When considering ways to give back to NYLS, Herman Edelman ’56 had two goals: to help pro se litigants—those representing themselves in court—and to support practical training.
Through a gift he made earlier this year, Edelman accomplished both. He and NYLS established the Pro Se Legal Services Fellowship Fund, which provides a stipend for one NYLS student per semester to spend 100 hours helping pro se litigants.
“I realize it’s unusual for a law school to help clients avoid using a lawyer,” Edelman said. “But the goal of this effort is to make sure that everyday citizens who might not be able to access legal counsel can still have their day in court.”
The fellows work with New York Legal Assistance Group’s Legal Clinic for Pro Se Litigants. NYLAG’s clinic operates at the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, offering guidance and answering questions onsite.
Marina Bishara-Rhone 3L just completed her fall 2019 fellowship, but she plans to continue volunteering with NYLAG before she begins a clerkship with the Bergen County Supreme Court’s Criminal Division this August.
“This is one of the best experiences I’ve ever had in law school, and I’ve had an internship every semester since my 1L year,” Bishara-Rhone said. “I’ve never learned so much so quickly.”
Data on pro se litigants is limited, but researchers say that the figure has grown significantly in recent years. Many pro se litigants cannot afford legal representation and other costs associated with litigation. Court clerks are unable to provide counsel. In response, New York’s Southern and Eastern Districts, as well as other federal and state court systems, have found ways to offer these services, on their own or in partnership with nonprofits.
Marc Walkow 3L held the fellowship in spring 2019 and also worked with NYLAG. Under the supervision of NYLAG attorneys, he spent two days a week helping a high volume of visitors prepare and file their legal papers in cases ranging from civil rights to employment discrimination and the administration of Social Security benefits. (The clinic doesn’t handle criminal cases, cases brought by people detained or in prison, or appeals.)
“Many people I worked with didn’t have internet access or access to a copier,” Walkow said. “Some were homeless. Many lacked formal education and were inexperienced in dealing with the legal system.”
Walkow answered questions about federal civil procedure and helped litigants move through all steps required in a case, from filing complaints to requesting extensions, writing letters to judges, preparing motions, and understanding court orders. In some cases, he redirected visitors to appropriate legal services providers.
Walkow also created a guide, housed on NYLS’s website, designed to answer many common questions up front.
“I knew I wanted to pursue public interest and civil rights law, but this work confirmed my interest in federal litigation and civil rights,” Walkow said.
Bishara-Rhone, who plans to work at the intersection of mental health and criminal law, agreed.
“What was so useful about this experience was that I was thrown in the deep end, so to speak,” she said. “Because of the high volume of visitors, I had to be self-sufficient, do the intake myself, and come to my supervisor only once I had a proposed solution. The skills I learned are very important for the real world.”
Given the fellowship’s success thus far, NYLS is in the process of identifying a fellow for spring 2020 and hopes to continue growing the program.
Supporting Pro Se Litigants
The new fellowship builds on other ways NYLS students help pro se litigants:
- Students have participated in the New York Court system’s Volunteer Attorney Program with New York City Family Court, helping people navigate family law matters, including custody and child support cases.
- Students and attorneys from the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House volunteer at the Harlem Community Justice Center, assisting New York City public housing tenants with housing court cases.
- Students and the Brooklyn Volunteer Lawyers Project help pro se litigants who appear before the New York City Office of Administrative Trials and Hearings.
- Through the Courtroom Advocates Project, students volunteer with Sanctuary for Families attorneys to advocate for domestic violence victims entering family court to obtain orders of protection.
The projects above are led by the Impact Center for Public Interest Law and the Diane Abbey Law Institute for Children and Families.
Giving to NYLS
Alumni and friends who wish to support NYLS’s future programming are encouraged to give in areas that are personally meaningful to them. Learn more.