November 30, 2012

The Good We Do: Noah Liben


An abused wife with multiple sclerosis and her son have a second shot at life thanks to Noah Liben.

As a law student, he had volunteered as a law student with Fordham Law's Domestic Violence Awareness Clinic. Now a young associate at Mayer Brown in New York City, he was looking to do some pro bono work.

When his firm's pro bono coordinator sent him a digest of open pro bono cases, he "jumped at the chance" to help Judith (not her real name).

Judith, a Bronx resident and the mother of a two-year old son, had reached out to InMotion to obtain a divorce from her husband. Throughout her marriage, her husband had hit, pushed and choked her. He repeatedly violated the order of protection against him and continued to stalk her.

Before no-fault divorce was legal in New York, Judith filed for an uncontested divorce. She and Liben thought the case would resolve quickly, but Judith's husband continually complicated matters. At the same time, Judith was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis limiting her mobility and diminishing her eyesight.

In his first official court appearances as an attorney, Liben represented Judith in four legal matters. He persuaded the court to conduct a child support inquest without Judith's husband and successfully advocated for $200 per month in child support.

But after the divorce was finalized, Judith's now ex-husband filed for visitation rights and an order of protection against her. He falsely alleged that Judith had violated the temporary order of protection and tried to have her arrested. However, the police had arrested him for routinely violating Judith's orders of protection against him.

Liben volunteered again to represent Judith before the Bronx County Integrated Domestic Violence Court. He successfully negotiated with opposing counsel and had Judith's ex-husband's family offense petition withdrawn.

When the ex-husband violated the restricted temporary visitation order, Liben convinced the court to dismiss the ex-husband's visitation petition altogether. He also obtained a money judgment for the back child support he owed.

At the end of this ordeal, Judith secured a divorce, full custody of her son with no visitation rights, a three-year order of protection, and a child support award.

The last time Liben spoke to Judith, she was "in good spirits." Liben said his work with Judith was a "great experience, personally and professionally."

"It was a different dynamic than the large cases I work on," said Liben, who practices litigation and dispute resolution cases. "It was extremely gratifying to really help an individual in a tangible way."

Liben received the President's Pro Bono Service Award for the Twelfth Judicial District in 2012.

The Good We Do: Benjamin Pomerance


When Benjamin Pomerance attended an orientation for new students at Albany Law School, he noticed the Albany Stratton VA (Veterans Affairs) Medical center across the street on Holland Avenue.

He wondered if Albany Law had a program to help veterans and found that no such program existed.

His parents half-jokingly told him, "You should start one." So he did.

Pomerance founded and leads the Veterans Pro Bono Project at Albany Law School as a tribute to his uncle, Robert Nydam, a former Marine and Otsego County Judge who died in 1997.

He has donated more than 300 hours of pro bono services to the project while maintaining an A grade point average.

"There is a definite need for legal help for veterans," said Pomerance, now a third-year law student.

Fearing an empty room for the first meeting, he was astonished when 17 students showed up. All of the students, whom he described as "extremely dedicated and hard-working," continue to volunteer and provide new ideas.

He has organized a three-hour continuing legal education program on unmet legal needs facing homeless military veterans. It attracted a standing-room only crowd.

"This is a tremendous problem statewide and nationwide," said Pomerance. "There are far too many jobless and homeless veterans who cannot access their benefits."

He and other volunteers assist at a monthly Wills for Heroes pro bono program at the Albany Housing Coalition's Veteran's House. The program is a collaborative effort between the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, the Albany County Bar Association and the firm of Hiscock & Barclay. They assist pro bono attorneys and draft wills for review by a Hiscock & Barclay attorney.

Pomerance also implemented a new free legal clinic for veterans at the Albany Law School in February 2012. Student volunteers do an intake over the phone, then work with attorneys for a 30-60 minute consultation.

Eighty-seven veterans, from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan, attended the first two clinics held in the spring.

Seeing the impact that the project has on veterans is particularly important to Pomerance.

"All veterans come with unique needs. Every single veteran has been very moved by the force of law students and lawyers who care about them and want them to get back on their feet," said Pomerance.

At a spring clinic, a Korean War veteran with a complicated benefits plan told Pomerance, "I never knew how many people of all ages truly care about us."

Pomerance received the President's Pro Bono Service for a Law Student in 2012.

The Good We Do: Lucien A. Morin II


When Lucien A. Morin II learned that the Volunteer Legal Services Project of Monroe County (VLSP) had a backlog of 19 bankruptcy cases in 2009, he didn't shy away from helping.

Believing that "people should not have to wait a year for a lawyer," Morin turned to his assistant and asked her, "Are you ready? Let's do this."

