The Legal Aid Society of New York

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The Legal Aid Society of New York

199 Water Street

New York, NY 10038
Phone: (212) 577-3300
Fax: (212) 509-8761

The Legal Aid Society of New York

The Legal Aid Society (of New York) is now one of the largest functioning legal aid societies in the United States. It employs more than 700 full-time attorneys, who provide legal assistance to more than 250,000 needy New Yorkers annually.

Interestingly, what these figures belie are the rather humble origins of the Society. Its roots lie with Der Deutsche Rechtsschutz Verein, the German Society of New York. Formed in 1876, this first legal aid-type organization was formed to protect German immigrants from "exploitation vis-a-vis litigation." As other more broadly based legal aid societies formed throughout the United States, however, the German Society recognized the need to "Americanize" itself. Hence in 1890, its leaders renamed the organization, calling it the German Legal Aid Society, and made its services available to all needy persons, not just Germans. Six years later, the Society completely deleted the German reference, calling itself the Legal Aid Society of New York. Under the leadership of legal aid pioneer, Arthur von Briesen, it took the additional, radical steps of hiring a full-time attorney and soliciting the support of the city bar.

Since its founding in 1876, the organization has grown tremendously; yet its major goal has remained unchanged: "to [provide] quality legal representation to New Yorkers who cannot afford to pay a lawyer." To accomplish this objective, the Society has transformed itself from a one-office operation to a huge enterprise, divided into five major divisions: civil, volunteer, criminal defense, criminal appeals, and juvenile rights. Each of these operates in relatively independent spheres, litigating different issues, receiving funds from different sources, and operating under the charge of separate attorneys.

The Civil Division, which receives more than 75 percent of its funding from private sources, litigates the gamut of civil issues and runs a variety of community programs. According to the Society, its civil representation (in areas including housing, public benefits, family law, consumer fraud, bankruptcy, and discrimination) can take several forms. The division most often provides services to individuals in cases involving social security, child custody, eviction, and the like. It also develops what it calls "impact litigation" or class-action suits when the opportunity presents itself. For example, it recently filed a class action on behalf of homeless families to require the city to provide adequate clean shelter. The division considers such suits an "important tool for obtaining legitimate benefits for a large number of clients" because of their "economic use of staff resources."

The Society's Volunteer Division, which is funded from both private and public (mostly city and state) sources, was formed in the late 1970s to develop a partnership with the private sector in "serving the needs of the poor." To accomplish this, the division's full-time attorneys examine new cases, while its administrative staff communicates with private attorneys, working on a pro bono basis. These volunteers are then sent a copy of the case file and set up an appointment to meet with the staff attorney who originally took the case.

Through this "partnership," the division's staff attorneys and the more than 1,200 volunteer lawyers have represented over 28,000 clients, making this "the principal means of pro bono legal assistance in New York City." Given the huge demand for its services, however, the Volunteer Division is quite selective about the kinds of cases it will handle, stating that it "seeks to accept only the most urgent and meritorious cases—where the client has been treated in a fundamentally unfair or unduly harsh way." Cases falling under this definition have included employment dismissals in which a family's survival is at stake and housing evictions.

Among the biggest divisions of the Society is the Criminal Defense Division, which is assigned over 200,000 cases per year in criminal and supreme courts in New York. Funded exclusively by city, state, and federal agencies, division attorneys work on criminal cases of all types from arrest to sentencing and parole, with the average staff attorney assigned nearly 500 cases per year.

The Criminal Appeals Bureau handles similar cases, but at later stages in the judicial process: the New York Court of Appeals, the Federal Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1985, bureau attorneys filed briefs in 1,323 cases reaching each one of the aforementioned courts.

The attorney in charge of this bureau, William E. Hellerstein, has been with the Society since 1969 (after serving as a staff attorney for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights) and is considered an expert appellate litigator. One of his most celebrated victories for the Legal Aid Society came in 1980 in Payton v. New York, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that police, in the absence of an emergency, must obtain a search warrant to make an arrest in a home. Payton was Hellerstein's fourth victory before the high court. Since its creation in 1961 the bureau itself has appeared in over 30 cases before the Court, with two-thirds resulting in victories.

The Society's Juvenile Rights Division, which was established in 1962 "to provide representation for children in New York City's five Family Courts," was one of the first organizations of this type in the United States. The division initially employed three lawyers, but now more than 80 attorneys work on nearly 18,000 petitions annually. As in the other divisions, juvenile right's caseload is highly diverse, including parental rights and juvenile delinquency.

In addition to their litigation activities, many of the divisions run legal training programs for new lawyers and employ summer interns primarily from neighboring universities. The use of students is not a new concept: since the early days of legal aid, societies have developed intern programs with the explicit purpose of attracting "students to poverty law." As competition for the dwindling supply of governmental funds increases, this program may be more important than ever. That is, like many legal aid societies, the New York program will rely more heavily on volunteer staff because of budgetary problems. To some extent, however, the New York offices are better off than most, as they rely primarily on state and city, not federal funds. Moreover, sensing future problems with public funding in the early 1980s, the Legal Aid Society launched a huge advertising campaign "to persuade New York City corporate leaders to sponsor and support specific legal projects and urge their legal staffs to donate their time." This first campaign was highly successful, raising $3.8 million from private sector sources.


American Bar Association (1938). Legal Aid in New York City (New York: Charles P. Young).

Annals of the Academy of Political Science. March 1926 and September 1939 volumes. Brownell, E. A. (1951). Legal Aid in the United States (Rochester, N.Y.: Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Co.).

Smith, R. (1919). Justice and the Poor (New York: Carnegie Endowment for Advanced Teaching).

Tweed, H. (1954). The Legal Aid Society: New York City (New York: Legal Aid Society).

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