Misaskim Cares Features Article On The Work Of The Legal Aid Society

The summer issue of Misaskim Cares features an article on the work of The Legal Aid Society entitled "Legal Assistance in Times of Need." Steven Banks, the Attorney-in-Chief of the Society, and Joel Schmidt, a Staff Attorney in the Queens Criminal Practice Office, were interviewed for the article. Banks praised the Legal Aid staff for "their passion, professionalism and dedication" to the clients. Banks added that Legal Aid staff "is committed to providing representation to families and individuals who have nowhere else to turn. Our lawyers choose to be Legal Aid lawyers in order to provide access to justice."

Schmidt discussed his role as a staff attorney and explained why Legal Aid attorneys are so effective. He said that "They are fantastic attorneys who are passionate about the work they do and the help their provide to their clients. They are on the front lines-- in the trenches-- every single day. They know the significance of each case and they can quickly present an appropriate defense strategy."

The Legal Aid Society: Legal Assistance in Times of Need

In most instances, it strikes like a thunderbolt on a clear spring day! Suddenly, the predictability of one’s daily routine is unexpectedly interrupted by an unanticipated arrest, followed by court appearances, and unfamiliar legal procedures. If an individual is suddenly forced to navigate the justice system, it is important that he or she receive competent legal representation in order to ensure the best possible outcome. For many people, however, retaining an expert attorney is simply unaffordable. They fi nd themselves forced to resort to borrowing enormous sums of money in order to pay for top legal representation. This leaves them buried under mountains of debt for years to come. The tragedy is that in many cases, retaining a private lawyer is simply unnecessary. “I’ve seen with my own eyes that public defenders are really very, very good,” says Judge Noach Dear, a New York City Civil Court Judge. “They’re extremely dedicated and defi nitely on par with any top attorney, and it doesn’t cost you anything.” For clarifi cation, Misaskim spoke with Steven Banks, attorney-in-chief for New York City’s Legal Aid Society. Banks accords high marks to his staff of over 1,000 lawyers for their passion, professionalism, and dedication to their clients. “Our staff of lawyers is dedicated and is committed to providing representation to families and individuals who have nowhere else to turn. Our lawyers choose to be legal aid lawyers in order to provide access to justice.” Mr. Banks adds that since being a legal aid attorney is a highly coveted position, the Legal Aid Society receives many more applications than it can possibly accommodate. The result is a staff of “the best and brightest attorneys in the city.”

The Legal Aid Society

As stated on its website, the Legal Aid Society’s mission is simple yet powerful: “No New Yorker should be denied access to justice because of poverty.” Founded in 1876 by a German philanthropic organization, the aim at that time was to provide representation to German immigrants whose rights were often trampled on by resentful native New Yorkers. First known as Der Deutscher Rechts-Schutz Verein (The German Legal Aid Society), its single attorney handled 212 cases in its fi rst year and triple that number in its second year of operation. In 1896, the Society changed its name to The Legal Aid Society to refl ect its shift from serving only German immigrants to serving immigrants from any country in the world in need of legal services. As New York City grew and its population expanded, the need for The Legal Aid Society’s services multiplied, and by 1911 its lawyers handled over 34,000 legal matters in that year alone. A century later, The Legal Aid Society remains true to the ideals of its founders and continues to passionately provide legal services to lower income New Yorkers in all fi ve boroughs. Today, its staff handles about 300,000 legal matters each year through a full range of services.

Legal Services Criminal Rights

Referring to criminal rights cases, Banks explains that defendants “have a ‘right to counsel,’ meaning that the government pays for representation.” Criminal cases represented by Legal Aid range from relatively minor infractions such as disorderly conduct to extremely serious cases such as murder. According to Banks, however, “Even minor cases can have signifi cant impact on an individual as far as housing, employment, immigration status, and other matters are concerned, so whether a charge is minor or serious, our staff provides the same quality of zealous representation.”

Attorney Joel Schmidt, a legal aid defense attorney and a member of our community, explained to Misaskim why legal aid lawyers are so effective in defending the rights of New Yorkers. As he explains, “They are fantastic attorneys who are passionate about the work they do and the help they provide to their clients. They are on the front lines — in the trenches — every single day. They know the signifi cance of each case and they can quickly present an appropriate defense strategy.”

Schmidt explains that as an additional advantage, legal aid lawyers have instant access to social workers, investigators, paralegals, and hundreds of knowledgeable colleagues. “I also have access to other divisions within Legal Aid, including the immigration, housing, health law, employment law, appeals, and disability advocacy units, so I can easily make a referral to another division within Legal Aid if a client has other needs that need to be addressed.”

Mr. Banks explains the procedure involved in accessing a legal aid attorney. “The city is required to bring an individual accused of a crime before a judge within 24 hours of arrest, and it is at that point that the courts will assign a legal aid attorney to represent him.” He adds that legal aid services are available “seven days a week, nights, weekends, and holidays, to defend individuals in criminal matters.”

Juvenile Rights

As in criminal matters, there is also “a right to counsel” in all legal matters regarding juvenile rights. Mr. Banks elaborates: “We represent children in Family Court when they are the subject of an abuse or neglect case, or when young people are charged with misconduct in juvenile delinquency cases.”

Leah Stern* is enthusiastic about the assistance Legal Aid rendered when she was unfortunately involved in a domestic abuse case. She explained that upon appearing in court to obtain an order of protection for herself and her children from her physically abusive husband, the judge inquired if she was in need of a lawyer. “The lawyer [assigned to me] was a young and very capable woman who understood my story immediately. She helped us from that fi rst time in court, through every stage of our case.”

Leah expresses wonderment and gratitude for her lawyer’s dedication. “She was totally there for me. Every time I called her, she either answered my call or called back at the fi rst opportunity. She directed me through the entire ordeal, and I didn’t have to pay for it.”

Civil Cases

“We also handle matters involving civil problems: housing, public benefi ts, disability, immigration, and employment,” says Banks. However, unlike criminal defense and family court, there is no right to counsel in civil matters. “We have to turn away 80 percent of our civil cases simply because of lack of resources,” he says. “Since all civil legal services are paid for through private donations, our hope is that additional resources can help us bridge that access- to-justice gap.”

Utilizing Legal Aid

In the not-so-distant past, members of our community hesitated to utilize Legal Aid services, wrongfully thinking that private lawyers provide more effective legal representation. Recently, however, that trend seems to be reversing itself, as the community becomes aware of the tremendous professional advocacy provided by The Legal Aid Society. Says Attorney Banks: “Increasingly, we’ve been providing more representation to individuals in Boro Park, Williamsburg, and Crown Heights and that’s something that we take very seriously. When communities need us, we need to be there for communities.”

New Yorkers citywide are indeed fortunate that in times of need, there are lawyers with sterling reputations available to step in and provide legal assistance. The Legal Aid Society’s lawyers view their work not simply as a job, but as a vocation that provides unique opportunities to better the lives of others. As Joel Schmidt puts it, “I see criminal law as a higher calling; where the prevailing currency is the core constitutional concept of liberty and freedom; where an attorney is uniquely situated to help a client in a way no one else can. I’m fortunate to be at Legal Aid, where I get paid to pursue my passion while helping as many people as possible.”

* Name has been changed.