MFY: 50 Years Of Providing Access To Justice

Wednesday, June 19, 2013 - 12:32

Over the past 12 months, pro bono attorneys and law student volunteers have contributed more than 22,000 hours of service to clients at MFY Legal Services, a legal services provider with headquarters in lower Manhattan that is celebrating its 50th year of providing access to justice to the city’s poor and vulnerable residents.

“Pro bono assistance is a vital part of MFY’s provision of legal services to low-income clients,” said Jeanette Zelhof, executive director. “On-site at MFY we have externs from three major law firms, retired attorneys, and lawyers in transition, all of whom work side by side with our staff attorneys. We also work with scores of firms that take pro bono cases of individual clients or who co-counsel complex class action lawsuits with us.”

Externs Help Save Affordable Housing

Externs from Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton, LLP; Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP; and Ropes & Gray LLP work at MFY in four-to-six-month rotations in MFY’s housing and seniors units.  Externs handle cases from intake through disposition, engage in motion practice, make decisions on cases, and regularly appear in court where they gain valuable litigation experience. Since the externship program began at MFY, externs have provided advice, counsel and representation to more than 12,500 clients.

Several externs were recently interviewed for a video about their work and all believed that the four to six months they spent at MFY will have a profound impact on their careers and the way they think about the law.

“We would give advice to individuals who came into the office or who called in on a hotline. At any given time, I was helping dozens and dozens of people with their legal problems.  That was one of the best parts of the externship – the ability to work with so many people,” said Lauren Handelsman, a Cleary extern. “There is really no better feeling than having a client who would literally be homeless if you weren’t able to assist them, and to prevent that from happening is really an amazing feeling.”

Lindsee Granfield, a partner at Cleary Gottlieb and member of MFY’s board of directors, explained that the firm has been sending externs to MFY since 1975. “The direct client contact, having to write briefs when necessary and dealing with arguments and trials from time to time is just a great early training tool,” she said.

Tariq Mundiya, a partner at Willkie Farr and also a member of MFY’s board of directors, agrees. “It’s a terrific tool, whether it’s deposition experience or trial experience. This externship allows our associates to develop these skills early in their careers and that is invaluable for recruits and for young associates alike.”

The experience at MFY is challenging, and the new extern picks up a full caseload from the departing extern, with a one-week overlap to get acquainted with the cases and office procedures. “On a day-to-day basis I was in control of my caseload, I was in control of my schedule. More practically, going into court with witnesses, cross-examining people on the stand is something that I normally don’t get to do on a day-to-day basis at Willkie,” said Anna Burns, a recent Willkie extern.

Willkie Farr & Gallagher has been sending externs to MFY since 1989, and last year Ropes & Gray LLP joined the program. Bharathi Pillai, a Ropes & Gray associate, was the first Ropes & Gray extern, spending six months helping Manhattan seniors to avoid eviction. “I’m dealing with a lot of issues at once, and I’m much more confident going to court,” she said. “There are great people to learn from at MFY, and everyone is always willing to help, no matter how busy they are. I will definitely recommend this externship to my colleagues.”

Everyone involved in the externship program at MFY agrees that externs return to their respective firms as much stronger lawyers, as much more confident lawyers, and more skilled lawyers because of the opportunities they got while they were at MFY. (To watch a brief video on the externship program, go to

MFY Welcomes On-Site Pro Bono Attorneys

In addition to the rotating externships, MFY offers pro bono opportunities to retired attorneys and lawyers in transition. When Bruce Cogan retired from American Express in 2007, he swore he would never pick up another law book. After six months of “legal detox,” he sought to re-engage as a lawyer on a pro bono basis. “As a tax lawyer, my one and only client was the company’s financial statement. I needed some flesh and blood clients,” he noted. MFY’s Kinship Caregiver Law Project gave him that opportunity. The project matches grandparents and others who are caring for related children outside of the formal foster care system with pro bono attorneys who handle uncontested custody, guardianship and adoption matters. Since beginning work with the project in March 2008, he has prepared manuals on custody and guardianship for pro bono lawyers, has participated in training sessions, and has represented a number of clients in family court, the first time he has appeared in court in 28 years.

