Today's Pro-Bono Lawyer Is A 'Multiforum Advocate'

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Housing problems have long been a major focus of pro bono legal work in New York City, but as the recession tightens its grip here, the variety of legal needs is swelling. Responding to the large demands of a growing needy population, Legal Services NYC – which claims to be the largest provider of free legal services to the poor in the country – recently released a report making the case for strengthening legal services in everything from health care access to credit fraud.

The report, New Yorkers In Crisis, is more a panorama of the social landscape for the 3.1 million New Yorkers living below 200 percent of the federal poverty line – meaning those earning $36,620 for a family of three – than a plan of action. According to the Legal Services Corporation, a federal organization whose grantees include Legal Services NYC, more than half the low-income people who need legal help don’t get it because of a lack of providers. That situation is likely to worsen in New York City, where the municipal budget for legal services was slashed in half last year. Another important source of funds, the state IOLA account, which is funded by a statewide tax on legal services, has shrunk along with falling interest rates.

“Low-income people need the same things all people need to lead healthy and productive lives: shelter that is safe and affordable, easy access to quality healthcare, safety from personal harm and opportunities for employment and education,” says attorney Raun Rasmussen, the author of the report. “Lack of sufficient income makes all of these essential needs much more difficult to secure. Housing is unaffordable, substandard, and fear of eviction constant; city agencies are more likely to threaten to remove your child; adequate healthcare can only be found in emergency rooms; protection from violence is much more difficult to secure; and discrimination is more likely to adversely affect your ability to access necessary benefits and services. Well-coordinated, carefully targeted legal assistance is essential to help low income people solve these problems.”

Rasmussen is familiar with the effects of economic meltdown on low-income families. Before becoming chief of litigation and advocacy at Legal Services NYC, he worked for 18 years as a housing attorney in south Brooklyn. In a phone interview, he spoke with City Limits about staying motivated despite the budget crunch.

Your report covers the role of legal services in food stamps, housing, health, education and many other areas. Why publish such a wide-ranging overview right now?

We started planning this report in the fall of ’07. It was the beginning of the Spitzer administration, and we thought there’d be lots of money for new programs. We wanted to look at the needs of low-income New Yorkers across the city, and to start some strategic planning so that we’d be ready if more money came down the pipeline.

Of course times have changed radically. Now we in the poverty advocacy community need to be even smarter about filling the needs of our clients. [Legal Services NYC] provides legal services in a large number of areas that we studied, so it made sense to take a thorough look.

Still, there’s no way to be totally comprehensive. There are new reports almost every day about some specific demographic or policy. [CL: For example, NEDAP's new look at Ensuring Access to Fair and Affordable Financial Services.) In New York we have such an incredible community of advocates, analysts and activists, so it was important that we acknowledge all the great work that other people have done.

How is your organization going to use this report to decide where to focus your legal efforts?

All legal service organizations follow the money to a certain extent, but we also want to tell funders where the needs are. It’s a two-way process.

In terms of shifting priorities, that’s a tough call. We’re already delivering services in areas of critical need. I think our focus will be more on strategy. Are we collaborating as effectively as we could with other legal service providers, the private sector, the mayor’s Center for Economic Opportunity?

We’re also going to focus on what we call multiform advocacy. Lawyers tend to think of themselves as litigators first and foremost, but we have to think outside this role for the sake of our clients. In the past few years, as the courts became more conservative, we realized it was tougher to make progress through litigation. People started moving towards legislative, policy and media work. This is part of that effort.

Are there any particular themes in the report that you think are generally overlooked by legal advocates?

Education. Stopping an eviction of course is critical, but helping a kid get an education that allows her to get a job when she gets done with school is also critical. Employment and education are transformative areas, but in civil legal services they get very little resources. Usually we’re focused on managing crises.

Is Legal Services NYC tackling any new areas in response to the recession?

Three years ago, the city put funds into legal work on unemployment insurance. That got cut back in the spring, and we are trying to raise money to start again. The fact that this kind of service will put money in people’s pockets, that shows an obvious need. Of course, once again we’re in crisis response mode, but that’s also part of our strategic planning: to retain the ability to respond to a crisis.

Citywide, about 33 percent of people out of work receive unemployment insurance. In the cases we take, 85 percent get it. Of course, that’s partly because we only take cases we think can win. We know that in many of these cases, there’s no way the client could win on their own.

Do you think the state is deliberately trying to keep people off the unemployment rolls, like what has been reported to happen with welfare applicants?

We actually have a solid working relationship with the current head of the Department of Labor. We’ve had a lot of discussions on how the system can be made more accessible. It’s true that some unemployment officers are tougher than others, and some are biased. But I think at the moment, the DOL is trying to create an extremely fair system.

The welfare system is much tougher for people to negotiate. Over a third of people receiving welfare are in process of being sanctioned. It’s just an enormously costly system—you have the emotional energy, the fiscal and bureaucratic energy being consumed in punitively cutting people off.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing recently about New York reverting to 1970’s-level problems. You were a Brooklyn housing lawyer for 18 years. How does today compare to when you started out?

I think things are worse now. There are far fewer affordable housing units. Vacancy decontrol was a disaster for our clients, as is the refusal of landlords to take Section 8. The expiration of Mitchell-Lama over the past 10 years has reduced subsidized units. Combine that with static incomes and welfare budgets not going up since 1990.

The advocacy community has responded to all this. We pushed for the Jiggetts legislation, for one. We are in a long, constant fight to make progress on behalf of low-income people. I’ve learned how tenacious and creative the advocacy community in New York is—that was one of the great benefits of writing this report.

– Lindsey McCormack