Pro Bono Service Stronger Than The Virus
By Brandon Vogel
Not even COVID-19 could stop lawyers from performing pro bono service as it ravaged New York State during this spring.
The pro bono spirit spread throughout New York positively filling its volunteer attorneys with purpose and dedication to the greater good.
“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 have stepped up and truly made a difference. We will continue to do so.”
We talked to several of New York’s attorneys, those who led the effort and those intimately involved with clients, to hear their stories of how they formed NYSBA COVID-19 Pro Bono Network Volunteers.
“These are people who are in terrible grief and that we can assist them in this relatively small way is gratifying,” said Past President Michael Miller (Law Office of Michael Miller), who leads the Surrogate Court Volunteers. “We are not first responders, but we lawyers are uniquely qualified to assist these people who lost loved ones in this particular way. This is the front line of an emotionally wrenching time for these financially disadvantaged people who lost loved ones to Covid-19. The enormous response by more than 700 volunteer lawyers says a lot about our profession and its long and noble history of volunteerism.”
In response to a concern that Surrogate’s Courts would experience a large number of pro se applications for voluntary administration of estates of $50,000 or less, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore asked Miller to organize a pro bono effort to assist financially disadvantaged New Yorkers who lost loved ones to COVID-19. Miller, often called “Mr. Pro Bono,” had considerable pro bono experience leading efforts supervising elections in Bosnia after its Civil War and leading pro bono legal efforts after the 9/11 attacks assisting families obtain death certificates for their loved ones.
He said a key difference between the current efforts and the 9/11 aftermath was that in the 9/11 death certificate project, for which Miller received the ABA’s Pro Bono Publico Award (its highest honor for pro bono service), then you met with the family members and could provide a small measure of emotional support, “could literally provide a shoulder to cry on…It was so raw and painful but gratifying at the same time,” said Miller. “From my prior experience, I knew going in that this COVID-19 project would be some pretty emotional work and that it would be unusual, particularly since the client-contact would be virtual.
Although rewarding, some of the stories are “heartbreaking” and some volunteers have been affected emotionally by this work. When you hear stories about final farewells, frustration and confusion, the raw emotion on the end of the phone is palpable…You have to be very hard not to be affected by it,” said Miller. “There is a price that every volunteer pays when they do this kind of work.”
In New York City, at the height of the pandemic, it was common for bodies to be stockpiled in freezer trucks. When next of kin could not be readily ascertained, the bodies were temporarily buried in Potters Field. As a result, in addition to assisting with the voluntary administration filings, volunteers were provided with information to assist families in the disinterment process so that their loved one might be buried and mourned in accordance with their religious preferences. Miller noted that Potters Field is governed by the Department of Corrections, but you also need the permission from the Department of Health. “It’s a more involved process to obtain the disinterment order than one might think, and we provided the necessary information about how to assist families in doing so,” said Miller.
“Imagine losing a loved one and you weren’t there to say your last goodbyes, hold their hand, hug them. Imagine someone having died alone and then their loved ones don’t hear about the death for a few days – or weeks — during the height of the pandemic, when hospitals were overwhelmed. People weren’t always notified as quickly as we would expect.”
The Surrogates Court Volunteers steering committee NY County Surrogate Rita Mella,, Queens County Surrogate Peter Kelly, NY County Surrogate’s Court Chief Clerk Diana Sanabria, Erica Gomez, Director of the New York County Surrogate’s Court’s Unrepresented Litigants Help Center, Past NYSBA Trusts and Estates Section Chair Gary B. Freidman, Past NYSBA Elder Law Section Chair Tara Anne Pleat, and Alfreida B. Kenny.
Together, they pooled resources to determine what information potential clients would need, how to provide it in the most understandable fashion, and with the invaluable assistance of NYSBA’s dedicated staff, they created web portals: one for general public that gave basic information, relevant documents and materials, and another with relevant information for attorneys. Once clients provided the necessary information concerning their deceased loved ones, they could be matched with volunteer attorneys.
Developing a program of this nature, the web portals and the training program for volunteers would normally take months. It was done in less than three weeks. “It really was an amazing effort, 7 days a week, working late into the night doing test runs, revising and refining,” said Miller. Staff provided feedback important feedback on how to simplify the language and demystify the process for clients.
Many volunteers had little to no experience in Surrogate’s Court matters, so the group developed a training program video to go over the nature of the proceedings, as well as related questions and issues that may arise.
Gary B. Friedman, a member of the steering committee, commented: “It was my pleasure and privilege to be a small part of this worthwhile effort by the State Bar. It was one of the opportunities to help others in their time of need that doesn’t come along often and that make me proud to say I am a lawyer.”
Erica Gomez, another member of the steering committee who directs the “very, very busy” New York County Surrogate’s Court’s Unrepresented Litigants Help Center, was instrumental in the development of the training video. “The experience has been very good,” said Gomez. “I have absolutely nothing but a positive attitude towards these collaborations.”
Miller added that experienced trust and estate practitioners have been assisting less experienced attorneys when they have questions or the case becomes more complicated, such as next of kin determinations or common law spouse issues. “The law doesn’t allow for exceptions,” said Miller.
He said that this program not only provides needed assistance to financially disadvantaged people who lost loved on to the pandemic, but it also has been a service to the court system. He explained that if litigants represented themselves, clerks would spend a great deal of time fielding telephone calls as well as reviewing self-prepared documents, which often contain errors resulting in delays and more court staff time. “There would be a greater demand on the courts’ resources, if not for our efforts,” said Miller. “That’s a contribution to the administration of justice in these difficult times. And even more significant is the assistance we are providing to people in their profound time of grief. There but for the grace of God go any one of us.”
During the early stages of the COVID crisis, NYSBA, in partnership with the Unified Court System, formed a committee chaired by former Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, who asked John S. Kiernan, past president of the New York City Bar and partner of Debevoise & Plimpton, to be on the COVID-19 Recovery Task Force, created in conjunction with the State Bar. Lippman asked Kiernan to lead the Unemployment Insurance Module.
Within a week, the State Bar launched its online portal to assist the “huge numbers of people who were facing sudden unemployment.”
Kiernan sad that the need for effective procedures to help New Yorkers with their benefits was “tremendous.” He explained that the Department of Labor was “unsurprisingly swamped” by a volume of applications for benefits and inquiries resulting from the crisis.
Through a CLE program, NYSBA trained over 700 volunteers on how to provide brief advice for people in need, and also launched an informational webpage to help New Yorkers take the first step to figure out how to mechanically apply for UI benefits.
In the weeks that followed, NYSBA continued to provide this assistance to thousands of New Yorkers. In addition, the task force lined up volunteer lawyers to represent individual applicants on more complicated cases and appeals.