Nix and Willow Baer
Down the Legal Jargon
Law students receive recognition for increasing pro-bono activity
right here in the Capital Region
by Chris Shields
Classes end tomorrow. Final exams begin in three days. As
the end of their tenure as law students looms, Willow Baer
and Olivia Nix rise from their seats to the sound of firm,
though polite, applause and approach the podium that’s set
up inside the New York State Bar Center in Albany.
the law-students award,” begins Mark Alcott, president of
the state Bar Association, announcing the duo from Albany
Law School as recipients of one of the more than one dozen
awards presented today, April 30. Baer and Nix are among the
youngest of those recognized at the award-ceremony luncheon,
which honors practicing attorneys and law students for outstanding
pro-bono work with the President’s Pro Bono Service Awards.
Nix and Willow Baer formed the Albany Law School Pro Bono
Society to increase pro-bono service by students,” Alcott
In less than two years, Nix and Baer laid the groundwork for
the Pro Bono Society, a student organization that has expanded
the availability of pro-bono services in the Capital Region.
During the past academic year, they established a help desk
to assist individuals filing paperwork at the Albany County
Family Court, collaborated with the Legal Project to staff
a clinic to help individuals with divorce paperwork, and partnered
with the Legal Aid Society on a project assisting with landlord-tenant
common theme is that the people who are helped are low-income,”
Baer says. “They can’t afford lawyers, so there’s not much
help for them, and for law students to be able to contribute
is great. We don’t need to get paid. We’re in school, and
we have the time to give.”
It’s not the first time Albany Law students have rallied together
to establish an organization designed to promote volunteerism
and pro-bono work, says Joseph Connors, the current faculty
advisor of the Pro Bono Society and a professor at Albany
Law School for 14 years. “There have been other attempts,
but none as successful as this one. As a professor, I definitely
felt the enthusiasm of the students. It was really refreshing
to see how committed they were to making this happen.”
While as many as 50 students participated in at least one
of the society’s projects during the past year—considered
substantial student involvement by Albany Law officials—Baer
and Nix took the helm in terms of organization and leadership.
As the two prepare for their graduation, however, they are
looking for ways to ensure that the Pro Bono Society continues
to provide both pro-bono opportunities for law students and
legal services to low-income residents in the Capital Region.
the start, our goal has been to make sure that [the Pro Bono
Society] is institutionalized,” Nix says. She and Baer are
in talks with the school’s administration, hoping to attain
what Nix calls “institutional support,” which would provide
the organization with office space and year-to-year funding.
Just about everyone involved in the legal profession agrees—the
need for pro-bono legal services greatly exceeds the amount
there’s still great unmet legal need,” Connors says. “Only
about 20 percent of poor people in need of legal services
are able to attain them through current resources, so pro
bono is very important. It’s something that we, as professors,
encourage all students to participate in, and I think the
experience that they obtain is very rewarding.”
Baer and Nix, who are active volunteers for a number of both
legal and non-legal causes, say they created the Pro Bono
Society to expose themselves and their peers to for-the-public-good
activities early in their law career. It’s an idea they began
planning during December 2005, but which came to fruition
during the 2006-07 academic year.
really felt that law students should have as many opportunities
as possible to give back to our community and to practice
pro-bono work, which is valued very highly in the profession,”
The American Bar Association recommends attorneys provide
at least 50 hours of pro-bono service each year. Once they
are admitted to the New York State Bar, the association recommends
attorneys in the state give at least 20 hours.
Several community organizations, including the Legal Project
and Legal Aid Society, both of which have partnered with the
Pro Bono Society, work to provide legal assistance, especially
to low-income residents.
While Albany Law offers second- and third-year students many
for-credit pro-bono opportunities, Baer and Nix, who both
have participated in these clinical opportunities, wanted
to provide an alternative to this formal commitment.
wanted to set up shorter-term projects, where students could
test out a variety of different projects,” Nix said. “So,
we started the Pro Bono Society with the idea of being—and
we kind of laugh at the word—but being a clearinghouse for
pro-bono opportunities throughout the community.”
Each year, more than 18,000 petitions are filed with the Albany
County Family Court by both individuals and government agencies—everything
from petitions for child custody to temporary orders of protection
and adoption forms. As with any legal action, many petitioners
seek the assistance of an attorney in order to ensure forms
are complete and accurate. For those who lack the financial
means to hire such services, however, the process can be long
the public comes in, we ask them all the preliminary questions
to be sure that they have the proper papers to fill out,”
explains David Cardona, chief clerk. “Although we make the
petitions as simple as possible, if you don’t do that type
of work and you’re not involved in that type of business,
a lot of questions are hard to answer.”
While court staff is available to answer some basic questions,
they are stretched thin in terms of manpower, and petitioners
often are left to make sense of the forms’ legal jargon on
some time, Cardona says the court had considered creating
an on-site “help desk,” at which petitioners who visited the
courthouse could stop by to receive one-on-one assistance.
The idea never came to fruition, however, until he was approached
about working on a project with the Pro Bono Society.
The help desk quickly became one of the society’s most high-profile
projects, say Baer and Nix. Most mornings the help desk was
staffed by at least one member of the Pro Bono Society, with
nearly 30 students volunteering their time at one point or
Working as an arm of the court, the students sat one-on-one
with litigants to provide a less stressful and less confusing
experience, Cardona says.
are pressing family issues that are very time-sensitive,”
Nix says. “To have this paperwork be in the way is a real
struggle for people.”
