The Public Service Committee
By Abena Mainoo
The Federal Bar Council’s Public Service Committee seeks to increase access to counsel and assist the courts and administrative agencies of the Second Circuit in their work of administering justice to all litigants. The committee brings together an extraordinarily energetic and dedicated group of attorneys in private practice, public interest lawyers, and judges to pursue these objectives. Under the leadership of Committee Chair Lewis Liman, over the past year the committee has sponsored programs providing pro bono assistance to litigants in Second Circuit courts, conducted trainings for prospective volunteer attorneys, and hosted events showcasing public service work.
Since the fall of 2014, the Asylum Representation Project (“ARP”), with the assistance of volunteer attorneys, has screened the cases of over 90 immigrants, including asylum-seekers with cases pending in the New York Immigration Court, to evaluate their eligibility for relief. The ARP was established in 2011 by the committee in conjunction with Chief Judge Robert Katzmann’s Study Group on Immigrant Representation and Human Rights First. As Chief Judge Katzmann explained on the occasion of receiving the Learned Hand Medal from the Council in May 2012, the ARP aims “to challenge the private bar to take on more pro bono asylum cases and increase firms’ ability to do so by creating a greater capacity to screen potential clients, conduct intake interviews, place new pro bono cases with law firms, and mentor the pro bono attorneys in that representation.” Since the launch of the ARP, over 90 indigent immigrants have obtained pro bono representation for their cases. About 20 of those cases have been placed with counsel since last fall, and the ARP currently is seeking to place several additional cases.
In the past year, another project sponsored by the committee (the Limited Scope Discovery Project in the Southern District) has provided limited scope pro bono counsel to over 20 pro se plaintiffs. Through the project, pro bono counsel represents pro se plaintiffs for the limited purpose of taking and defending depositions and conducting related discovery, as well as engaging in settlement discussions if appropriate. The project seeks to promote early case assessment while increasing pro bono representation by permitting more limited undertakings by counsel. To date, more than 50 attorneys, including associates and supervisors, have participated in it. This year, the committee launched a new project in collaboration with Legal Services NYC (“LSNYC”) to provide pro bono representation for appeals in federal district court of decisions by administrative law judges denying Social Security disability benefits. LSNYC screens and provides mentoring for the cases.
The committee and LSNYC held a training in February on Social Security appeals for prospective volunteers with the project. In May, the committee and the Southern District held their annual full-day trial advocacy training presented by judges in the Southern District and experienced trial lawyers. Program participants committed to take a pro bono case in the Southern District.
The committee and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals hosted a lecture on the rewards of public service by former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York and Whitewater special prosecutor Bob Fiske at the Thurgood Marshall Courthouse in April. Mr. Fiske recounted his time as a government lawyer and spoke about synergies between his careers in private practice and public service. In June, the committee partnered with the First Decade Committee to recognize the nominees for the second annual Thurgood Marshall Award for Exceptional Pro Bono Service and present the award at the Summer Kick-Off and Happy Hour. The award was instituted in 2014 to encourage private practitioners to perform pro bono work.
In July, the committee worked with New York Lawyers for the Public Interest’s Pro Bono Advisory Council to host a panel on transitions to public service careers. The speakers, including Judge Denny Chin, federal and state government lawyers, and attorneys from legal services providers, discussed their experiences and strategies for navigating transitions to public interest positions.
In the year ahead, the Public Service Committee will continue to partner with the courts and private bar to enhance access to counsel and support pro bono work in the Second Circuit.