NY COVID-19 Pro Bono Task Force Channels the Spirit of Volunteerism

PBI recently spoke with former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, of counsel at Latham & Watkins and chair of the NYC Covid-19 Recovery Task Force, to hear more about what the task force has been up to since its establishment in April and his debut on PBI’s podcast in July.

The NYC COVID-19 Pro Bono Recovery Task Force was created by Chief Judge Janet DiFiori and Hank Greenberg, president of the New York State Bar Association (NYSBA).  Members include leaders from major NYC law firms, legal service organizations, corporations, courts, and law schools.  This partnership with the New York State Court System is charged with overseeing the pro bono network of lawyers and organizations assisting in immediate and long-term recovery pro bono efforts to effectively and efficiently meet the surging legal demands of the pandemic.

The following are updates from Judge Lippman and Latham about the work of the Task Force:

What has the task force been focused on since we last spoke in April? 

Lots! Since April, the Task Force has created sub-groups, or modules, for each of the major areas of substantive legal work being affected by the pandemic. These groups have or are in the process of identifying pro bono projects that can help alleviate the burden on legal services organizations and operational improvements to make providers and client’s lives easier. 

A few success stories include helping well over 1,000 people with unemployment insurance issues, the launch of a surrogate’s court initiative to help process small estates of people who died from COVID-19, the launch of a project to assist with guardianship/adoption issues for children of parents who died of COVID-19, a training series on diversity and cultural humility geared towards pro bono volunteers, a report to the Chief Judge regarding procedural and administrative changes to help alleviate the surge of eviction and housing cases (some of which have already been adopted), and an initiative to second (extern) law firm associates to legal services organizations for 3-6 month periods that is getting off the ground now. 

What are some notable updates that the task force has discovered on the type of legal demands and/or challenges that are arising now and demands and/or challenges that are expected to increase in the future? 

Working with clients and the courts remotely as a result of social distancing practices and general health concerns has been and will continue to be a significant challenge. Several of our modules are identifying ways to better connect pro bono attorneys with their clients remotely. For example, the report I mentioned earlier to the Chief Judge regarding procedural and administrative changes to help alleviate the surge of eviction cases included recommendations to have mandatory adjournment periods when the parties are both represented by counsel during which the parties can assess housing assistance options and pursue settlement in order to avoid going to the courthouse. We are also looking to find ways to leverage the remote working trends by connecting clients in so-called legal “deserts” with pro bono attorneys from more populous areas (in particular from NYC).

What are some collaborations or partnership efforts that have come out the task force formation? 

Each module is a fully collaborative effort that is led by a task force member, in most cases supported by a law firm team, and the modules typically meet with legal services organizations, law schools, in house counsel, local bar association leadership, etc. to get their input into the projects they are creating. 

How can attorneys get involved now, either through pro bono, or to help prepare for the increased demand in legal services? 

Individual attorneys are encouraged to volunteer on the Network’s website.

If you are part of an organization that is interested in getting involved, you can reach out to probono.lwteam@lw.com and our team will try to help connect you with projects you might be interested in.

How well is the NY court system doing with its reopening?  How has the reopening of the courts affected the need for pro bono assistance? 

I think the courts themselves are better positioned than I to assess how the reopening is going. That being said, we do expect and to some extent are already seeing, that the reopening of the courts will to lead to a significant surge in civil cases in a range of substantive areas. Legal services organizations that provide free legal services to those in need are working tirelessly to help meet this need, but with limited resources. This is where pro bono attorneys can provide important support. However, the capacity for pro bono attorneys to contribute varies for each substantive area. For example, housing cases require a significant amount of time, substantive expertise, and in-person court appearances that have historically made it a challenge for pro bon counsel to provide these services. This is why we have developed the module approach to address the unique issues for each major substantive area. 

Has learning to overcome COVID-19’s impact on the justice system had any sort of silver lining that can contribute to combatting racial injustice or is COVID-19 just one more hurdle to be dealt with in seeking to promote racial justice? 

Sadly, COVID-19 as both a disease and societal problem has had a disproportionate impact on racial and ethnic minority groups. This is resulting in disproportionate legal issues as well. I don’t think that we can say we’ve learned to overcome COVID-19’s impact on the justice system yet, but I do think that this pandemic and events that have occurred during the pandemic have brought much needed attention to the disproportionate impacts on racial and ethnic minority groups that I hope will bring about significant positive change in the future.

To hear what Judge Lippman had to share on PBI’s podcast, listen and subscribe to the Pro Bono Happy Hour on Apple PodcastsGoogle PodcastsiHeartRadioSpotifyStitcherYouTube, and wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you to Katie Marren, associate at Latham, for her contributions in this update.