By Michael Petro, originally published in Buffalo Law Journal on 11/6/15.

Pro Bono Week brings out the best in attorneys

The need for legal assistance for low-income residents is at an all-time high.

Gayle Murphy of the Erie County Bar Association’s Volunteer Lawyers Project says people are struggling to keep their jobs, stay in their homes and provide basic necessities for their families.

In 2014, there were 1.8 million low-income New Yorkers who navigated the justice system without legal representation, according to the VLP. About 22 percent of low-income New Yorkers with a civil legal problem are able to hire an attorney. The crisis of the unrepresented has an adverse impact on everyone, Murphy says, which is why it’s especially important at this time of year

Pro Bono Week was celebrated Oct. 25-31. It’s an American Bar Association initiative that helps meet an increased need for free legal help in difficult economic times.

The response from attorneys has been nothing but positive.

The week is a time for education and celebration and recognizes the efforts of local attorneys. It’s also a time to recruit more of them to provide pro bono services to needy residents. Pro Bono Week offers an opportunity to mobilize community support and to foster collaborative relationships, Murphy said.

Buffalo ranks as the third-poorest large city in the United States, with a 2014 poverty rate of 31.3 percent. Forty-seven percent of children here live in poverty. They and their families need help, and they get it during Pro Bono Week and at other times of the year from the VLP.

The organization plays a major role in the special week, with staff and pro bono attorneys and volunteers offering free legal services that, hopefully, have a positive impact on their clients by helping them support their family and keep them safe.

VLP legal services also help other nonprofits. Last year, staff and volunteers represented clients in 3,618 cases, which benefited 9,374 people, the VLP said. It provided information and referral services to an additional 2,746 people. More than 400 attorneys donate their time and skills each year.

The VLP assists individuals and families in a variety of ways, from defending clients in tax foreclosure and landlord/tenant eviction proceedings to helping make sure that unaccompanied minors and immigrant victims of human trafficking receive fair treatment under immigration law. It also provides on-site legal assistance to people involved in matters in Erie County Family Court and Federal Court.

Volunteer attorneys represent clients in divorce and child custody and support proceedings, as well as those facing income tax problems.

And that’s not all: VLP partners with Say Yes Buffalo and area public schools to provide free walk-in legal clinics for families of students in area public schools.

“We are proud of the commitment of local law firms and attorneys who provide important pro bono legal services,” Murphy said. “There are more than 50 experienced family law attorneys who are on our Family Court Help Desk roster; more than 40 experienced federal law litigators staff the Pro Se Assistance Program in Federal Court; and law firms Hodgson Russ, Phillips Lytle, Barclay Damon, Harris Beach, Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman and Gibson McAskill & Crosby have adopted Say Yes Legal Clinics in five Buffalo public schools.”

Last week, the VLP spread the word about pro bono opportunities to local law firms, attorneys and law students.

Here’s what some of the volunteers had to say about their involvement in Pro Bono Week:

  • Thomas Steffan, recipient of the 2015 VLP Pro Bono Divorce Award, is an attorney and mediator who handles cases in family court: — “It grounds me. I know I’m making a difference in somebody’s life.”
  • Emily Dinsmore, an attorney at Hodgson Russ, has a background in education and attended public school from kindergarten through grade 7. She now volunteers at Say Yes Legal Clinics — “Most of us are in a fortunate position to give back. As a new lawyer, volunteering also gives me the ability to learn the soft skills of client interaction.”
  • Deena Mueller, a litigator at Phillips Lytle, volunteers in Say Yes Legal Clinics, as well — “Volunteering at the legal clinics from 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. is nice because it’s late afternoon leading up to the end of the day, which is a great time for litigators. Also, it is so convenient to get to the (firm’s) adopted school.”
  • Frank Muggia, partner at Harris Beach — “When I met with a client at the Say Yes Legal Clinic, he left (saying), ‘That guy actually listened to and understood me.’ I have made a difference in terms of a person’s trust and commitment.”

Those interested in learning more about volunteering with the VLP or offering support through a financial donation should email Murphy, pro bono coordinator, at