In the months ahead, access to justice issues are certain to be more relevant than ever in New York State and far beyond. The 11 UB School of Law students who spent their spring semester as Pro Bono Scholars have first-hand experience advocating for underserved New Yorkers. And they’ll take that experience with them as they launch their legal careers.
Students in the Pro Bono Scholars program take the New York bar exam in February and spend their final semester of law school working in non-profit legal services agencies, fulfilling their pro bono hours requirement for admission to the bar and getting a jump-start in their profession.
The advent of the state’s stay-at-home orders in March affected those agencies like the rest of society, and for Pro Bono Scholars who had hoped to appear in court on behalf of their clients, that proved to be disappointing. But conversations with a couple of the scholars show that the work of providing access to justice goes on no matter the circumstances.
Morgan Schlossel ’20 spent the spring semester in Buffalo with Mental Hygiene Legal Services, which represents mentally disabled persons who live in community-based or institutional facilities; they investigate complaints and advocate for clients in treatment and retention decisions.
It wasn’t new territory for Schlossel, who had interned with the agency in her 1L summer. “I became very interested in this area of law, and it’s one that many law students are not exposed to,” she says. “This time they really allowed me to have more client interaction, and I got to shadow the attorneys and go to court with them.” After the lockdown, she transitioned to working from home, doing research on upcoming cases and issues.
“For me, it was the absolute best way to end my law school experience, by being thrown into the world of practicing lawyers,” Schlossel says. “The major takeaway was learning how to communicate effectively with clients. Especially in a mental hygiene situation, the client just wants to feel heard. Regardless of their situation, they want their day in court.”
It’s a skill she’ll take with her to her new position with the Rochester law firm Ward Greenberg Heller & Reidy, which focuses on civil litigation and business counseling.
Schlossel’s supervisor at Mental Hygiene Legal Services was Aileen McNamara ’90, one of the attorneys in charge of the Buffalo office. “I was absolutely delighted when she said she would be interested in doing her pro bono work with MHLS,” McNamara says. “She’s definitely really confident in her work, and she’s very excited about being a lawyer and what’s coming next.”
There’s never a shortfall in their caseload, McNamara says: “It was really great to have an extra attorney in the office. Morgan was extremely helpful with research, and really responsive out in the community with whatever we needed.”
Her classmate Hannah Rauh ’20 spent her Pro Bono Scholars semester with Legal Assistance of Western New York, in Jamestown, not far from where she grew up.
“I learned a lot, especially about the community I grew up in,” Rauh says. “It’s really eye-opening to see and represent people around this area who might have grown up down the street from me, yet I didn’t understand the struggles they were having.”
That includes two cases she worked on and hopes to continue to see through even though her academic obligation has ended. In one, she is advocating for a man whose two service dogs were ordered by a town court judge to be euthanized after they bit the man’s brother. The evidence was dubious, Rauh says, and though the dogs are still impounded, the euthanasia order has been suspended. The second is a landlord-tenant dispute in which she filed an emergency order to get a resident’s utilities restored to service.
Following the stay-at-home order, she says, she was still able to work on memoranda and research for other attorneys’ upcoming cases: “It was still really interesting work, and I was happy they involved me as much as they could.”
And she’ll carry a commitment to pro bono work with her as she joins the Buffalo office of Harter Secrest & Emery LLP, working on cases involving commercial litigation.
Her supervisor at LAW-NY, Rachel Mitchell, says Rauh, in addition to her direct client service, worked to help set up the agency’s online system to make it simpler for attorneys to volunteer and potential clients to reach out.
“Hannah is just kind of a breeze,” Mitchell says. “She’s very quick to pick up on things, so it was seamless having her here. And it was nice to have someone you could rely on to research a legal question and know that you’re going to get the right answer.”