The Feerick Center for Social Justice at Fordham Law is working closely with New York State Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman to help tap retired attorneys who want to be volunteer lawyers.
The center, which offers a range of legal services to the urban poor, recently received two New York Civic Corps fellows to assist in setting up a statewide attorney emeritus program.
The program should help alleviate the growing ranks of New Yorkers—more than 2 million annually—who say they can’t afford legal counsel, said Fern Schair, chair of the Feerick Center.
“The demographics in the legal profession are such that about a quarter of the lawyers in New York will be over 65 by this year,” said Schair, who proposed a statewide attorney emeritus program to Lippman in 2009. “Many of those retired attorneys have a lifetime of understanding and tackling legal problems, and that is a tremendous skill to tap.”
The Feerick Center had at-tempted to recruit retired attorneys for the law school’spro bono programs a few years earlier, but it ran into some roadblocks: Many retired attorneys had let their licenses lapse, had stopped taking the mandatory continuing legal education courses and no longer carried malpractice insurance.
Lippman achieved a change in court rules to include an “emeritus” category for New York state attorneys above age 55, which would allow them to forego certain requirements in exchange for volunteering.
“That new category was really the great idea,” Schair said. “If it works here in New York, there are 49 other states that are facing the same demographic issues and legal services issues.”
Civic Corps fellows Madeline Kaye, a former policy intern to David Paterson, and Max Smith, a former paralegal at Pavia & Harcourt, LLP, are developing the program. They are working under the supervision of Dora Galacatos, adjunct professor of law, and Robert J. Reilly, assistant dean. The group is being assisted by intern Tamara Alexander, LAW ’10. Among their tasks are:
• to create a website that is easily accessible to senior volunteers and to people and agencies signing on to the program;
• to identify agencies that are interested in pro bono emeritus volunteers and who are willing to help train them in critical areas of law, such as consumer debt and housing law; and
• to set up a statewide database that can match volunteers and those without legal representation.
“It is essentially starting a new business,” Kaye said.
The fellows already have contacted more than 100 lawyers and 53 organizations with interest in the emeritus program. Their groundwork will be shared with a statewide advisory council—appointed by Lippman and co-chaired by John D. Feerick, Norris Professor of Law and founder of the Feerick Center—that is assigned the task of advancing the program.
“This will enable lawyers to do something that they might have always wanted to do with their profession,” Smith said. “Since they won’t be getting paid, it becomes all about the cause.”
In November, the Attorney Emeritus Program of New York was recognized by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government as one of 167 nationwide “Bright Ideas” of 2010 recognizing innovative government.