A determined Morin cleared out the full backlog in 2009 and took on four more cases on the 2012 backlog.

Those who know Morin are not surprised by his community service. His father Lucien A. Morin, a former county executive of Monroe County, always stressed to his family the importance of giving back.

"To us, it was the community of Monroe and we assisted those in need," said Morin, a partner of McConville, Considine, Cooman & Morin and a Chapter 7 trustee.

Morin began volunteering with the VLSP through the encouragement of the late Hanna Cohn, a past executive director of the VLSP.

When the Great Recession hit, Morin noticed many people approached VLSP with bankruptcy problems, but there were not enough lawyers to help them.

"There are more and more demands on attorneys since the 2005 amendment," of the bankruptcy law, said Morin.

The VLSP clients he helped were mostly women, notably single mothers and grandmothers blindsided by the recession.

"People who used to be above the poverty level were all of a sudden creeping down. I saw a lot of people who have slipped or who lost jobs," said Morin.

Having seen firsthand how lawyers can help people in need, Morin encourages his colleagues to take on cases and help reduce the backlog.

"It's been very rewarding. I enjoy helping people and being able to help them get a fresh start," said Morin. "We are able to help them get their lives back together."

Aside from his bankruptcy work, Morin assisted 38 clients through the VLSP's Debt Collection Advice Clinic in 2011. A veteran himself, Morin enjoys helping other veterans.

Morin received the President's Pro Bono Service Award for the Seventh Judicial District in 2012.

February 22, 2012

Victor Jr.'s Story: A hero lawyer and judge save a disabled boy's life

With the tap of his gavel, Bronx County Supreme Court Justice Barry Salman gave Victor Vaccariello, Jr. six more years of life.

Victor Jr. was born on July 26, 1989 with multiple mental and physical disabilities, including craniosynostosis, a birth defect that affects skull development and Dandy-Walker Syndrome, a neurological disorder.

During the needed surgery to correct craniosynostosis, Victor Jr.'s airway collapsed and he stopped breathing.

As a result of his disorders, Victor Jr. needed two forms of life support: a feeding tube for nutrition and a tracheostomy tube for breathing. He received 12 hours of nursing care each day.

At the end of 1995, Victor Vaccariello Sr. received a letter from his insurance provider that effectively ended his son's nursing care.

The insurance company said that Victor Jr. required just two hours of care twice a week to change the tracheostomy tube. During the appeals process to reinstate the child's nurses, the insurance company sent a nursing agency to assess Victor Jr.

The agency concluded that the boy needed a minimum of 12 hours of nursing care.
Despite the assessment, the insurance company refused to reinstate Victor Jr.'s care. Instead, they wanted to send another nursing agency for another assessment.

Meanwhile, Victor Jr. began to have seizures and "was going downhill fast." "I had to do everything in power to keep my son alive," said Vaccariello, a single parent.

Deciding to litigate the matter, Vaccariello hired Joseph B. Pritti, a solo practitioner in Manhattan, to seek an injunction to continue his son's nursing care.

Justice Salman granted the injunction. Victor Jr. lived a happy life until his death on February 14, 2002.

"God took my son, not my insurance company," said Vaccariello. After his son's death, his pediatrician told him that without the proper nursing care, Victor Jr. would have suffered and died within six months.

Nearly ten years later, Vaccariello wrote to the New York State Bar Association to express his appreciation of two men who prolonged his son's life. He remains eternally grateful for the legal help he received from Pritti, who died in 1998. Every day he thinks about what Justice Salman did for his son.

"He stopped the bully from killing my son. I cannot say enough good things about him," said Victor Sr. "He is my hero."

The power of the Supreme Court continues to amaze Vaccariello. One day, he might meet the man who saved his son's life.

"It would be like meeting Superman," said Vaccariello.

June 7, 2011

The Good We Do: Leah Belfort


Leah Belfort enjoyed a long, successful career as an accountant before she became a lawyer.

She had always wanted to go to law school, but kept delaying her dream. Positive experiences with lawyers and presenting at CLE seminars affirmed her ongoing interest.

At age 60, realizing that it was "now or never," she enrolled in St. John's Law School night program. She graduated in 1997, the same year she retired as an accountant.

She had acheived her goal of learning more about the law. But she had another goal in mind: using her degree to better her community.

To fulfill that dream, Belfort has devoted her retirement years exclusively to doing pro bono work, which she describes as both "rewarding" and "eye-opening."

Since 1998, she has volunteered with the Volunteer Lawyers Project, a joint project of the Nassau/Suffolk Law Services and the Nassau County Bar Association.

