Albany Law School’s Clinic & Justice Center and The Legal Project, a Capital Region non-profit that provides free and low cost civil legal help to the working poor, recently launched an initiative to help victims of domestic violence, better train and supervise law students and recent graduates, and create a pathway to employment for new attorneys.
The new program will allow Albany Law students and recent graduates to work directly with low income clients on domestic violence cases, as well as housing, bankruptcy and other issues. Albany Law and The Legal Project are seeking additional resources to continue to expand the initiative, ultimately establishing an incubator to employ and help develop early career attorneys.Through a three-part pipeline composed of law school in-house clinical practice, a one year post-graduate fellowship, and a second year incubator program involving free and reduced fee matrimonial and family law cases, the initiative seeks to address both the endemic lack of civil access to justice and the law school graduate employment challenge.
“This collaboration with The Legal Project not only allows us to help many more people in the community obtain legal representation on essential matters of safety and economic stability, but it also allows our clinic students to find jobs and continue the work they are so passionate about with appropriate supervision and guidance,” said Professor Mary Lynch, director of one of the law school’s domestic violence clinics.
The importance of the Domestic Violence Fellowship Program is already apparent to the clients, to the fellows, to the law students, and to The Legal Project. Gracja Nowak, a 2013 graduate, began her tenure at The Legal Project as a New York State Bar Association Joan L. Ellenbogen Matrimonial Law Fellow, where she has carried a matrimonial and family law caseload. Kayla Molinaro, a third year law student, works closely with Nowak. Together, and under the supervision of Lorraine Silverman, the managing attorney for the fellowship program, they conduct legal research, draft pleadings and motions, and meet with and provide information and support for clients.
Chief Judge Lippman’s Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services estimates that more than two million low-income New Yorkers appeared in court without legal representation last year. In 2013, the Task Force awarded grant funding to The Legal Project to partner with Albany Law School in the development of this innovative fellowship program to help alleviate the gap in civil legal services that exists across the state and the country.
The fellowship program provides two critical services, according to Silverman, the managing attorney: practical training for recent graduates that can be carried into future careers and the expansion of access to civil legal services for those who could not otherwise afford it—particularly for low to moderate income victims of domestic violence who need a divorce to help escape their abusive spouse but can neither afford the services of a private attorney nor qualify for free legal services.
“Ultimately, we plan to expand the fellowship program into a dynamic incubator and reduced-fee law firm for attorneys who wish to spend their careers in the public interest sector,” said Lisa A. Frisch, executive director of The Legal Project. “This is a way to increase access to civil legal help in a creative and cost-effective way—making a real difference in the lives of many in our community.”