When Virtual Still Works: Helping the Housing Crisis in More Rural Areas

Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP Interview

Fried, Frank, Harris, Shriver & Jacobson LLP has partnered with Legal Services of the Hudson Valley to staff a helpline for tenants facing eviction or related housing crises. Through the helpline, tenants can receive advice about their legal rights and assistance with completing pro se forms, such as answers and motions, to file in their cases. In 2023, over 500 clients were provided assistance through the helpline.

We spoke with Laura Sinrod, Special Counsel and Resident Pro Bono Counsel in the New York office. As pro bono counsel, Laura is responsible for directing Fried Frank’s overall pro bono program and supervising individual pro bono projects handled by other attorneys at the firm. Laura was joined by Ilene Hartzband, Director of the Pro Bono Unit at Legal Services of the Hudson Valley (LSHV).

Can you tell us about this project?

Laura Sinrod, Fried Frank: This project is a perfect example of “things we want to keep” from our era of fully remote work.  One of our associates who lives north of New York City became aware of a virtual helpline opportunity for attorneys to advise low-income tenants in her area and in more rural areas throughout the state.  The project offered pre-recorded training, which worked well for many of our associates, and we started staffing the helpline, which

Laura Sinrod
Fried Frank

runs every other Thursday, on a regular basis.  When we were settled into our in-office routine again, we invited the LSHV legal team to conduct live presentations about landlord-tenant law in our office to help us spread the word about the project and build community among our panel of volunteers. LSHV has conducted two presentations to date, and over 200 associates have been trained and have participated in the project.

What has been the role of Fried Frank in this project?

Laura Sinrod, Fried Frank: We provide advice and counsel, and sometimes further limited-scope assistance, to tenants in Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Dutchess, Orange, Sullivan and Ulster counties who are facing eviction.  Many of the clients participate in subsidized or regulated housing programs and are at risk of losing their affordable housing.  Many of them do not speak English.  With legal assistance, the helpline callers are provided with the tools they need to represent themselves.

Ilene Hartzband
Legal Services of the Hudson Valley

Ilene Hartzband, LSHV: Clients are given advice about potential defenses in their cases and how to seek dismissal or work out favorable settlements that can prevent them and their families from falling into homelessness. Even when tenants have few defenses or options, they can talk through their cases with volunteers to understand the limits of the law and their rights. Fried Frank volunteers have even been able to resolve some cases for tenants and help them obtain additional time to move and/or avoid eviction by contacting opposing counsel after meeting the tenant on the helpline.

Are there any organizations that the firm collaborated with? If so, why are the collaborations with them so important?

Laura Sinrod, Fried Frank: LSHV provides extraordinary mentoring and organization on these cases.  They are available on video conference and email throughout the day of the helpline.  They have helped our associates identify cases that could use a little extra attention after the helpline consultation.  Whenever we take these follow-on projects—short term negotiations and drafting of motions and settlement agreements primarily—they help us strategize and review our work.  Their support makes it possible for attorneys in all practice groups, not just real estate, to participate in this project.

What impact has this pro bono work made?

Ilene Hartzband, LSHV: The helpline has made it possible for LSHV to provide advice and limited-scope assistance to many clients for whom we otherwise may not have capacity to serve. In 2023, over 500 clients were provided assistance through the helpline. LSHV has received feedback from clients that they felt better equipped to respond in their cases, better understood the steps they could take to resolve their cases, and felt heard by the volunteers staffing the helpline. When volunteers negotiate agreements for clients, they often obtain a better result than the settlements we see pro se tenants enter into without such assistance.

What would you say is the most challenging part of this type of project?

Laura Sinrod, Fried Frank: Sometimes the clients do not provide all the relevant documents in advance of our videoconferences.  New volunteers can feel a little nervous about their inability to thoroughly prepare for the meeting as they would in a billable matter.  Working in teams has been helpful, and thinking on your feet is, of course, a great skill to develop as an associate!

Is there any advice that you would give to other firms who want to become more focused on a certain pro bono issue as a firm?

Laura Sinrod, Fried Frank: Seeing the success of this project has inspired me to keep my eyes out for other projects outside of major metropolitan areas.  We know that legal services are in very short supply in New York City and Washington, D.C., where our offices are located, but resources may be even harder to access in high poverty rural areas.  At every LSHV training, I like to remind the audience that New York is a state, not just a city.