She has devoted more than 5,000 hours of pro bono services. Last year, she donated nearly 500 hours to 82 cases. Her hours have increased each year.

She notes the problems pro bono service agencies are facing.

"People have a myriad of problems and there are not enough pro bono attorneys to help these people. Funding is down. It's a sad situation," says Belfort. "The needs are greater now and there are less people to help."

Working one day a week, she handles as many cases as possible. All of her cases are civil, mainly involving consumer credit and taxes. Because she assists people whose problems can be resolved with phone calls and letters, she can help a larger number of clients.

Her financial and tax expertise has expanded the range of services that the Volunteer Lawyers Project can provide.

Clients have responded favorably to Belfort's help, caring and effectiveness. She recently received a note that read, "I just want to thank you and the Volunteer Lawyers Project ever so much for your help. My situation was very challenging to me, but your expertise and level of professionalism made a huge impact in the crisis."

Belfort received the President's Pro Bono Service Award for the Tenth Judicial District.

May 20, 2011

The Good We Do: Eric Blinderman


"If I owe my life to somebody in this world, that one will be you. You did not give me another chance to only live, but you gave hope and opportunity to my old sick parents so they may live to see me safe and rebuilding my life again."

So wrote a former Iraqi translator for the United States in a letter to Eric Blinderman of New York City.

Blinderman heads Proskauer's Iraqi Human Rights Project that has helped 400 Iraqi translators, drivers, and logisticians who supported United States interests in Iraq, find refuge here.

He has devoted nearly 2,400 hours to the three-year project, including 570 hours in 2010. His work earned him the State Bar's 2011 President's Pro Bono Service Award for the First Judicial District.

In the case of the translator, he fled Iraq to the Czech Republic after unknown insurgents targeted him as a collaborator and traitor because of his work with the United States.

When the Czech Republic deported him to Iraq, he returned home to his family. Insurgents smeared blood on his door with a message that read, "Death to the Traitor." The translator's parents and sisters fled to another city.

He then called Blinderman who encouraged him to move to various safe houses, while Blinderman contacted people to help the translator flee Iraq permanently. The two communicated in Arabic and by text messages.

As a result of the efforts of Blinderman, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and various other government agencies, the translator was able to enter Amman, Jordan, and later the United States.

This is just one of 160 cases and one of many people whom Blinderman has assisted.

If not for a chance email from fellow Cornell Law alum Eric Pelofsky, Blinderman might never have discovered his life's work.

That email led to Blinderman assisting the U.S. government in Baghdad with the trial of Saddam Hussein, where he spent the next three years of his career.

In 2007, he returned to the firm with a new mission: helping former translators and drivers seeking to leave Iraq as a result of threats they had received while working for the U.S.

Today, Blinderman leads a team of more than 60 Proskauer lawyers and staff who help Iraqis whose lives are in danger. Blinderman plays an integral role in each case that requires creative, strategic thinking and tenacious advocacy.

Leading by example and demonstrating genuine concern for his clients, he has inspired dozens of other lawyers to get involved and donate their services.

Receiving many late night calls and desperate emails from asylum seekers, Blinderman has never turned anyone away.

Unsurprisingly, most of his clients see him both as a lawyer and trusted friend.

In his words:

"If you're holding a life vest in your hand and you see someone drowning, when, or is there ever a time, that you're morally permitted to walk away? I think the answer to that is never."

The Good We Do: Angela Winfield

There are very few four-year olds who know exactly what they want to do with their life.

But, even then, Angela Winfield knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

She identified with the assertive, yet equally nurturing Claire Huxtable from "The Cosby Show" and made a law career her life's goal.

As focused and driven as she is sharp, Winfield followed her dream and went on to attend Cornell Law School. She is now a successful litigation associate in Hiscock & Barclay's Syracuse office.

But this is just one part to Winfield's story.

Throughout her life, Winfield has coped with many extraordinary challenges.

She lost vision in her left eye at age 10 and was completely blind by her sophomore year at Barnard College.

Remarkably, Winfield has not let these hardships stand in the way of her dreams.

She commutes an hour daily by bus to her office each way, with the help of a cane and her seeing-eye dog, Ogden.

Early in her law career and despite a heavy caseload, Winfield has donated many hours of pro bono services.

She represents tenants facing eviction in Housing Court for the Onondaga County Bar's Eviction Defense Clinic.

She second-chaired a pro bono wrongful eviction trial in State Supreme Court which the jury awarded her client a significant recovery. She also successfully argued an appeal before the Fourth Department for a Cayuga County not-for-profit organization.

