The Latin phrase pro bono publico means “for the public good.” It’s usually shortened to just pro bono, and it’s a common way to describe legal work that lawyers do for free.
New York has been on pause, but that doesn’t mean legal problems brought on by the pandemic can wait. Now, a newly formed team of lawyers wants to help — free of charge.
Judge Gail Prudenti, dean of the Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University and the former chief administrative judge of the state court system, was appointed to the new statewide legal task force organized by the court system and the New York State Bar Association.
Their mission is to help people deal with a growing number of legal problems caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We're trying to build legal lifelines,” Prudenti said.
“We're trying to put lawyers where they are most needed and where people can have access to them.”
The 16-member task force is recruiting lawyers from all corners of the state, with all different areas of expertise.
Right now, there’s one problem that tops the list.
“We are seeing the greatest need, obviously, for unemployment benefits,” Prudenti said.
That’s because the pandemic brought an economic recession with it. So far, nearly two million New Yorkers have filed jobless claims. More than 260,000 of them are on Long Island.
But unemployment is just the tip of the iceberg: there are domestic violence claims, people in jail who need representation, and landlord-tenant issues.
“Problems don't just evaporate because there’s a pandemic and everyone's home,” Prudenti said.
“In many, many instances, there’s actually a fast forward.”
Lawyers can help in a number of ways.
“People don't realize that pro bono legal services could help them, whether it's [to] find a resource, or help them get the rights that they're entitled to,” Prudenti said.
The task force will collect data from New Yorkers to determine what kind of help is needed. Then they’ll organize training for the volunteer lawyers, and connect them with people who need help — which will require a workforce in itself. That’s why Prudenti is working with deans from 14 other law schools in the state on a plan to get law school students involved, through special COVID-19 externships.
“Students would be engaged in a variety of pro bono projects, working with law firms, bar associations, pro se programs that are already in existence, and also creating pop-up clinics,” Prudenti said.
She said law schools often set up specialized free clinics in times of crisis, like when there’s a hurricane or a flood. Students work with clients, under supervision. They can earn credit, and also provide much-needed legal help to their communities.
“We're looking at a lawyers and law students rescue corps,” Prudenti said.
Even when there isn’t a global pandemic going on, not everyone can afford to hire a lawyer when they need one. That problem is called the justice gap — it’s the difference between the legal help someone needs, and whether they can get access to representation.
“We've been trying to adjust that justice gap and what happens in emergencies like this, it just gets bigger,” Prudenti said.
Courts are hearing some cases right now with virtual services.
Long Islanders who need help with a legal problem can contact their county bar association to be matched with an attorney who can help with issues brought on by the pandemic.
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