Brooklyn self-help project leverages pro bono efforts


Two months after its opening (covered in our prior post), the Self-Represented Legal Services Project, at the Brooklyn Family Court, is receiving high grades.   A New York Daily News article “Family Court offers free legal advice” (Dec. 28, 2006) explains that an “unprecedented partnership between private lawyers and state courts” has placed volunteer attorneys from some of the largest NYC law firms on site Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., since November 2nd.   The project is “Led by the Greenberg Traurig law firm, attorneys from Citigroup, Strook & Strook & Lavan; Reed Smith; Dechert and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.”

According to the city’s chief Family Court Justice Joseph Lauria, “It has been really exciting. It was a good idea conceptually and in reality, it is playing out well.”  Judge Lauria explains that, although the court cannot give legal advice, “What we’re doing is making available those who can give legal advice to court litigants.”

Attorney Bill Silverman, from Greenberg Traurig, told the Daily News that 100 people have taken advantage of the project in the past eight weeks.  “Family Court is truly the people’s court,” he said. “There are life decisions being made in congested courtrooms. People are simply not aware of their rights and don’t understand their rights.”

Nota Bene: Silverman goes on to make an especially important point: “[V]ery few among thousands who can’t afford attorneys actually get a judge to appoint one for free. Most lawyers, he said, are just too busy to take on many pro bono cases.”

tinyRedCheck   “This provides us with an opportunity to not take on a small handful of cases but to help dozens or hundreds of people,” [Silverman] said. “It’d be better for everyone to have lawyers, but in this half-hour, we can sort of do a triage and help as many people as we can. It does use resources in a very efficient way.”

Are you listening, bar leaders and groups, law firms, and individual lawyers?  We plan to make this obvious but ignored point again and again here at shlep:  Helping pro se litigants is an especially effective way to use the legal profession’s scarce pro bono resources.  Most Family Court litigants do not need a lawyer through every step of the process (in fact, lawyers often complicate, aggravate and prolong the process) — but, they can often use well-focused legal assistance.  

Pro bono projects, like the one at the Brooklyn Family Court, greatly leverage pro bono efforts.  New York Chief Judge Judith Kaye says she’d like to see this pilot project duplicated throughout New York City.  We’d like to see it quickly spread across the state and the country.


  1. Carolyn Elefant

    December 28, 2006 @ 9:49 pm


    While I commend the effort of the large firms, it would also be nice if they could make room for solo and small firms to participate in the project. It would be a great way for members of all sectors of the bar to work together, a way for solo and small firm lawyers to use their skills and network and it would bring more people on board to help. Solo and small firm lawyers don’t always have the time or infrastructure to organize these types of things, but if someone else sets them up, they can participate, if asked. Just my thoughts. Happy New Year!

  2. david giacalone

    December 28, 2006 @ 11:27 pm


    Happy New Year to you, too, Carolyn. You are absolutely correct that programs need to be available for lawyers in small, medium or large firms, as well as those working in government or as corporate counsel. That’s why I have often suggested that bar associations sponsor such programs. Solos and mini-firms make up the bulk of lawyers in practice in America, isn’t it about time they make use of bar associations to create such self-help programs?

    Law schools might also provide the necessary organizational structure. Of course, courts can themselves structure programs accessible to all lawyers who want to work at a self-help center. For example, there are volunteer attorneys working in Minnesota courts, providing brief legal consults in self-help centers, (e.g., Hennepin County‘s (Minneapolis) Ask a Lawyer (Free Consults) Service, and Dakota County‘s Family Court Self-Help Center). Minnesota’s
    Volunteer Lawyers Network offers services for lawyers who want to give their services.

    A number of NYC bar groups and organizations have joined together to create the NYC Pro Bono Center, which makes volunteering easier than ever, and helps place, train, and mentor lawyers. The DC Bar offers free divorce and custody clinics and a landlord-tenant resource center, for persons wishing to represent themselves in such matters.

    There are many models — and, as we describe in our prior post, the SelfHelpSupport network provides mentoring to help set up and operate volunteer programs. Lots of models. Lots of need. Not a lot of excuses.

  3. Orijit

    December 29, 2006 @ 1:59 pm


    This sounds like an exciting development not only for Brooklyn families but for anyone who lives in a metropolitan area with large law firms. I couldn’t help but notice that the workstation claims to offer ‘legal advice’, as opposed to most workstations which only offer ‘legal information’. Is there an eligibility screening process at the station which allows the lawyers to dispense advice? Do the attorneys who volunteer their time receive malpratice coverage from the larger law firms? These are questions that many who are trying to implement workstations deal with, I was wondering how Brooklyn was able to successfully address these issues.

  4. david giacalone

    December 31, 2006 @ 5:04 pm


    You’ve asked some very important questions, Orijit. I’m going to try to contact attorneys who are participating in this project to ask if they can answer your questions and give us additional information about the project.

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