Winfield's disability gave her unique insight and empathy for a blind client. Her client was thrilled not only to have quality representation, but also an attorney who understood exactly what she was going through.

Partners at her firm note her good rapport with clients and her ability to litigate tough cases.

Winfield received the State Bar's 2011 President's Pro Bono Service Award honoring a Young Lawyer.

December 30, 2010

Roslyn's Story: Ward Makes a Difference in Guardian's Life

By Deborah S. Ball, Esq.

This is the story of my ward, Roslyn. She grew up at a time when children with disabilities were not afforded the type of services they have today. For Roslyn, she was extremely sheltered, by parents she loved very much. But, for all of the love her parents gave her (including her father teaching her to dance), Roslyn never acquired life skills. She was dependent on her parents for everything.

And so, as Roslyn became an adult, she lived with her parents. Then, each died and Roslyn (though she has a brother), was essentially on her own for the first time. She could not take care of herself and ended up being hospitalized. This was approximately ten years ago. I received a telephone call from the judge handling the guardianship matter. The hospital needed to discharge Roslyn, but no one had authority to consent to a placement. The judge asked me if I would become Roslyn's guardian. The commission would be $750.00 per year, to offset my office expenditures. No one would accept the case.

I became Roslyn's guardian and have not regretted doing so. Although I have not received any compensation (for reasons beyond the scope of this essay), Roslyn has become a part of my life. Roslyn is higher functioning than those around her and we have developed a very special relationship. Although she is on government assistance, I advocate for her to receive the best medical attention she deserves. She lives in a group home and attends a day program, which unfortunately, may not be suitable due to her functional level. I've been told there are no alternative programs available for Roslyn.

As for our relationship, Roslyn never forgets to ask how my husband, son and dog are doing. I show her pictures of my family and she has spoken with my son by phone. I have learned a lot from Roslyn, as she has much to offer. I am grateful to have accepted this guardianship because I know I have made a difference in Roslyn's life, as she has in mine.

A Survivor's Story: Applying the Law Offers Comfort, Relief to Client

By James P. Murphy, Esq.

One of my finest hours of practice occurred many years ago when I was just out of law school. An elderly lady came to the office one day requesting one of the first wills I had ever done. She was tearful and anxious. She was suffering from terminal cancer and had only a short time to live. But the main source of her anxiety was her extreme fear of burial.

She had once experienced the sight of a loved one's grave in a cemetery that was partially flooded. The sight was very disturbing to her. Her objective was to avoid burial, and to be cremated, which was contrary to her family's wishes. I contacted my former Trusts and Estates professor at Albany Law School. He referred me to section 1-2.18 of the EPTL Law, containing the definition of "Will", for authority to fulfill my client's wishes. He suggested I do a one sentence testamentary clause: "It is my wish at the time of my death, to be cremated, and not to be buried."

When the lady returned to sign and pick up her will she expressed the most joy and relief of any client that I have ever provided services for. She then went on to tell me some of her history as a Holocaust survivor. She and her husband and small infant were fleeing the Nazis in Poland during the war on a cold and snowy winter's day. In desperation, the family were about to enter a forest to hide from their pursuers. They decided to kneel and pray for their safety and survival before entering. When their prayers were completed, they proceeded toward the forest. They then heard the hoof beats of a horse and rider just as they were about to depart. The horseman approached them. He was a kind man who advised them that their infant son would not survive the bitter winter weather if they went into the forest. He told them that he was the owner of a large stable, and he would provide them with a refuge and shelter in exchange for their work for the duration of the war.

He did so and the family survived as a result of that wonderful gesture. My client's problem in making her will seemed quite trivial in comparison to what she had endured in surviving the Holocaust. But, having the privilege of providing her some peace of mind in her final days, made me very proud of my profession that day.

Dina's Story: Pro Bono Service Transforms Attorney, Renews Spirit

By Doug Groene, Esq., Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Sometimes a client impacts an attorney's life just as profoundly as the attorney impacts her client's life. In Dina DeGiorgio's case, her pro bono client helped her transform a sense of disillusionment into a renewed spirit of service.

Dina has always tried to help people achieve a better life, especially the poor and those in need of a voice. After college, the Bronx native decided to go to Fordham Law School in hopes of someday serving the public and "doing something bigger."

In law school, she fell in love twice. First, she met and fell in love with the man who was to become her future husband. Second, she fell in love with using her newly acquired legal knowledge to promote justice. She gained entrance into an exclusive clinic program that allowed her to represent victims of domestic violence for one semester and criminal defendants for one semester. The clinic taught Dina essential legal skills like client interviewing, negotiating, and arguing in court. It also taught her that she could make a critical difference in the lives of her clients.

