When the coronavirus pandemic hit New York, attorneys did what they do best: serve the public good.
Within just a few weeks, NYSBA created a Pro Bono Network to assist New Yorkers who needed help securing unemployment benefits through the appeals process.
Nearly 500 lawyers quickly volunteered their skills to help more than 2,000 clients in need of pro bono assistance. The program received media attention from WRGB, Times Union and the NY Times. As part of National Pro Bono Month, NYSBA will honor three outstanding volunteers at its Virtual Pro Bono Awards today.
“Our profession has a proud tradition of providing pro bono legal services to those who are otherwise unable to afford a lawyer,” NYSBA President Scott M. Karson said. “In this era of COVID-19, our members stepped up and helped the public. We are pleased to recognize our volunteers, who exemplify the very best of our profession.”
Rolled up my sleeves and dived in
When Sophia V. Hepheastou, a bankruptcy lawyer, was laid off in April, she had to navigate the unemployment insurance process for the first time.
“It was confusing for someone who is an attorney, let alone someone who isn’t,” said Hepheastou.
Looking to keep busy and use her skillset, Hepheastou decided that volunteering to help others would be a great use of time.
“I wanted to help out. I rolled up my sleeves and dived in there,” said Hepheastou.
She helped seven clients with their unemployment insurance appeals.
In addition, Hepheastou created a network with attorneys to build rapport with the Governor’s Office and Department of Labor.
“We looked at the bigger picture to help attorneys resolve cases on a macro level,” said Hepheastou.
Pro bono attorneys faced similar issues of “feeling unheard” or experiencing three to four-hour wait times with the DOL. She and her team drafted letters and got the attention of the governor’s office. They held weekly sessions to talk about the process to facilitate cases.
She worked directly with attorneys on which cases needed rerouting. “We ensured that these cases were moving and not just stalled in purgatory,” she said.
By working with the Governor’s Office and Department of Labor through the summer, her network closed 20 cases, “a huge accomplishment,” Hepheastou said.
Work has paid off
Volunteer Alyson Luftig first learned of the opportunity to volunteer from Governor Andrew Cuomo’s press briefing on April 11. “It was something I wanted to help with.”
Since joining the network, Luftig has worked with 10 clients and helped volunteers get through to the Department of Labor, collaborating with Hepheastou. She worked closely on ensuring that forms were completed correctly and making sure numbers were accurate. She also helped clients who hadn’t received any unemployment benefits and others who received incorrect amounts. Despite some initial technology glitches, she said the process has moved along and is running very smoothly now.
“I am glad that I was able to help people,” said Luftig. “I am happy that the work we have done has paid off for the clients.”
She is equally excited to be honored for her work, which includes creating a website with training materials and resources for all of the volunteers. “I felt like I went above and beyond, so I’m happy with the recognition,” she said.
Victorine Froehlich volunteered to help in April, building upon her past experience as an administrative law judge for the Department of Labor, Unemployment Insurance Appeal Board.
She enjoyed collaborating with the NYSBA Department of Public Interest, led by Thomas Richards, and working with new attorneys, where she developed “a true mentor/mentee relationship, the kind I wanted to have as a young lawyer.”
“For all of the new lawyers in the field, I saw extraordinary dedication and devotion. Some of my best experiences were calls from new lawyers who thought they did not have a case, both substantively and procedurally. They are used to working in civil litigation, as opposed to administrative law,” said Froehlich. “When we discussed a case, it became apparent that they had a winner. To go from 0 to 100 was extraordinarily rewarding.”
Froehlich facilitated several training programs for volunteers. “If we can win a case or move one along when a claimant was giving up hope, that was the ultimate satisfaction” said Froehlich.
She learned a lot herself. “The most important thing in life are the people you work with and come to know,” said Froehlich. “I do love law and litigation, but it’s really all about communication and working hard.”
Froehlich is nothing but appreciative of her experience with the Pro Bono Network. “I am grateful to NYSBA for helping the public and giving so much public assistance in a time of crisis. I am grateful to the leadership of Tom and his support; always responsive. I am grateful to the entire NYSBA for resources and leadership in this trying time.”