Legal Aid Bureau celebrates milestone
By MATT CHANDLER
[email protected] | 716-541-1654
One comes away with a distinct impression after spending time with David Schopp and his staff at the Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo: While it's an organization you hope you never have to reach out to, the city and region are better off because it exists.
Most people are familiar with the phrase "public defender" but the Legal Aid Bureau is so much more.
Now, as it gears up for the 100th anniversary Oct. 24 with a gala at the Hotel @ Lafayette in Buffalo, Western New York legal professionals are reflecting on a century of helping those in need.
"We have some of the most dedicated attorneys in Western New York," said Judge Eugene Pigott, who will deliver the keynote address. "We don't have a high turnover, and I think that speaks to people loving what they do, being passionate about the people they represent and being good at what they do."
The Legal Aid Bureau has four units: criminal defense (public defenders), appeals, civil legal services and the attorneys for children unit. With an annual budget of $7.2 million, the staff of 86 (58 attorneys and 29 support staff) handles 20,000 cases a year. While bureau attorneys are mandated under the Constitution to accept every criminal case that crosses their desk, those numbers don't include the thousands of civil clients they are forced to turn away each year due to lack of funding and staff.
Lisa Strand, chief attorney for civil legal services, said that at any given time, the unit operates with help from 15 to 20 grants, with more in the pipeline.
"As recently as 10 years ago, we had a very small civil legal services staff and handled a small number of cases," Strand said. "But we have found a need for more targeted services through the years and we have now grown to a staff of 10."
The work ranges from mortgage foreclosures and unemployment to family issues.
"But what we really do is look to target our services to what we see as vulnerable populations," she said, "the ones that we believe would have the hardest time connection with services at other organizations."
Among them: immigrants and refugees.
"The language barrier can be a big part of why it is challenging for them to get services, especially if they have just arrived in the United States," she said. "So we work with the resettlement organizations in the community to make these connections."
Strand said her division takes a holistic approach to working with clients: "We have a broad base of experience in our staff, so rather than saying, 'We do evictions,' we say, 'What's your need and do we have the staff and expertise to handle it?' "
The group also works closely with individuals looking to re-enter society after completing a prison term. From housing to employment, former inmates face numerous challenges and the Legal Aid Bureau helps them get back on their feet.
"One of the biggest challenges is employment," said staff attorney Kamali Liyanage. "Because of their criminal record, they can't (just) go and get a job. So we work with them to come up with ways to address their criminal history when they do go in for an interview."
Another area addressed by the Legal Aid Bureau: clients who need assistance in resolving numerous issues, not just one.
"They often have multiple civil legal service issues so it doesn't help to help them in one single legal area," Strand said. "For example, you can help someone over and over with eviction, but it might have more to do with an income sustainability issue that is going unaddressed."
Schopp, meanwhile, said that while the bureau's criminal defense work is often what grabs headlines, the staff handles an extensive amount of cases involving unemployment earnings for people who have been denied benefits. Also, mortgage foreclosure work done in conjunction with Legal Services for the Elderly and the Western New York Law Center.
"Our groups just got a $690,000 grant form the attorney general's office to expand the foreclosure work we do," he said. "Our three agencies meet regularly and work well together in a collaborative effort to address the mortgage crisis."
Schopp said community support has been key to the bureau's continued success. Though the criminal side receives county and state funding, the civil legal services unit relies on grants and community support.
Strand estimates the Legal Aid Bureau must turn away 80 percent of clients seeking services.
"Because of the limited resources we have, we must be very selective and try to choose the cases where they cannot represent themselves and don't have other options," she said.
Schopp said at the upcoming centennial celebration, some longtime employees will be honored and Judge Pigott will offer some remarks. The evening, however, will be short on speeches and long on fun.
"We want people to enjoy themselves and to spend an evening celebrating the history of this program and the good work of the many people who have made it possible," he said.