As founder and executive director of Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS), Lisa Schreibersdorf ’84 has devoted over 20 years to helping low-income New Yorkers navigate the criminal, family, and immigration justice systems. Under her leadership, BDS has grown to become one of New York City’s largest legal services providers.
“After graduating from St. John’s Law, I became a public defender, a profession I‘ve stayed in my entire legal career,” Schreibersdorf says. “Although it was a formidable undertaking to start a public defender office, I felt I could create something that would be able to do more for poor people who are arrested than was the norm in 1996.”
Today, BDS’s interdisciplinary staff of 180 attorneys and 120 social workers, investigators, paralegals, re-entry specialists, jail liaisons, community organizers, policy specialists, and advocates assists nearly 40,000 people annually in Brooklyn. Drawing on their diverse expertise, the staffers provide legal assistance across a range of practice areas, including criminal defense, family defense, and civil justice, and immigration defense.
“I’ve been fortunate to have many of my St. John’s Law friends working beside me over the years as BDS has grown from 20 to 300 employees,” says Schreibersdorf. One of them is her classmate Bob Gunther '84, a partner at WilmerHale who serves on BDS’s Board of Directors. Most recently, the two have joined forces to bring a lawsuit in Manhattan federal court asserting that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) refusal to bring detained immigrants to the Varick Street Immigration Court for their hearings, and its decision to replace in-person appearances with remote video teleconferencing, violates the immigrants’ constitutional rights.
“The idea for the case came out of a phone call that Lisa and I had last year,” Gunther shares. “Lisa mentioned that ICE had just implemented its ‘refusal to produce’ policy for detained immigrants at the Varick Street Immigration Court in Manhattan and, from there, WilmerHale quickly began a collaboration with Lisa and two of her key staff, Civil Rights Counsel Brooke Menschel and Pro Bono Counsel Jessica Nitsche, to challenge the policy.”
The complaint before the federal court names seven individual detained immigrants as representatives for a putative class of all detained immigrants who have been, or will in the future be, subject to the refusal to produce policy. There is also a sub-class of detained immigrants who have a disability that provides them with additional protections under the Americans with Disabilities Act. “We filed our motion for class certification just last week,” Gunther says. “We’ve also sued on behalf of the three service providers that make up the New York Immigration and Family Unity Project: BDS, Bronx Defender Services, and the Legal Aid Society.”
It’s meaningful work for Gunther. “I really believe it’s every lawyer’s obligation to spend part of his or her time helping those in need,” he says. “I’m proud that WilmerHale is a national leader in pro bono representation, and I’m thankful that my colleagues have fully supported our efforts in this important case.”
Schreibersdorf is also grateful for the collaboration. “A project like this can’t be undertaken without a strong team effort,” she notes. “This type of partnership brings out the best in both a non-profit like BDS, which has the direct experience with the issue as well as the strong foundation for class action work, and a firm like WilmerHale, which has the federal litigation experience and resources to supplement our staff. Bob has been leading this effort, and the impact of that type of commitment from a partner can’t be overstated. I’m honored to team with him in such an important case that can have a profound and lasting impact on the immigrants we’re representing.”