New York Free lawyers NY lawyers log thousands of pro bono hours

By Michael Virtanen

Associated Press

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) -- Her client wept when attorney Elyse Jones Cowgill won asylum for a 19-year-old from Guinea who feared genital mutilation and forced marriage to an older relative if a hearing officer sent her back to Africa.

Cowgill, an associate at Davis Polk & Wardwell, soon did the same for another young emigre from Guinea.

As for Cowgill and her large Manhattan law firm, they were paid nothing. It was part of an estimated 2 million hours of free legal work that some of New York's 161,000 registered lawyers do annually, the pro bono work that is quietly done in the legal community.

Despite the efforts of some firms and lawyers, pro bono only serves a fraction of New York's poor, who increasingly need it for critical cases dealing with eviction, foreclosure, workplace rights,domestic abuse and disability claims. Many other states say their lawyers should do at least 50 pro bono hours annually, more than New York's 20-hour threshold, and seven require annual reporting.

"I treat my pro bono matters just like my corporate matters," Cowgill said, including taking late night client calls. "I care a lot about this work."

At the Legal Aid Society in New York City, attorney in chief Steven Banks said they have to turn away eight out of nine people who come needing civil legal help, mainly "essentials of life." The society has 1,500 employees including 900 lawyers, with 250 staff working on civil issues and getting volunteer help from about 3,000 lawyers and paralegals.

"Unfortunately, these are individuals that will end up among the 2.3 million New Yorkers who are handling their cases on their own in courts, not by choice," Banks said. "And the outcomes for people in court by themselves, judges have repeatedly remarked, are worse than New Yorkers with representation could obtain."

Banks studied the problem as part of a task force appointed by state Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who has budgeted $25 million for civil legal services for the coming fiscal year. The New York State Bar Association listed approval of that funding as its top legislative priority.

The state Interest on Lawyers Accounts Fund, which had been providing about $25 million a year for civil legal services, now provides about $6 million a year.

"We're in a time in which the need is increasing exponentially in the midst of the continuing economic downturn," Banks said. New York's pro bono efforts are already at a high level, he said.

Lawyers, however, are not required to do work "pro bono publico," which in Latin means for the public good.

The Code of Professional Responsibility for New York lawyers says each "should aspire to provide at least 20 hours" of pro bono service annually to people with limited means or to organizations that help them.

The New York Office of Court Administration's 2002 survey showed more than half did none, while about one quarter did 20 hours or more. Reasons many didn't included limited time, no expertise in typical pro bono areas, no support staff and lack of malpractice insurance covering pro bono work.

The American Bar Association, which encourages states to adopt an ethics rule emphasizing each lawyer should do 50 pro bono hours annually, said seven states -- Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Mississippi, Nevada and New Mexico -- have mandatory reporting by lawyers.

In 2006, the New York State Bar Association with 77,000 members started formally recognizing those who report 50 or more hours of pro bono work a year. In 2009, 1,438 did nearly 250,000 hours, spokesman Nick Parrella said.

By the association's count, Davis Polk did more in 2009 than any other large firm, while a half-dozen others provided more than 10,000 free hours. Cowgill was among the top individuals with more than 1,000 hours.

Her first asylum case continues. The young emigre is enrolled in college in New York City, plays a varsity sport, has a part-time job, and has applied for an adjustment in status to get her green card as a resident alien with permanent status.

She declined to be interviewed or identified publicly, fearing repercussions for those who helped her leave Guinea. Through Cowgill, she said she had been "powerless, lost and very afraid."

Cowgill, a former editor at the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, had interned with the U.S. attorney in Connecticut and clerked for a federal appeals judge. She also spent a summer working at Davis Polk and knew the 750-lawyer firm's position that associates can do a lot of pro bono work. She said most want to, though there's no pressure.

In 2008, Davis Polk hired former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ronnie Abrams, deputy chief of the criminal division in Manhattan, for the newly created position of special counsel for pro bono. In 2009, they billed more than 70,000 hours of pro bono work, which included getting Timothy McKinney off death row in Tennessee and a new trial.

Recent Davis Polk cases included getting reparations for more than 100 Holocaust survivors who had worked in German ghettos, back pay for nearly 50 delivery workers denied minimum wages and overtime, advising nonprofits on real estate taxes, helping battered women get orders of protection, and assisting with the prosecution of Khmer Rouge at a tribunal in Cambodia.

The work is also a way of gaining experience, said Cowgill, who as a new associate developed client relationships, wrote briefs, interviewed witnesses, appeared before judges and argued a criminal appeal in the First Department of the state's Appellate Division with both Abrams and one of the partners watching. "You get a lot of responsibility quickly," she said.

Published: Wed, Jan 19, 2011