Published on May 14, 2015 | by LawNews
Making a Difference: Expanding Access to Justice for the Underserved
by Jean Cohen
It’s Friday morning and Lisa Petrocelli Esq. ’94, executive director and managing attorney for Hofstra Law’s Access to Justice Incubator, is conducting one of her weekly team meetings with the postgraduate fellows on their latest cases. The Incubator is currently handling 18 active cases, the majority of which are guardianship matters in both Nassau County Supreme Court and Nassau County Surrogate’s Court. Since becoming fully staffed in March 2014, the Incubator has opened an impressive 51 files.
“This has been an extremely busy and exciting time,” says Petrocelli. “We were involved with more cases than I had expected during our inaugural year and have expanded our anticipated areas of practice. The volume of activity has allowed the fellows to immerse themselves in substantive learning, develop critical advocacy skills and produce superior work product. I am proud of the fellows and the program.”
When the Incubator launched in March 2014, the program was lauded by Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman of the New York State Court of Appeals, who described it as “the creative thinking we are trying to get all law schools to do” and “a perfect example of leadership in our profession.”
THE OPPORTUNITY TO WORK WITH A MENTOR IN A PROTECTED ENVIRONMENT IS INVALUABLE.
Hofstra Law developed this unique post-graduate experience with the assistance of the New York State Unified Court System and the Task Force to Expand Access to Civil Legal Services, which was established by Judge Lippman in 2010. Similar to the Task Force, the Incubator’s dual mission is to fill a critical gap in access to civil legal services for low- and moderate-income individuals and to promote a culture of service in the legal profession.
Since the Incubator’s launch, Petrocelli has hired six Hofstra Law graduates as fellows. With Petrocelli as their mentor, the fellows receive an intensive, hands-on legal experience that helps bridge the gap between the classroom and effective legal practice.
“Through the Incubator, I’ve learned to be a practicing attorney under a supervisor who is an expert in everything she does,” says Jaclyn Quiles ’14, a Moritt, Hock & Hamroff Fellow. “The opportunity to work with a mentor in a protected environment is invaluable.”
The fellows have a demanding schedule working in the Incubator. In addition to their in-house caseload, fellows assist the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Nassau/Suffolk Law Services in Nassau County District Court with representing indigent tenants facing eviction. Fellows have also assisted the Nassau County Bar Association with its representation of borrowers during mandatory foreclosure settlement conferences in Nassau County Supreme Court.
Using her previous professional experience — including nine years as a principal law clerk in the Nassau County Supreme Court, and as a private practitioner handling real estate transactions, trusts and estates, and guardianship matters — Petrocelli is able to help the fellows get acclimated to the various Nassau County courthouses through personalized visits and tours, which include meeting both judicial and nonjudicial staff. The fellows have also visited Police Headquarters, the Medical Examiner’s Office, the County Clerk’s Office, the Correctional Center and the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York. “As a newly admitted attorney, the natural tensions that occur during your initial court appearances are lessened by your familiarity with the buildings and the staff,” says Petrocelli.
As the Incubator enters its second year, Petrocelli’s goal is to continue fulfilling the Incubator’s mission of access to justice. She has hired two new fellows and expanded the types of cases the Incubator accepts through referrals from other legal service providers. In March, the Incubator was awarded a $100,000 grant by the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Shelter Rock in Manhasset to address the need for legal representation of unaccompanied minors in Nassau and Suffolk counties.
“I’m thrilled with what we’ve accomplished so far,” says Petrocelli. “I hope to maintain a steady stream of clients and funding that will allow us to continue to provide services for our unrepresented and under-represented neighbors, while developing practice-ready attorneys with an appreciation of the importance of public service in our profession.”
Legal Advocacy Area: Gender Discrimination
How has the Incubator enhanced or changed your legal passion? My legal passion is working with gender discrimination. This opportunity has enriched this passion because we generally work with marginalized communities, and often people who suffer any discrimination feel marginalized. Helping people understand that the legal system can help them, when they have only had negative experiences within it, is something I think is incredibly valuable and applicable across the legal profession.
What has it been like working with Lisa Petrocelli and the other fellows? It has been great working with everyone because we are able to work as a team and resolve legal problems by group discussion. We are also able to really analyze and understand legal problems and procedures, not just simply follow the rules without question.
What has been your favorite part about working in the Incubator? My favorite part was working with a survivor of domestic abuse. This gave me litigation skills, and it also taught me how to really understand what our client was going through and what she needed from us as attorneys.
What has been the most challenging part? The most challenging part has been figuring out how to help clients where there are no clear answers. This is often the case when dealing with clients with cognitive impairments, because it can be hard to determine exactly what they want and need from any pending proceeding.
