MANHATTAN — Matt Longobardi knew when Hurricane Sandy hit that the need for legal assistance would be huge.
The second-year Cardozo Law student was busy with finals after the power was restored in his East Village apartment, so he had no time to volunteer then, but he rolled up his sleeves in a class this semester designed to help low-income New Yorkers devastated by the storm.
The Disaster Relief Law Field Clinic, which ended this week, grew out of discussions between Kevin Cremin, MFY Legal Serivice’s director of litigation for disability and aging rights, and Rebecca Rosenfeld, Cardozo’s director of externships, about the new 50-hour pro bono work requirement for New York State bar admission.
The first-of-its-kind pro bono rule — which the New York State court system announced last May for everyone seeking admission to the bar by 2015 — was intended to address the growing numbers of those who can’t afford legal services.
The six Cardozo students participating in the clinic were eager to take on the responsibility, and through the course logged about 150 hours and assisted MFY's work with 500 Sandy victims, organizers said.
“It was a way to get involved over a longer period of time, rather than just spending a weekend or something helping out,” Longobardi, 25, said. “Sometimes you almost forgot you’re working on Hurricane Sandy issues, because the storm really just worsened a lot of legal issues that people were already facing.”
The students worked with people with disabilities who were displaced from adult homes in the Rockaways, visiting with the residents of Belle Harbor Manor sent to Queens Village’s Creedmoor Psychiatric Center and residents from Rockaway Manor Home for Adults sent to Staten Island, said Cremin, who led the class. They appealed denials of FEMA benefits and played an important role in helping Staten Island homeowners successfully apply for nearly $60,000 in Neighborhood Recovery Fund grants.
“By December, many legal services offices — including MFY — were operating at capacity,” Cremin said. “Without this clinic, hundreds of Hurricane Sandy victims almost certainly would not have known their rights or had access to legal assistance to vindicate those rights.”
When the pro bono rule came down last year, there was some grumbling in the legal world about busy, cash-strapped students being required to do the work rather than actual lawyers.
But many advocates for the requirement pointed to the benefits of pro bono work through legal clinics run by law schools.
“The challenge for organizations will be to come up with projects like this to ensure that students receive appropriate training and supervision,” Cremin said.
The students worked closely with MFY lawyers, meeting with supervisors weekly. They did simulations of client interviews in class, then shadowed attorneys interviewing clients before leading interviews under the observation of attorneys, who provided feedback.
“People suffered so much loss and many are still devastated by what happened,” said Tammy Kom, 33, a second-year Carodozo student who lived in New Orleans during Katrina. “One client we helped lived in a house on the beach [in Staten Island] and actually stayed in it for the storm. The four houses on either side of him completely collapsed and were washed away. He is still there, living in a tent in his living room.”
Though New York’s pro bono requirement is still in the early stages, other states may soon follow. California and Connecticut’s bar associations have issued recommendations to adopt a similar rule, and New Jersey is also considering the requirement.
Helaine Barnett, who chairs the court’s Task Force to Expand Access to Legal Service in New York, said it was too early to report on the ruling’s impacts, but a conference in mid-May would include a workshop looking at best practices on how law schools, legal service providers and the courts can work together.
“We do think it will make a dent in the justice gap in the number of people that have needs for legal services,” she said.
Though many law schools already offer many legal clinics, the National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School is strongly urging the American Bar Association to adopt a 50-hour pro bono requirement modeled on the New York rule that would apply to all law schools across the country.
“The 50-hour rule highlights and creates additional incentives for students to jump in,” the center’s executive director David Udell said.
“When terrible things happen like Sandy, it turns out that law students can make a difference,” he said. “They’re solving legal/bureaucratic obstacles for people when government is unresponsive and action needs to be taken on behalf of vulnerable.”
The pro bono requirement, he added, “says to every student it’s partly your responsibility what happens in the justice system, [and] it partly stops students from sailing through law school.”