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Olivia Nix and Willow Baer

Breaking Down the Legal Jargon

 Albany Law students receive recognition for increasing pro-bono activity right here in the Capital Region

 

By Nicole Klaas

Photos 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.

“For 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.

“Olivia Nix and Willow Baer formed the Albany Law School Pro Bono Society to increase pro-bono service by students,” Alcott continues.

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 cases.

“The 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.

“From 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 currently supplied.

“Sadly, 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.

“We 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,” Nix says.

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.

“We 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 and confusing.

“When 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 their own.

David Cardona

For 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 another.

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.

“These 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.

“If 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.”

‘We’re 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.

“We 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.

“You asked a question,” Nix says, addressing Baer.

“I 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.

“We 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.

“The 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.

“Issues [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.

“In 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).

“We’re 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.

“One 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 of law.

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.

“We 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.”

nklaas@metroland.net


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