The help desk also saves time for court staff and judges.
everything’s not written down and the questions aren’t answered
clearly, it ends up being the judge and the judge’s courtroom
staff trying to sort through why they’re really in court,
what the underlying issue really is,” Cardona says. “So, a
lot of times when they fill [the forms] out themselves, court
time is wasted. This way, with the law school there, the petitions
come in much more complete, much more to the point. It works
very, very well, and it helps the judges out tremendously.”
best freyends,” says Baer, temporarily throwing her
voice into a Southern drawl to make light of the serendipitous
nature of hers and Nix’s relationship.
met during orientation on our first day of law school, and
it’s a good story because we met because of public interest,”
Nix says. She explains how, during the guest-panel portion
of orientation, a speaker discussed matters of public interest.
asked a question,” Nix says, addressing Baer.
asked a question,” Baer agrees. “[The speaker] was talking
about public interest and how important it was if you were
interested to stay interested and be strong. I asked, ‘How
do you keep that going when you’re in school all the time
and you have a lot of student loans; what’s your advice to
stay committed to it?’ She said to hook yourself up with a
network of people who think like you and have the same dedication.
We went on lunch break and Olivia comes running up and says,
‘Were you the person who asked the question?’ and we’ve been
friends since then.”
The Pro Bono Society developed out of that friendship and
their shared commitment to philanthropy.
felt it was really important for people to start getting an
understanding of how important it is to serve low-income people
who need legal services,” Nix says. “That was our big push.”
In addition to the project at the Albany County Family Court,
the society partnered with the Legal Project to assist low-income
individuals filing for divorce.
people we help are generally working poor who are living week-to-week
off their paychecks, who are working many, many hours, sometimes
multiple jobs,” says Lisa Frisch, executive director of the
Legal Project. “They may have child-care issues, employment
issues and bankruptcy issues. You name it. Then to add this
on top of it, that they have to figure out all this paperwork,
is a lot to ask.”
In many ways, filing for a divorce—even the simplest form
of divorce, called uncontested divorce—is a lot like doing
taxes, adds Courtney Kirker, a second-year student at Albany
Law, who participated in the divorce clinic. “You can definitely
equate it to doing your taxes,” she says. “I would say it’s
worse though because it’s more personal.”
The paperwork required, she says, consists of “two huge packets:
one’s instructions and one’s the actual packet.” As with filing
taxes, determining what needs to be reported, and how and
where it needs to be reported, can be just as confusing, too.
Although others were able to work with multiple individuals
during that time, Kirker says she only was able to help one
woman because the complexities of the client’s situation complicated
the filing to the point where it would have been nearly unmanageable
for the client to attempt filing on her own.
Kirker also participated in the Pro Bono Society’s landlord-tenant
project with the Legal Aid Society. The project involved updating
the resources Legal Aid attorneys use in landlord-tenant litigation.
[in landlord-tenant disputes] tend to recur a lot,” explains
Malcolm McPhereson, an attorney who works with the Legal Aid
Society. “They tend to be similar issues from case to case.”
However, the Legal Aid Society hasn’t updated its database
of these issues since the 1990s. To give Legal Aid attorneys
a more recent picture of the research on these issues, volunteers
from the Pro Bono Society researcherd new cases and decisions
related to each issue, compiling the results so that attorneys
will be able to quickly pull the most recent information.
terms of the work with Legal Aid, they [members of the Pro
Bono Society] really responded to a pretty concrete need,”
says Lillian Moy, executive director of the Legal Aid Society.
“Landlord-tenant really is the bread and butter of Legal Aid
work. Anything that makes it easier for us to provide high-quality
representation is great.”
Although the Pro Bono Society has achieved several successes
during its inaugural year, the future of the organization
is somewhat uncertain as the society’s founders and core leadership
prepare for their commencement tomorrow (May 18).
recruiting student leaders for the future, but it’s a little
bit up in the air,” Nix says.
In order to ensure the livelihood of the Pro Bono Society
even after their departure, Baer and Nix have been in discussions
with Albany Law officials, including Richard Ludwick, vice
president for enrollment management and student affairs.
of the things that happens to student groups is that they
ebb and flow in terms of their vitality depending on the students
interested in it and how active those particular students
are,” Ludwick said. “What we’d like to do is provide a framework
of support so, even during those times when students may not
be as actively interested as Willow and Olivia are, that the
group still continues to be an important part of the student
life on our campus.”
The mission of the Pro Bono Society actually aligns well with
a plan for encouraging the professional growth of Albany Law
students and alumni that Ludwick proposed when he was hired
almost two years ago. His model for a professionalism center—that’s
a working title—would encompass three key components of legal
professional development: pro-bono work, ethics, and continued-legal
education, the latter of which is required of practicing attorneys
so that they are informed about changing trends and topics
Bringing the Pro Bono Society under the umbrella of the professionalism
center would not only institutionalize the organization, per
the wishes of Baer and Nix, but could result in making the
society’s leadership position a paid work-study opportunity.
Ludwick hopes that Albany Law’s new professionalism center
will be functional by the time students return this fall.
What this means for the Pro Bono Society is that even though
its future leadership may be uncertain today, it likely will
materialize again during the next academic year, something
the community organizations the society has partnered with
during the past year welcome.
hope that the society will continue after their [Baer and
Nix] graduation and that the same energy and commitment will
be there,” says Frisch, who would like to partner with Albany
Law students to assist with divorce clinics again next year.
“It’s a great connection between us and the law school.”