Legal Advocacy Area: Domestic Abuse
How has the Incubator enhanced or changed your legal passion? Through my work at the Incubator, I had the opportunity to work with attorneys in a variety of nonprofit organizations, including Nassau/Suffolk Law Services, The Safe Center LI and the Mental Hygiene Legal Service. These attorneys provided guidance and information about the challenges and benefits of providing legal services to New York residents through nonprofit organizations.
What has been your favorite part about working in the Incubator? We were able to start initiatives that address some of the ever-changing needs of low-income residents of Nassau County. In particular, we partnered with The Safe Center LI to represent domestic abuse victims in civil legal matters. Perpetrators of domestic abuse often use the legal system to harass and control their victims — for instance, by bringing multiple, frivolous actions against their victims in different courts. By providing legal representation for victims, we are helping these courageous survivors to live safer, healthier lives.
In addition, we have partnered with TILDEF to provide legal representation to transgender individuals who are seeking to change their names. For transgender individuals, it is imperative that the name on their government IDs and other documents match their gender identity. Without an official name change, transgender individuals are inevitably “outted” each time they are asked for ID, putting them at risk for violence and harassment.
These two projects are helping some of the most vulnerable residents in Nassau County access justice.
After the Incubator
Sarah is a staff attorney for the Domestic Violence Law Project of Safe Horizon.
Legal Advocacy Area: Civil Rights
How has the Incubator enhanced or changed your passion? I am very passionate about civil rights and socioeconomic and racial justice. My experience with the Incubator has reinforced this passion because I work with low-income families who are disproportionately racial minorities. I am learning more about the needs of these community members and gaining knowledge regarding their priorities and concerns and the civil rights issues that impact them the most.
What has it been like working with the other fellows? Working with the other fellows has provided me with invaluable experience in that they all have advocacy styles that are different from my own. It has helped me learn different ways to serve clients and represent their interests to the court, which will provide me more flexibility in serving different types of people.
What has been your favorite part about working in the Incubator? One of my favorite parts is volunteering for the Volunteer Lawyers Project of Nassau/Suffolk Law Services, where I represent tenants facing evictions. It has provided me with experience in client counseling, negotiating, drafting and public speaking. My other favorite part is representing parents petitioning for a name change on behalf of their transgender child.
Both of these experiences are my favorites because the Incubator is a great opportunity to provide access to justice for various marginalized Nassau County residents.
After the Incubator
Jaclyn is an assistant district attorney in the Kings County District Attorney’s Office.
After the Incubator
Erin is an assistant district attorney in the Bronx County District Attorney’s Office.
Undergraduate Studies: University at Albany
Legal Advocacy Area: Public Interest
“I joined the Incubator because I wanted to begin a public interest career and had heard the fellows in the program would leave as practice-ready attorneys. I am looking forward to the opportunity to gain experience in various fields, such as guardianship proceedings, landlord/tenant matters and immigration, and to become familiar with different Nassau County courts. My goal is to have a public interest career, but I have not decided on a specific area of law.”
Undergraduate Studies: Queens College
Legal Advocacy Area: Civil Rights
“Coming from a first-generation Indo-Guyanese home and seeing the struggle my parents endured in attempt to seize the American dream, I realized at a young age that there are many challenges that minorities face, making civil rights the area of practice I feel most passionate about. From shadowing a senior attorney, working with clients and actively participating in handling the cases, while delving into various areas of law, including mental health and immigration, the Incubator program will provide me with the tools and skills to be a successful attorney.”
The Hofstra Law Access to Justice Incubator thanks all of our inaugural donors:
Benefactors ($25,000 and up)
Elissa Epstein ’78
Kermit Gitenstein Foundation, Inc.
Lorna Goodman ’75
Judith Livingston ’79
New York State Unified Court System
Distinguished Leaders ($10,000-$24,999)
Abrams, Fensterman, Fensterman, Eisman, Formato, Ferrara & Wolf, LLP
Certilman Balin Adler & Hyman, LLP
Forchelli, Curto, Deegan, Schwartz, Mineo & Terrana, LLP
Moritt Hock & Hamroff LLP
Morrison & Foerster LLP
Rivkin Radler LLP
North Shore-LIJ Health System
Genser Dubow Genser & Cona LLP
Nancy Burner & Associates, P.C.
Garfunkel Wild, P.C.
Jasper Surety Agency, LLC
Kassoff, Robert & Lerner, LLP
Murphy, Bartol & O’Brien, LLP
Spano Abstract Service Corp.
Aligne Wealth Preservation & Insurance Services, LLC
AMR Care Group Inc.
The Asarch Family
Community National Bank
Lesley M. De Lia ’79
Jzanus Home Care, Inc.
Kurre Levy Schneps LLP
Nicolini, Paradise, Ferretti & Sabella, PLLC
Judith Raskin ’86
Realtime Reporting, Inc.
Vincent J. Russo & Associates, P.C.