By Jude Scinta  |  Buffalo Business First  |  6/20/16

WNY legal community gives back aplenty

In his 1913 autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt wrote, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.”

It appears that members of the Western New York legal scene have been following the advice of our nation’s 26th president when it comes to community service. While many lend significant support to existing organizations, others pioneer solutions to new causes.

Consider Erie County Family Court Judge Lisa Bloch Rodwin. Her approach to volunteerism is straightforward yet its impact brings creative solutions to community challenges.

“I see a problem and reach out to friends, colleagues and professionals from other circles to find a potential collaborative solution,” she said.

Bloch Rodwin founded the Western New York Muslim and Immigrant Community Family Court Collaborative in an effort to break through cultural and language barriers between immigrant and refugee families and the court system. This is the first collaborative of its kind in the country and she is set to assist the National Council of Family Court Judges in developing a model protocol.

In 2004 she founded and served as the first board president of the Erie County Family Justice Center, which helps victims of domestic violence receive assistance with orders of protection, law enforcement, medical treatment and related services.

“Both the Family Justice Center and the Family Court Collaborative are examples of what makes Buffalo unique,” said Bloch Rodwin. “You can reach out to friends and colleagues and say, ‘Here’s a problem. Let’s work together on it” and people will donate their time to something new that can help. I don’t deserve the credit for either of these efforts. It’s just that I worked with others and saw that working together would lead to a new, systemic response to a problem in our community.”

While she makes sure to shine a light on others, Gregory Peterson, a partner at Phillips Lytle LLP, has spent more than a decade making sure that Robert H. Jackson, a U.S. Supreme Court justice and the chief U.S. prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, stands alone in the spotlight.

In 2001, Peterson co-founded the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown.

“Here was one of the great jurists in the history of the United States who came from Western New York and was not really well-known. With that understanding, we were motivated to create a center that would advance the legacy of Justice Jackson through education and exhibits so that we fully understand his relevancy today,” said Peterson, who manages the Chautauqua office of Phillips Lytle.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the conclusion of the 1945 Trial of the Major War Criminals before the International Military Tribunal in Germany. In September, the center will co-host a major commemorative event in Nuremberg and will include all the allied countries. Additionally, there will be three events in Jamestown during October — one in conjunction with the Bar Association of Erie County — to mark the anniversary.

“Since our inception there has been a real reception of Justice Jackson as not only a force today in domestic jurisprudence but also a force today in international criminal law,” Peterson said. “Over the last 15 years, there has been a real recognition that his body of work while alive is incredibly relevant today.”

For six years, the law offices of Rupp Baase Pfalzgraf Cunningham LLC have rallied together to champion a cause that has touched the lives of many of their own.

“So many individuals in the firm have had direct challenges related to cancer,” said David Pfalzgraf, managing partner.

The Ride For Roswell — a summertime fundraiser for Roswell Park Cancer Institute — is the law firm’s signature charitable and community involvement initiative each year. Yet support of Roswell is a part of the Rupp Baase culture year-round. The firm holds educational lunches for staff to share recent advancements in cancer research and has informal fundraisers such as dress-down Fridays.

“The original inspiration for our involvement in the Ride for Roswell was the Cunningham family,” Pfalzgraf said. “One of our founding partners, Tom Cunningham, tragically lost his wife, Cheryl, to brain cancer. He became active at Roswell and active within the firm to try to promote awareness and education around the treatment of cancer.”

The Rupp Baase team of riders has raised more than $340,000 for Roswell in the last six years.

“We love to encourage other individuals to join our team. We incentivize them by covering the entrance fee. We make it easy for clients, family members and friends of the firm to get involved with the Ride for Roswell. It’s something we’re very proud to do each and every year,” Pfalzgraf said.

Ann Evanko is president and managing member at Hurwitz & Fine P.C. and chairs the WNY Women’s Foundation Inc., whose mission is to support women’s growth, empowerment and advocacy initiatives. She places particular importance on the need for women to be financially independent.

“If you are self-sufficient, you do not need to be in a relationship that is abusive or one that is not helping you grow and develop,” Evanko said.

One of many initiatives of the foundation is a program called “MOMs: From Education to Employment,” which was developed in 2013 in conjunction with Niagara County Community College. The program, designed to assist single mothers attending college, caught the eye of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The institute called it “the most innovating and promising model they have seen in the U.S.”

“We’ve trademarked the program name and we are hoping to roll it out at other two-year colleges in the area,” Evanko said. “Hopefully we will have a greater impact in addition to the Niagara County area.”

Another hot topic on the agenda of the WNY Women’s Foundation is the issue of child care in the Buffalo Niagara corridor.

“We’re bringing in jobs but are we really addressing who is going to take care of kids when we have all these working men and women in the community?” she said.

While helping women become financially independent and care for their families at the same time is at the heart of Evanko’s humanitarian effort, she said she benefits, as well.

“Though there is a theme to my community service, I can say that it is a very enriching activity; it is something that you can’t describe unless you do it yourself,” she said. “You just hope that whatever little time that you do spend in voluntary activities does make a difference.”


Jude Scinta is a freelance reporter in Buffalo.