"All of the clients were indigent and they were all very grateful. I liked representing a person, helping an individual," said Dina. "Being a lawyer is powerful--you can impact peoples' lives profoundly, for bad or for good."

Dina's passion for helping individual clients led her to leave the firm where she worked after law school and create her own family law practice. "The firm had more of an upscale clientele, and the work was not as fulfilling. I went out on my own because I wanted greater flexibility. I built my own practice from nothing," explained Dina. While raising two children, now ages 11 and 13, Dina managed to create a bustling law practice.

Starting her own firm has given Dina the freedom to practice law in her own style, which she hopes can be more civil and less adversarial. A skilled mediator, Dina has made mediation an increasing part of her matrimonial practice, and she also practices collaborative law.

As a family law attorney, Dina has represented a fair number of victims of domestic violence. But one case had a lasting impact. The client, Sarah, was the victim of terrible abuse at the hands of her husband and came to Dina for a divorce. Over the next few weeks, Dina met with Sarah several times to flesh out the details of the abuse and prepare the paperwork for a divorce based on cruel and inhuman treatment. Sarah brought pictures of bruises all over her body and told compelling accounts of the terrible beatings her husband had inflicted upon her.

Sarah's abuser engaged in the classic abuse "cycle." For months he would vow that he had changed, and would control his violence. However, these "honeymoon" periods would invariably end, and he would resume battering Sarah. It was during one of these "honeymoon" periods that Sarah came to Dina for a divorce--it had been 8 months since the last incident of abuse. But the last incident was the one that finally drove Sarah to get help. For the first time, the abuser not only hurt Sarah, but also hit her son. She needed to get away to protect her two small children.
Dina fought to get an order of protection for Sarah that would force the abuser to leave the house and stay away. But the judge was skeptical.

"The judge questioned her motives. 'You stayed with him all this time and NOW you want to get him out of the house?" recalled Dina. "I replied to the judge, 'so basically you are saying that unless the victim comes forward right away she waives her right to get help and she should actually be punished for finally getting the courage to come forward?" The argument became heated, but the judge relented and begrudgingly signed the order.

Everything seemed to be going well until a few days later when Dina received a phone call from Sarah. "She told me she decided to reconcile with the abuser and wanted me to drop everything," remembers Dina.

"I was adamantly against it. I refused to drop anything unless she went to court and allocuted on the record. I was hoping she would change her mind or that if I could only speak to her face-to-face I could convince her to reconsider or to get counseling before deciding."

But Sarah did not reconsider--she went to court and told the judge she wanted to withdraw everything. Perhaps most heart-wrenching was the explanation she gave to Dina afterwards. "I am not like those other women you represent," Sarah told Dina. "I was really to blame for bringing those beatings on myself."

For a while afterwards, Dina felt disillusioned. "It made me sad and angry," she recalled. "I went through a phase in which I said to myself, 'I should have saved her.' For a while I couldn't [emotionally] handle that kind of case. The people I felt the most sorry for were the children.

But when the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence's Legal Resource Network (www.legalresourcenetwork.org) contacted Dina in need of volunteers, she felt the opportunity was too important to pass up. "I learned that I can only do so much--it isn't my life. But I feel it is really important to empower women. When you help a woman escape domestic violence you are saving the children too."

Despite her negative experience with Sarah, Dina agreed to represent one of the Coalition's clients, pro bono. The client, a victim of domestic violence, had a "stay-away" order of protection and custody of the children when she came to the Coalition, but needed help with a divorce. The abuser did not want to contest the divorce, which made the process less complicated.

"This was going to be an uncontested divorce," said Dina. "I was impressed by her. She was articulate and very thankful I was helping her. She shared all of the details of the abuse with me when we contemplated filing under cruel and inhuman treatment. She was a mother of 3, who went through so much, but she turned her life around."

The client had tried unsuccessfully to get a divorce on her own. But with Dina's help, the client was able to escape her abuser permanently.

"She wanted to turn her life around so her children would not have to follow the same path. I felt really good about being able to help her. When she came to sign the final paperwork, she was so grateful. She had tears in her eyes. It felt terrific- it was very powerful."

Dina has already taken other cases from the Coalition's Legal Resource Network and plans to not only continue her pro bono work with the Coalition, but to serve as a mentor to other volunteers.

"I get so much out of pro bono," Dina said of her experience with the Legal Resource Network. "If you can save a family from violence you give the woman a chance to succeed and you break the cycle so you also give the children a chance to succeed. I particularly care about the children because they are innocent and didn't ask to grow up in violence."