MFY has also hosted a number of lawyers in transition who have moved to New York from another state and want to be active while looking for a new position or preparing for the New York bar exam. When Lars Hansen, an accomplished insurance defense trial attorney from California, moved to New York, he spent 20 hours a week at MFY for eight months representing clients in complex foreclosure matters while getting settled.  In one particularly complex case, a client who had become seriously ill as a result of HIV/AIDS lost his co-op apartment to foreclosure even though the city’s HIV/AIDS Services Administration (HASA) had agreed to take over his mortgage payments. A judge stayed the client’s eviction, giving MFY time to sort things out with the bank and HASA. Lars spent months in meetings, court appearances, motions for contempt and endless prodding of the bank and HASA to reach an agreement. “This was an extremely difficult case, and we would not have been able to take it without the dedicated pro bono assistance of Mr. Hilton,” said Elise Brown, Supervising Attorney of MFY’s Foreclosure Prevention Project.

Specialized Pro Bono Projects

Pro Bono Kinship Caregiver Law Project

Begun in 2006, MFY’s Pro Bono Kinship Caregiver Law Project has trained more than 300 attorneys from private firms to handle private custody, guardianship and adoption cases for caregivers who are raising related children because the natural parent is unable or unwilling to do so. Each year the project provides advice, counsel and representation to some 600 families. It is the only project of its kind in New York State. Over the past year, approximately 160 attorneys worked on 75 adoption, custody, and guardianship cases. MFY provides training, mentoring and support throughout the process. Some 50 children each year obtain the security of a permanent home as the result of this work.

Re-Entry Project

MFY’s Re-Entry Project helps people with past criminal records secure licenses in order to re-enter the workforce. Associates from Ropes & Gray LLP have been taking these cases, which involve interviewing clients, helping clients to document rehabilitation, and representing them at administrative hearings before the New York State Department of State, the New York City Taxi & Limousine Commission, and other agencies. Over the past year, Ropes & Gray handled 11 such cases, helping people to secure jobs and get off public assistance.

SSI Project 

The SSI Project helps people with disabilities and the elderly to obtain Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits or to resolve overpayments. For many clients, securing SSI is the difference between being housed or being homeless. Attorneys interview clients and review records, draft pre-hearing memoranda, and conduct administrative hearings. Associates from Paul Hastings LLP regularly take these cases.

Low-Income Bankruptcy Project

As a result of the economic downturn, many low-income New Yorkers who were unemployed accumulated credit card debt.  Others found themselves with a medical crisis and no health insurance.  Still others were exploited by debt settlement companies. The Low-Income Bankruptcy Project helps low-income New Yorkers who are considering bankruptcy in order to get a fresh financial start. Pro bono attorneys are particularly important in this area because individuals filing pro se papers often do not succeed.  MFY screens clients for basic eligibility, provides training materials, and is available to consult with pro bono attorneys. Pro bono attorneys meet with the client and draft a Chapter 7 bankruptcy petition, and possibly file the petition and accompany the client to a meeting of creditors. It requires a relatively short time commitment—approximately 10-15 hours within a six-month period.

Co-Counseling Opportunities

Since MFY Legal Services does not accept federal funding, it is not restricted from filing class action lawsuits, seeking legal fees, or representing immigrants.  Several prominent New York firms are currently co-counseling impact cases with MFY.

DLA Piper LLP is co-counsel with MFY in two class action lawsuits brought on behalf of people with mental illness living in adult homes. One suit, on behalf of residents of Surf Manor Home for Adults, seeks injunctive relief and damages to remedy hazardous conditions in the home and require the home to provide services to which they are entitled under the law.

Harwood Feffer LLP is co-counsel with MFY in a suit on behalf of New York State homeowners facing foreclosure against the state’s largest foreclosure law firm for violations of the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act.

Patterson Belknap Webb &Tyler LLP is co-counsel with MFY in a class action lawsuit against three-quarter house operators who engage in deceptive practices and in a case alleging discrimination and exploitation of an adult home resident.

Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton &Garrison LLP is co-counsel on Disability Advocates v. Paterson, a landmark case seeking to give 4,500 adult home residents with mental illness the right to live in supported housing in the community.

Weil, Gotshal &Manges LLP is co-counsel with MFY in a class action lawsuit against operators of an unlawful three-quarter house in a rent-regulated SRO building. The suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief to stop the defendants from denying tenants their rights under the rent stabilization law and illegally evicting them.

For more information about MFY Legal Services and its work, go to To get more information about pro bono opportunities, please contact Barbara Graves-Poller, Pro Bono Coordinator, at