it is. Now I can’t imagine a life in the law that doesn’t include giving back to those in need through pro bono service.”